Last week, the federal government awarded $330 million to two coalitions charged with developing standardized assessments aligned with the new Common Core Standards currently adopted by 36 states. The September 3rd New York Times indicates that both groups propose tests that use technology for administration and scoring.
In some ways, it’s as if someone pressed “play” after a decade of “pause” on the authentic assessment channel. Maybe we really are moving away from simplistic multiple-choice assessments towards a new vision of assessment rooted in real-world tasks that require developmentally-appropriate higher order thinking. Computerized tests certainly make more sense to me now than they did back in 2003, when I first confronted them as a classroom teacher. Who wouldn’t want students reading electronic magazine articles and excerpts from nonfiction picture books and chapter books as part of standardized assessments with the same zeal they bring to playing Guitar Hero? Our young people, digital natives, navigate their world effortlessly. For them, digital reading is the norm and school itself is the big disconnect. But it is also raises questions for us.
How much time should primary grade students spend reading online versus in print? What’s the difference when two seven year-olds read an article from Ask magazine, one reading a PDF online, the other, in print? How do we teach children to “mark up” a digital text compared to a print one? How do children navigate the two in tandem? What modalities do children at different ages employ while reading online and how do we help them do that in increasingly sophisticated and developmentally appropriate ways?
How do we begin to answer these questions if teachers and students don’t have daily access to the digital world? Too many of our children attend schools that don’t have enough working bathrooms, let alone access to classroom and school libraries, functional computers, the latest software and wireless connectivity. So let’s be realistic about what it takes to close the achievement gap. For those who don’t have access to digital reading experiences, online assessments are not only unfair, they’re impossible. And computer class once a week just doesn’t cut it. So who is buying the computers that will transform classrooms? To what extent will the millions of dollars allocated to develop these assessments be matched with funds for improved school delivery standards? Long ago, opportunity-to-learn standards dropped out of the school reform equation. Can we race to the top without them?
Finally, we must consider the teacher’s role in these new assessments. Both groups propose using formative assessments throughout the year so that teachers can use the data gleaned from the assessments to shape instruction. As a teacher, I’ve always used student data – the reading, writing, and speaking that students do daily in class as well as on teacher-created papers, tests, and projects – to inform my instruction. Can the testing the coalitions construct assessments that dovetail with, rather than compete with or dominate, locally-constructed curriculum geared towards maximizing both instruction and engagement? The challenge for teachers, and the librarians and administrators who work with them, is to make the standardized formative assessments meaningful to individual students. How can teachers connect and contextualize the learning tasks required in the new assessments within the work of locally-constructed curriculum? We can teach to the Common Core Standards within locally designed curriculum. Indeed, I think we must, or we risk further disengagement, student by student, and teacher by teacher, at all levels.
US Department of Education: