Last month, I had the privilege of observing a gathering of Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) districts in Concord, N.H. The PACE pilot program is the first federal-approved competency-based assessment pilot and allows a group of New Hampshire school districts to pilot a new accountability regime based on a mix of local and state assessments.
At this particular meeting, the PACE partner districts discussed implementing and assessing work-study competencies—New Hampshire’s name for a broad set of non-cognitive and social emotional skills that the state is hoping to instill in its graduates. The field has no shortage of debates underway on how best (if at all) to measure non-academic skillsets, so I went in expecting a debate on the merits of these additional measures. But as the group discussed potential challenges of incorporating work-study measures into performance assessments and competency-based models, practitioners shared a common refrain about the real challenge with which they were all grappling: time.
Nearly every district team in the room could attest to the fact that they were making progress creating and aligning performance assessments to their district-wide competencies. But to get teachers on board (much less in the same room) to perform the work of rethinking assessment remains tricky within the current confines of traditional schedules and budgets. Besides relying on the admirable diligent work of their teaching teams to get the job done on the margins of their existing teaching loads, few of the districts appeared to have fully rethought teacher time in a manner that would truly make performance assessment feasible at scale beyond their highly motivated and dedicated districts.
A quick note on performance assessments (a term that has taken on some of the capacious quality that plagues “personalized learning”): although there is a range of definitions of what constitutes a performance assessment, according to the New Hampshire Department of Education, “[p]erformance assessments are complex, multi-part tasks that ask students to apply what they have learned in sophisticated ways.” The state emphasizes that different mediums may qualify as evidence of mastery. As such, performance assessments can take more time and expertise to grade than simple multiple-choice tests with one “right answer.” Implementing performance assessments, therefore, requires rethinking how systems can free up teacher time to look more deeply at student work and free up student time to perform these tasks to their greatest ability.
Like many innovations, for all its promise to gather better evidence of authentic learning, performance assessment suffers from a chicken-and-egg conundrum: the traditional school system was never built with this paradigm of high-touch assessment in mind and few teachers have time in their busy schedules to grade performance tasks. As such, New Hampshire risks cramming a well-intentioned innovation into a system that was never built to embrace it and ratcheting up the cost of innovation to unmanageable heights.
How can school systems like the PACE districts pursuing big innovative ideas—but facing inflexible budgets and human capital constraints—fundamentally create more time to pursue those innovations?
First, school systems might consider leveraging blended learning. Although we often talk about blended learning as a tool to differentiate instruction with greater frequency and precision, blended learning is also a critical solution for any school facing time and human capital shortages. For example, when KIPP Empower, an elementary school in Los Angeles, Calif., discovered that its budget had been cut at the 11th hour, its then-principal, Mike Kerr, implemented a Station Rotation model to preserve the school’s focus on small-group instruction, despite having to cut staff. More broadly, by shifting some content delivery online, blended-learning models in turn allow teachers to reconsider how best to spend face-to-face time in the classroom—perhaps allowing teachers to deliver more small-group or one-on-one instruction, perhaps allowing them to lead students in projects, or perhaps, in the case of the PACE districts, unlocking time needed to grade performance assessments with the rigor and focus they were designed to accommodate.
Second, systems might bring in more non-teacher adults to support learning. Some schools, like Pleasant View Elementary in Rhode Island, have relied on fellows from programs, like City Year, to supplement its existing teaching staff and to scale small-group learning. PACE districts might consider a similar model to allow master teachers to lead performance assessments while teaching fellows or paraprofessionals perform other classroom tasks.
Third, school systems can fundamentally rethink schedules with teacher time in mind, in order to allocate time differently throughout the year. For example, Summit Public Schools condensed time otherwise set aside for electives into multi-week expeditions for its students a few times per year. This schedule not only to allows students to engage in learning experiences beyond the four walls of their classrooms, but was also specifically designed to free up longer chunks of dedicated professional development time for Summit teachers to step back and reflect on and improve upon their own practice.
Anyone given the chance to see the work afoot in New Hampshire will not doubt its commitment—at least among the first four PACE districts—to truly rethink teaching and assessments and to establish a culture of doing what’s best for students. But as the first federally-supported experiment of its kind, it’s vital that New Hampshire helps districts come up with wholly new structures that fundamentally free up teacher time to pursue new assessment paradigms and, in turn, helps the nation reimagine what testing and accountability might look like in the future.