Guest Post: Shilpi Niyogi “Testing isn’t complicated—it’s just hard”

This blog post on testing sparked some great discussions and one was with my friend and colleague Shilpi, who as you’ll see has a background on these issues. I’m grateful she accepted my suggestion to put it in a blog post, her words follow:

The holy grail, it seems to me, remains K-12 tests that can yield good information for parents, teachers, and in aggregate for policymakers, about what students know and are able to do but is embedded in the day-to-day of schools in ways that make it less visible and intrusive. — Andy Rotherham

Reading Andy Rotherham’s recent Eduwonk blog on testing and his earlier piece in The 74 on investing the influx of American Recovery Act dollars in schools wisely, I found myself thinking about how and why we’re still chasing the same holy grail in K-12 education after three decades.  I was working at ETS when President George H.W. Bush and our governors were setting national education goals for the year 2000. I wrote a piece in the 1990s probing the research on how we might do a better job of capturing rich insights from classroom-based assessments to guide policy reforms without diminishing or distorting the experience of teaching and learning. Reflecting on our progress and setbacks in education generally and testing specifically, I keep coming back to an insight about innovation my colleague Holly Kemp shared in a workshop with Pascal Finette in 2018, which he promptly co-opted: It is not complicated, it is just hard.

A 2005 national survey conducted by pollsters Peter Hart and David Winston showed that when asked what factor was most responsible for America’s success in the world, the top responses were “our public education system that offers everyone a chance to learn” followed closely by our “democratic system of government.” The survey also showed that “just as Americans view education as a foundation of national success, most also believe that the United States will have difficulty maintaining its global competitiveness unless it reforms its public high schools.”

In 2021, both our schools and our democracy face unparalleled threats and opportunities. It seems to me we need more imagination and humanism—less technocracy and tribalism. What if instead of talking about education reform, we talked about a renaissance in public education?

The same day I read Andy’s blog, a classic Aaron Sorkin cri de coeur delivered by the character Sam Seaborne on The West Wing was circulating on Twitter:

“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. Competition for the best teachers should be fierce; they should be making six figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to it citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.”

The sentiment strikes more than a minor chord even though as a taxpayer I am keenly aware nothing is free of charge. I still believe education is the best lever for achieving personal ambitions and positive social change—but I know it’s hard, damn hard. We need better incentives and more inspiration in the design and implementation of the experience of teaching, learning and testing.

In spite of dramatic advances in technology and the science of learning, our politics have deteriorated and our defaults in education have not shifted. We still rarely design tests for and around teachers and students—prioritizing making it a good and worthwhile experience in every sense of the word. We still spend more time and money on building the test instrument rather than the score reports or feedback and guidance systems. When we talk about access and equity in education, we often talk about creating a level playing field. The onus is still on the individual to make the cut somehow. Rather than thinking of assessments primarily as hurdles to jump over, what if we thought about and used them primarily as navigation tools to help different teachers and students get to where they want to go? What if we thought as much about the context of testing as we do about the content?

So in addition to measuring or capturing what students know and can do, we also illuminate where learners are and better understand where they can go and different ways to get there? What if we shifted from talking about accountability to talking about transparency? I still think the best thing about NCLB was mandating states and schools to disaggregate their student achievement data. We need less heat, more light.

We have the capabilities in 2021 to design and implement automated, multi-modal performance-based learning and assessment experiences that could be used in conjunction with more traditional classroom-based and work-based experiences to power something akin to an individualized learning GPS—imagine a Google or Apple Maps app for learning. It’s not particularly futuristic. What if by the design the learning GPS integrates assessment, content and technology to connect learners to the right experts and the right experiences at the right time? Imagine a trusted tool or app that shows you where you are in terms of a given domain, skill and/or profession. As you reach desired competencies/skills and reassess your next learning destination, the learning GPS continuously updates or revises your directions and options.

My friend Chuck Cascio,  a former high school teacher, journalist and retired ETS executive envisioned a learning GPS this way, “I see something along the lines of using the GPS to track students in a holistic manner—grades, extracurriculars, unique activities, et cetera—so that at any point during a student’s junior or senior year, a college might contact her to say, ‘We have observed your academic and personal achievements and, importantly, your progress, and we are eager to have you apply to our college.’ Or, perhaps instead of an invitation to apply, perhaps it could be an acceptance—in which case, perhaps students could start researching as early as freshman/sophomore years in high school, putting out applications with the knowledge that they are being tracked. Damn! Wouldn’t that stimulate some performance as well as outside of school activities?”

One of the most valuable features of the Advanced Placement program is that through the annual AP Readings it brings together high school teachers and higher ed faculty to evaluate student work in specific subject domains in a structured, collaborative process.  What if we used online collaboration tools to make annual assessment more of a teaching and learning festival—a combination of local, national and even global events?

Easier said than done. I know. But in this 21st year of this 21st century, we can do hard things in education can’t we?

Shilpi Niyogi is a education executive with more than 20 years experience helping organizations like Pearson and ETS better serve diverse learners as globalization and digital innovation reshape how we live and work.