More Testing! Guest post By Anne Wicks

What better way to take a break from the culture wars than with the testing wars. A few weeks ago I wrote about testing. Shilpi Niyogi resounded to it and then Dale Chu responded, too. Today, Anne Wicks of the George W. Bush Presidential Center jumps in – and name checks Deb Brix, Kerri Rodrigues, and Emerson.

By Anne Wicks

What if our assessments are pretty good, but our real problem is that too many people (educators, parents, policymakers) lack understanding about how tests are built and what they do?  And we compound that by communicating terribly to parents and teachers about what these tests tell us – and how test data is used at the campus and state levels?

What could happen if we prioritized eliminating those information gaps? Is the assessment revolution we seek right in front of us?

I am not a Luddite.  I am regularly delighted and amazed by ingenious leaps forward from smart phones to the Fosbury Flop.  Both required the imagination to see something new where others saw only the status quo.

We know it is possible to get better over time thanks to new knowledge and experience, and we should seek that for assessments.  Our current assessments are not perfect, but they are also not uniformly terrible.  Perhaps that is why calls for an assessment Space X leave me underwhelmed.  The assumption is that the solutions we need are technical, and I think we would get farther faster with better design for humans.

Assessment innovation must consider the human side of the experience.  That means more effectively explaining assessments – what are they, how were they built, and how to use the results – to everyone with a stake in the game.  Moving assessments online or embedding them throughout the year could be great innovations, but will we really see improvement if we do not more clearly connect the people who will take, administer, and use the tests to the tests’ purpose?

Last fall, we released Beyond the Scantron, a series of interviews with educators, researchers, policymakers, and advocates about tests and equity.  It is full of great insights about innovation, research, and policy from very smart and experienced people.

When I think about the human side of testing, I think about our discussions with Cindy Riney, a Texas teacher, and Keri Rodrigues, a Massachusetts based parent advocate.  Riney spoke plainly about how getting close the Texas STAAR test as a reviewer changed her perspective; she was transparent about not liking the STAAR until she had the opportunity to help build it.  She now uses TEKS (Texas standards) with the STAAR to plan her teaching year.

Rodrigues succinctly explained what test data can do for parents and why it matters in any discussion about equity.  She called out the educators who stressed out her son about the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System).  She also delivered my favorite education quote of all time “In education reform circles, we love to bring a book report to a knife fight”.

I was reminded again about Riney and Rodrigues’ wisdom in a recent conversation with Dr. Deborah Birx, a Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute.  Dr. Birx knows a bit about data and politics thanks to her long career in public health and her more recent role as the White House Coronavirus Coordinator.

I asked her for advice about navigating data, narrative, and politics, and she shared two key insights worth considering in the assessment debate.  First, it does not matter what we (policymakers and the like) think should happen, it matters what truly happens on the ground.  It is essential to stay close to the ground to see policy in action to understand what works, what is getting misconstrued, and what is being solved for differently.  Second, when it comes to data, trend lines matter.  People need confidence that what they are doing is making a difference.

It is important to discuss the technical elements of testing like NAGB’s debate on the proposed reading framework.  It is important to figure out how to free up state procurement processes to incent assessment innovation in a Space Xesque way.   But we also need to speak plainly about what exists today, why it was built, and what it does for (and not to) students.  And that must carry forward into any new assessment approach as well.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Nothing astonishes men more than common sense and plain dealing”.  Perhaps we need to be more inspired by Emerson than Elon Musk when it comes to assessment.

Anne Wicks is The Ann Kimball Johnson Director, Education Reform Initiative at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. 

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