Thompson: Solving Education's Accountability Problem
Bill Tucker's "Grand Test Auto" is the best contribution to the Washington Monthly's special series on new tests, and it's not just because he gives the best explanation of the failure of test-driven reform that I have ever read. Grocery stores used to close for weeks so they could count their inventory, writes Tucker. The contemporary accountability movement forces schools to do the same, squandering 1/4th of the year. "Every year at a given time, regular instruction stops. Teachers enter something called 'test prep' mode; it lasts for weeks leading up to the big assessment. ... Learning stops, evaluation begins."
In this and many other areas, Tucker gets it right. There are just a few spots where I would disagree with him.
Tucker cites Zoran Popovic, of the University of Washington, as somone who is "pointing the way to a post-testing world." Popovic's online, puzzle-based game, "Refractions," sounds awesome. Students would love it and I can't see how data-driven "reformers" could use it to punish or impose rote instruction on kids.
Tucker also updates the status of new “adaptive” learning platforms that were useless under NCLB-type accountability. In the last decade, our capacity for data collection has grown dramatically, but it has been irrelevent to a system focused on punishment. He supports "collecting large data sets in the classroom [that] can help to confirm or disconfirm hypotheses about how students learn." Tucker thus seems be describing "data-informed" decision-making, which is the antithesis of the "data-driven" mindlessness of the last decade.
Tucker promotes Valerie Shute's vision of “stealth assessment,” which is not meant to replace human teachers, but to assist instruction. Stealth assessments are “formative assessments,” or modernized diagnostic assessments like chapter quizzes. He explains the potential for stealth assessments to become more accurate over time. I'd say that such a system is the opposite of firing teachers now, using prototypes that might or might not become valid over time.
Even better, Tucker affirms that, "Education, of course, can’t be reduced to a series of online games. More than just a set of concepts to be learned, it’s also a complex set of relationships: between students, teachers, and the environment in which they learn."
I have no doubt that some will continue to use advanced technology to try to de-professional teachers, replacing them with clerks to oversee online instruction. I don't see how schools could be nearly as effective in gaming the numbers with these systems, however. In a fair competition, I don't believe that schools that seek to cut corners and misuse those sophisticated tools could compete with schools that use technology to create bonds between adults and students. And, even better, "reformers" who are comfortable with today's war on teachers would have little incentive to upgrade their bubble-in weaponry, and they would, thus, bring 19th century ammunition to a 21st century battle.
I wish Tucker had been more explicit in mentioning the most important formative assessments which produce the most reliable data. At least in high school, which is what I know, talking and listening with kids and reading their body language is the most accurate way to to gauge whether students understand the lesson you just taught.
Tucker hopes that stealth assessments can also replace “summative assessments” or the "weightier, more stress-inducing tests taken at semester’s or year’s end." Many teachers agree that we need annual summative testing, and would thus support Tucker's recommendations. I am in a minority, however, who questions their value. If I need to attach stakes to a final test, I believe, that is a formative assessment of my performance and I have failed it. If I need a test to hold my students accountable, my classroom leadership didn't measure up.
But, that is a minor quibble. Tucker wants too provide teachers with the tools that we really need - tools to help instruction become more engaging and authentic. And perhaps the ultimate form of transparency will result. Educators and policy people who want to coerce teachers and students will stick with bubble-in accountability, while systems that want to improve teaching and learning will embrace Tucker's vision. Voters and parents can then choose between the two mindsets.- JT (@drjohnthompson) image via.