Monday, February 23, 2015

Accountability Has Always Been Here

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I am so glad to see that there is a lot of discussion taking place about education reform and high stakes testing and accountability.  Some of the sound bites are starting to upset me though.  "Accountability isn't going away" or "we can't roll back the success of our accountability system" or "standardized testing is the only way to demonstrate meaningful understanding"...  these are not exactly direct quotes from any one person, they are a compilation of messages from school board members, education commissioners, and legislators at the state and national level.  These messages come directly from our education policy makers.

And we all hear that and nod our heads in agreement with a grand "harumph".  But these messages are hiding two things:

1.  Accountability has always been here.  Ever since students had to earn a mark to reflect how much knowledge they had on academic content, there has been accountability.  It eventually became known as "a grade".  This grade was supposed to be a reflection of demonstrated student mastery of academic content displayed through their body of work over a given time period.  Some grades are simply "pass" or "fail" and some have weighted levels of mastery like the current GPA system.  Either way, this grade would come from an academic year's worth of work done by the student, assisted by the teacher, and assessed by the teacher or an assessment tool either created or selected by the teacher or school.  This accountability system depended on the teacher being a master at assessing and evaluating student work and knowledge, and depended on the investment in such training.  Somewhere along the line, we lost the training and the emphasis on evaluation and assessment of students.  I barely had any instruction on it through by BS in Mathematics Education, and my evaluation does not take into consideration how I assess my students or how I grade my students (which is one of the most important things I do).  Somewhere along the line, we came across a thing called "grade inflation".  Keep in mind, "grade inflation" did not prevent innovation in our country.  It did not prevent technological advancement, it did not prevent putting a human being on the moon, it did not prevent exponential economic growth.  But it upset some important people.  It created such a stir that a crisis was invented; an education crisis.  If this "grade inflation" existed, we had to find a way to stop it!  We could no longer trust teachers to assess students.  So, we took the authority to assess student mastery out of the hands of teachers and put it solely in the hands of a tool that was never meant to assess student mastery: the standardized test.  Standardized tests are great tools to view snapshots of progress, but a few individuals had a great idea to place a reward/consequence to this tool.  Legislative language, public soundbites, and consistent pressure over time led everyone to agree that standardized test scores were the more accurate measure of student knowledge, not the year-round body of work assessed by the teacher.  We still have GPA's, but are only used as a minimum graduation requirement or a number on a college application or resume.  Although universities use the GPA for admissions, the public is not allowed to view it as valid if it is not supported by a standardized test score.  So, the current messaging about accountability hides the importance of grades, and it prevents the return of assessment authority to grades (thus preventing authentic assessment for our students, which is frightening).

2.  The benefits of high stakes testing accountability.  The current messaging on accountability hides the glaringly obvious incentive to keep it (hint: it's not about the students).  With high stakes testing accountability, private testing companies still have the ability to secure large state contracts for testing products, for support material for those tests, and for remediation materials in the case of failing the tests (NOTE: every test has a guaranteed failure rate, so this is a perpetual profit model.  Bravo!)  Now, I don't fault the companies, they are only exploiting a failed education policy created by lawmakers.  If they can continue to incentivize lawmakers to keep policies focused on high stakes testing accountability and reap the rewards of doing so, good for them.  They have the ability to perpetuate this accountability message, and keep our heads nodding "harumph", and keep policies in line that will simply continue to reduce students to data points in order to determine if a teacher is good, if a school is good, or if a student is college and career ready at the ripe old age of 5.  Good for them.  Just remember, it's not about the students.  The accountability messaging hides this as well.

So what can we do?  Read past the accountability message.  In fact, challenge the accountability assumption.  How dare we assess a human being on the result of a one day performance on a computerized test that uses complex mathematical algorithms to guarantee pre-determined failure rates!  When we hear things like "demonstrate meaningful understanding", we should immediately point to a student's body of work throughout the year, not on a singular test result.  When we hear things like "achievement gap" or "accountability", we should immediately argue that authentic assessment authority belongs at the local level.  Train teachers in valid in class assessments and grades.  Allow for collaboration to select third party tools to assist in multiple measures of student knowledge at the department or school level.  Allow for teacher input in determining how content mastery should be measured and assessed.  We have to be aware that assessment authority has been hijacked out of the classroom, and it must be returned.  Teaching is a profession (or at least it was at one point) and teachers must return to being the professionals.  Accountability has always been here, let's return it to where it belongs: in the classroom.


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