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The Complicated Relationship between Assessment, Accountability, and Equity

capitol buildingThroughout this month, NCTE is posing the following challenge to the greater education community: How can we re-envision assessments for accountability and equity?

It’s been a challenge at the heart of many discussions in Washington, DC, over the course of this year as politicians considered the reauthorization of ESEA, grappling with the desire to decrease our use of standardized tests and the need for some measure to identify inequities in our schools.

On April 13, 2015, 41 organizations wrote a letter to Chairman Lamar Alexander and Ranking Member Patty Murray expressing their concern that despite the bipartisan nature of and progress made on ESEA, certain constituencies might be forgotten, particularly the “most vulnerable students,” including minorities and students with disabilities. They emphasized that ESEA must:

  1. include language of accountability whereby states must identify schools where students may not be meeting goals and intervene to rectify;
  2. require states to report on all different types of student groups to make sure all are achieving;
  3. mandate states to intervene and remedy disparities in allocation of resources; and
  4. insure that the US Secretary of Education has the authority to ensure ESEA is implemented and that “the most vulnerable students are protected.”

Three weeks later, 12 of the 41 organizations issued a press release to express their opposition to “anti-testing efforts.” They explained, “[S]ome standardized tests are particularly important to the civil rights community because they are the only available, consistent, and objective source of data about disparities in educational outcomes. . . . These data are used to advocate for greater resource equity in schools and more fair treatment for students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners.”

A number of civil rights groups, however, recognize that there are issues with the current accountability system and understand the need for multiple measures of assessments. On October 28, 2014, a few months prior to the April 13 letter, five of those signatories, in addition to six other civil rights organizations, sent a letter to President Obama, the Senate and House Majority  and Minority Leaders, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to “demand accountability for equity in public schools.”

In that letter, the organizations recognized that the current accountability system “has become overly focused on narrow measures of success and, in some cases, has discouraged schools from providing a rich curriculum for all students focused on the 21st century skills they need to acquire.”

Their fifth recommendation, informative assessments for meaningful 21st century learning, stated:

A system of assessments should document both student and school system progress using tools that evaluate deeper learning skills (e.g., critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and creativity). . . . Assessments should be valid for the students and purposes for which they are used, comparable in quality, and able to be reliably scored. . . . They should also be used as diagnostic tools for determining student acquisition and application of knowledge, should identify students’ strengths as well as their learning and cultural needs, and should be used to support individual students and educators. Measures should also be used to assess whether individual and collective education systems are moving toward meeting objectives related to greater equity in educational opportunities and achievement.

Like those groups that recognize the need for multiple measures and deeper learning skills, NCTE understands the importance of not relying on just one day, one test, but instead on assessments made throughout the day and year to assess the progress of students.

The 2015 NCTE Education Policy Platform states, “Assessment should employ multiple measures, focus on growth, and be appropriate for specific learning situations. . . . New and innovative forms of assessment may prove more valid and better able to contribute to student learning and school improvement than standardized tests. We recommend . . . :

Using standardized tests only to give leaders the yearly data about students’ literacy learning they need to make evidence-based decisions to promote and hold themselves accountable for equity. Data must be disaggregated for all subgroups at the school, district, and state levels. Using testing only for the purposes and in the manner for which it has been proven valid. (For example, tests designed to measure school performance should not be used to evaluate individual teachers or their teacher preparation programs.) In addition, tests should be used in ways that minimize time away from instruction, employ sampling when possible, and offer appropriate accommodations to students with special needs without excluding them from challenging literacy learning opportunities.”

How do YOU think we can re-envision assessments for accountability and equity?