Some reflections on the Board's vote for a new statewide test

I don’t know about you, but I’m a little burned out on arguments about statewide assessments. I accept that we need them, but we’re spending way too much time on them just because students from other countries are "out-performing" students in the US on standardized tests.

It bothers me that we've been angsting over these assessments for so long when there are many other areas in need of our attention and dollars. Plus, I’m more interested in the larger educational context that is our vision and our plan for learners. (I'm not going to call it "21st c learning" because, 2015...!)

Across the discussion of “how to do tests in Massachusetts", I’ve observed a tension between what, on the one hand, is essential for child/student well-being and learning and what, on the other hand, strikes us as essential for the future economy. I will argue that until and unless we are dedicated and accountable to child/student well-being, teaching and learning may have little relevance for many children, thus we contribute to a problem we're trying to solve while putting students at risk of being unprepared - not only for their role in the future economy, but for their lives. Education is more than a talent pipeline for employers, after all, it's an end in itself.*

Beleaguered by the political morass, teachers and learners are losing ground. The teacher/learner relationship is the most essential and everything Principals, District Leaders, School Committees - and State Boards of Education - do must be to support that primal relationship in the learning environment, and build capacity for that relationship to thrive for effective teaching and learning. 

We're seeing how education must be personalized for each student no matter who they are, where they live, what language they speak, or how they present. The skills and dispositions they must possess require a multi-dimensional approach of the kind not undertaken before in K-12 education. A lift of this magnitude requires resources in the form of educational and economic investment from federal, state, and local partners in government, as well as deep and sustained alignment with all components of our educational eco-system, including true partnership with families and communities.

To be truly effective (and more than a blunt instrument of accountability), assessment might be part of a wholly supported, integrated system that's realigned with structures not only for technology and education, but also organizational development and capacity, school climate and culture, budgets, and School Committee policies. Why place the standardized assessment ahead of our needs for high quality professional development, student-family-community engagement, social-emotional learning, and teaching and learning? How can we move forward with an assessment system that's not critically aligned with these in partnership with local districts?

We’re already working from a technology deficit because we lack effective technology in every classroom, in every school, in every district across the Commonwealth. Where that technology isn't present or aligned as part of a strategic framework for educational transformation, it hasn't been identified as a priority and/or committing scarce dollars is a reality. Some business and education leaders suggest that getting online assessments in place first will, therefore, leverage meeting our compelling technological needs.

This thinking isn't correct.

Technology is a part of realizing our vision for learning and student success, not apart from it. Partnering with districts to move toward digital learning environments is more than having the requisite test-taking technology. We're absent a grounding vision that not only supports the learning eco-system, but sustains it with time for learning, teaching, collaboration, and reflection.

Fewer than 25% of people living in communities are families with children in schools. Education, progressive in that it's always moving into the future, should be a source of pride in all communities. These are our schools, our children, our future and we all need a voice in shaping them.


The mission of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is to strengthen the Commonwealth's public education system so that every student is prepared to succeed in post-secondary education, compete in the global economy, and understand the rights and responsibilities of American citizens, and in so doing, to close all proficiency gaps.

How will the Board achieve its stated mission? How do we set up the right conditions for all learners and educators? It's not with a standardized test. Standardized tests have not driven us to higher achievement. They've driven us to higher test scores, but not to higher achievement.

And therein lies the rub.

Many children do very well by these tests, and will continue to do well with the new test, especially if they're white and from affluent families, but not all children and schools are well served by them. Poor children do much less well.

The decision the Board has made is tiny compared to its mission and to the other important things I've mentioned.

I agreed with 6 of my Board colleagues who voted (7-4) to support a two year "hold harmless" provision for districts while a new test is developed, but I prefer that we go further.**

Whether we're in a knowledge economy, an innovation economy, or a purpose-driven economy, learning is life-long. There's a lot to be done to prepare our students for life and the future, including knowing exactly what part assessments are to play to inform instruction and improve learning with their timely data and feedback to skilled, knowledgeable professionals with the people, financial, and technological resources to identify learning gaps, modify curriculum, and adjust instruction for whole child and student success.

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Notes, Quotes, Posts, tweets
* A reference to John Dewey's 1893 essay, "Self-Realization as the Moral Ideal". (The Philosophical Review, Vol. 2, No.6 (Nov., 1893), pp.652-664; Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of Philosophical Review; DOI: 102307/2176020; Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2176020). The embedded link in the above post should lead directly to page 660 of the journal - which provides the context for the oft quoted, "Education is not preparation for life but life itself."

** I support bill H.340 of Rep. Marjorie Decker's calling for a 3-year moratorium on the high-stakes punitive nature of testing in Massachusetts.

If you pass a test, didn't you learn something?

Sustaining Improvements in Urban Schools

You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.
~ Toni Morrison, from Song of Solomon

So much of our work depends on taking time away from students to be the best teachers possible.
~ The JLV