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September 23, 2009
October 02, 2009
Anti-testing advocates frequently decry the amount of time students spend on state summative assessments. I must admit that I’m persuaded that it’s gotten out of hand—in Connecticut, where I lived for the past 6 years, nearly every public school student in the state spent the better part of March taking tests. Even if the tests were better, it’s hard to justify taking 3-4 weeks out of a roughly 36-week school year away from instruction. But maybe it doesn’t have to be this way?
There is an old engineering maxim: “Good, fast, cheap; pick two.” When it comes to summative state assessments, we seem to have picked just one: cheap.
The truth is, if we want to build a better assessment, we need to set a more ambitious goal. The current crop of time consuming, low-quality tests isn’t the way the world needs to work; it’s simply the byproduct of a failure of imagination and leadership.
But what if we simply raised our expectations? Why can’t we, for example, have a new kind of test, aligned to the Common Core and leveraging the latest technology, that requires only 3-4 days of testing rather than 3-4 weeks?
Can’t be done? That’s what they said about the iPhone.
Apple’s innovations were as much a product of Steve Jobs’ commitment to doing the impossible as anything else. As Gregory Ferenstein wrote in a Fast Company article:
Steve Jobs inspired heroic innovation to avoid the nuisance of a few extra seconds of boot time. We are wasting weeks of children’s lives on subpar tests and, as far as I can tell, all the future holds right now is more of the same. Where is education’s Steve Jobs? Think of how many lifetimes would be actually saved if we built a better assessment—one that not only painted a more accurate (and holistic) picture of student learning, but that did so by taking no more than 3-4 days away from the instruction that students need?
The truth is our education leaders have simply failed to make this a goal—or really to articulate an unambiguous vision of what we want from our summative assessments and to demand that we make that vision a reality. For example, this was the guidance given by the Department of Education for the Race to the Top Assessment Grant Program:
Such a goal is so broad as to be meaningless. It is a request for mediocrity.
If we are going to develop the assessments we so desperately need—and that teachers so desperately want—the first step is to make both quality and efficiency the priority. What if, instead, the Department of Education held a competition for a single assessment that:
Would this cost more to develop. Absolutely! The R&D for such a test would be far more than any individual state has so far been willing to pay. But, as I argued last December:
It may seem improbable that a new assessment system could meet all of these criteria right now, but that’s the point of innovation. You set a clear vision—perhaps one that seems impossible to achieve—and you put the smartest people in the country to work investing the time and resources to put “a dent in the universe” with their amazing ideas.
Given the importance of assessment to education, this investment in innovation is essential. And long overdue.