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Putting our ideas of assessment to the test


How we evaluate students, and teachers, is at a crossroads.
How we evaluate students, and teachers, is at a crossroads.


Default Lines column, October 2010 issue of eSchool News—Here’s a pop quiz: What are the skills that today’s students will need to be successful in tomorrow’s workplace?

The answer to this question has enormous implications for the future of education, including what we teach our students—and how we test them.

According to an Associated Press story published on Labor Day, economists fear that many people will be left behind even when this historically bleak job market begins to turn around.

As our economy continues its shift from a manufacturing-driven economy to one fueled by service industries, the number of lower-skill, middle-income jobs will shrink, AP reports. Any job that can be automated or outsourced overseas will continue to decline.

Of the 8 million-plus jobs lost to the recession—in fields such as manufacturing, real estate, and financial services—many aren’t coming back, economists warn. In their place will be jobs in professions like health care, information technology, and statistical analysis—and most of these new positions will require complex skills or higher education.

The AP story validates a theme common to many advocates of education reform.

In his best-selling book A Whole New Mind, author Dan Pink writes: “Thanks to an array of forces—[including] globalization that is shipping white-collar work overseas, and powerful technologies that are eliminating certain kinds of work altogether—we are entering a new age.” Pink argues that right-brain skills such as creativity, innovation, collaboration, and empathy are what will distinguish the workers in this new age and allow them to succeed.

Education consultant Alan November agrees. During the Florida Education Technology Conference earlier this year, November said he was talking with a senior executive at a global investment bank recently, and he asked the executive: What is the most important skill for today’s students to learn so they are prepared to succeed in the new global economy?

To his surprise, the executive replied: “Empathy”—the ability to understand and respect different points of view.

Most of today’s companies do business with customers all over the world, November explained, and several also have branches in multiple countries. Chances are good that when students enter the workforce, they’ll be working with—or doing business with—someone from another nation, with its own culture and its own unique perspective, at some point in their career.

It’s not hard to find people who are smart, the executive told November. What is hard to find are employees who have to ability to empathize with, and be sensitive to the needs of, people from other countries. (See “Four things every student should learn … but not every school is teaching.”)

I don’t mean to imply that traditional areas of learning aren’t important. But it’s becoming increasingly obvious that these don’t go far enough in preparing students for the new challenges that await them when they graduate.

So, if it’s true that our economy is changing, and that the skills that will define success in this new economy are changing as well, shouldn’t we be rethinking the skills we’re teaching students—and the abilities we’re testing them on?

That’s what the federal government is encouraging states to do with $330 million in new Race to the Top grants, as we report here. Two large coalitions of states have won grants to design new exams that (1) are better able to assess important 21st-century skills, and (2) are aligned with the Common Core standards that the Obama administration also is pushing.

Because these projects are in their early stages, it’s too early to tell how effective they’ll be in meeting the need for a new generation of assessments. But educators will be watching closely to see how these experiments fare.

Whatever their outcome might be, it’s bound to be controversial, as change often is. Take Oregon’s experience, for instance. In this story, we report on how a decision by the Oregon Department of Education to let students use a computer spell-check feature when taking an online version of the state’s writing exam has raised concerns among stakeholders, prompting a larger discussion about the skills students should be tested on in the digital age.

State officials say the controversial move comes after consulting with local school systems and ed-tech experts, and they argue that it’s a natural evolution that more accurately reflects how students compose essays today. To some critics, however, the decision spells the end of society as we know it.

Oregon’s decision is the latest response to an increasingly important question in education: With such powerful technology now at our fingertips, do we really need a command of all the facts—or do we need to know how to call up those facts when we want them?
This question isn’t new; remember all the hand wringing that accompanied the introduction of graphing calculators into math classes in the ’80s and ’90s? Today, the notion that calculators would make students dumber seems a little quaint, as a growing number of teachers are proving by using the devices to transform math class into an environment where interactive learning and exploration are replacing rote memorization. And that, in turn, is fostering greater curiosity and experimentation among students. (See our Special Report on how technology is transforming math classes here.)

If you think what Oregon has done is revolutionary, you might be shocked by Denmark’s notion of testing. In that country, the government has taken the bold step of giving students internet access during their final school-year exams. Students can access any web site they want, but they can’t use eMail or instant messaging.

For years, Denmark used a CD-ROM to administer these exams, Steen Lassen, senior advisor for the country’s Ministry of Education, told eSchool News in March. The exams tested whether students were able to find relevant information, think critically about what they found, and present their findings, Lassen explained. In other words, Danish students were asked to demonstrate the kind of 21st-century skills that many U.S. companies say they’re looking for when hiring employees.

This past spring, Denmark started a pilot project that gave students full internet access during testing for some subjects, instead of a limited collection of resources loaded onto a CD. In the United States, that would be considered cheating—but in Denmark, officials are testing for “competencies,” Lassen said, and not simply a regurgitation of facts.

Whether you believe something’s rotten in Denmark, or you support that country’s changes, one thing seems clear: The future of student assessment is no longer as unambiguous as a multiple-choice exam.

Assessing teachers is a challenge, too

How to redesign assessments so they are better, more appropriate instruments for guiding improvement is a question that is just as applicable to teachers as it is to students.

As our story “Newspaper’s teacher ratings stir up controversy” indicates, the Los Angeles Times caused quite a stir by publishing an online database comparing more than 6,000 teachers based on a controversial statistical method that relies on test-score data to determine their effectiveness.

The Times’ efforts mark the latest chapter in a national debate over how best to measure teacher quality. The Obama administration wants states and districts to incorporate students’ test scores into their teacher evaluation systems, but unions caution that test scores don’t paint a complete picture of a teacher’s worth.

The Times rated the city’s third- through fifth-grade teachers using an approach called the value-added model. Each student’s past test performance was used to project his or her future performance. The difference between the child’s actual and projected results is the estimated “value” that the teacher has added or subtracted during the year.

Supporters of the value-added model describe it as a fairer, more accurate way of using students’ test scores to assess teacher quality. But just as investors in a mutual fund are warned that the fund’s “past performance is no guarantee of future results,” I’m not so sure that a student’s prior test results are an accurate way to gauge how that student should score on future exams.

We’ll be taking a closer look at the value-added model’s pros and cons in a future issue, but here’s what the American Federation of Teachers had to say about the Times’ actions:

“Leading researchers, including the Educational Testing Service, RAND Corp., the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education [ED], and the Economic Policy Institute, have concluded that value-added models, which deal with predictions and assumptions, are inherently undependable and imprecise. All have concluded that value-added models should never be used in isolation … to judge a teacher’s performance.”

AFT’s warnings aside, more schools are rethinking their teacher evaluation processes with an eye toward including students’ test scores.

In late August, ED announced the winners of $3.4 billion in remaining Race to the Top funds to spur state and local school reforms, and implementing teacher evaluation systems that take into account student achievement data was among the criteria for the awards.

One of the winners was the District of Columbia Public Schools, whose chancellor, Michelle Rhee, has butted heads with the local teachers union over her controversial reform efforts. These include firing principals, closing schools, and negotiating a new contract with teachers earlier this year that gave them the chance to earn bonus pay in exchange for fewer job protections. After the contract was signed, Rhee promptly fired 241 teachers whose students were among the lowest performing in the district.

Rhee’s actions have earned applause from many school reformers, as well as criticism from teachers and community activists. Under her leadership, the D.C. schools have improved student achievement, and their graduation rate has inched up. But there are still significant gaps in achievement between high-performing and low-performing schools and between whites and blacks. Her critics also have decried her autocratic leadership style.


District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee
District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (AP photo)


In early September, in what was widely viewed as a repudiation of Rhee’s methods, D.C. voters chose city council chairman Vincent Gray over incumbent Adrian Fenty in the city’s mayoral primary election. Rhee had campaigned for Fenty, and his loss puts her tenure as chancellor of the city’s schools in jeopardy.

Rhee, who called the election results “devastating for the schoolchildren of Washington, D.C.,” encouraged school reformers to learn from the election and “be more aggressive and more adamant.”

I’d point to a different lesson in Fenty’s defeat. City educators are upset that the teacher evaluation system that landed D.C. a federal Race to the Top grant was created without their input—unlike, say, the systems being developed in states like Florida, New York, and Rhode Island, where teachers have been given a role in discussions.

Creativity, innovation, collaboration, empathy: These aren’t just important skills for today’s students to learn—they’re also key traits for would-be reformers.

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Dennis Pierce

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