Debate on new education law overlooks future of testing

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Feb 26, 2015

Julia Freeland and Thomas Arnett, research fellows at the Clayton Christensen Institute, and I coauthored this piece.

As the House of Representatives prepares to vote tomorrow on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—also known since 2001 as No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—a fierce fight has continued over the proper role of testing.

Seeing the rapid growth of testing in recent decades, many educators and parents are tired of tests taking time away from learning and want the federal government to push back on its prominence in schools.

Others, including civil rights advocates, have warned about the consequences of walking away from annual tests that measure whether students from all backgrounds are learning.

But this polarizing debate misses the long-term picture—and in so doing, threatens to derail the creation of more humane, transparent and accurate assessments enabled by technology that are critical to driving dramatically better outcomes for all students.

It’s true that tests provide society—including teachers, students, parents and policymakers—with valuable insight into school performance. NCLB shed important light on the persistent achievement gaps afflicting our country’s most vulnerable students.

But NCLB also locked us into an assessment regime that focused too narrowly on annual, summative grade-level assessments for accountability purposes and restricted innovation in assessments—and ultimately learning. The amount of time dedicated to testing, along with the consequences tied to test scores, have radically expanded testing to eclipse its true purpose: making learning transparent and signaling where we still need to fill gaps in students’ understanding, rather than enabling bureaucratic micromanagement based on backward-looking data.

A new law should pave the way for tests that support personalized learning tailored for each student’s distinct needs.

Enabled by technology, future assessment systems will be both less intrusive and more precise. Tests will no longer involve hundreds of students sitting down on the same day each year to fill in bubbles on multiple-choice tests. Instead, students will be able to take online assessments that adapt to their levels to provide an accurate and timely snapshot of exactly what they know. Tests will also be interwoven with learning to make them less burdensome on students and teachers, but also more frequent and granular.

The data coming out of these assessments could then serve policymakers as well as students and teachers. First, the outcomes could be rolled up over the course of a school year to provide transparency on school-wide student performance based on growth and mastery. States could then decide how to hold schools accountable with this and other information. Second, the same data, used on an interim and ongoing basis, could help educators target their instruction to each student’s needs in real-time, rather than allowing gaps in understanding to grow and persist year to year.

This vision of the future may not be far off. Mainstream computer adaptive assessments are over a decade old. Many schools are adopting short online tests to inform how they work with their students as they pivot to blend online and face-to-face learning. Online assessments can also incorporate simulations to reveal a richer picture of student learning than multiple-choice tests.

But to reach this vision, we need more innovation. It’s not yet possible to reliably knit together assessment data from different sources to depict individual student-learning growth in a school in a transparent, comparable and easy-to-understand way. The infrastructure necessary to support this future in schools is also still uneven.

Given this tension, the task ahead for Congress is to strike a balance that preserves transparency without hindering student-centered innovation.

Congress should support at-least annual testing with subgroup demographic information published so that we don’t back off of the transparency that NCLB delivered. But preserving transparency need not come at other costs. NCLB’s prescriptive accountability measures locked schools into a grade level, cohort-based mindset that runs counter to personalizing education to each student’s needs. If the reauthorized ESEA fails to leave room for the schools that are using technology to personalize learning, then the federal government may unwittingly constrain not only innovations in assessment, but also in the new personalized learning approaches taking root around the country.

The new law should instead encourage innovations in assessment and reliable methods for tracking individual student growth on an ongoing basis.

We are in the midst of an exciting revolution in education. Adaptive and on-demand assessments can measure where individual students are, rather than offer a blunt performance measure at a single point in time. The reauthorization of ESEA should preserve the transparency that comes from regular assessment while also fostering innovation. Testing need not be the enemy of teaching and learning. Instead, it can reinvigorate our efforts to personalize learning so that all students can realize their fullest potential.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.