A Testing Moratorium Is Necessary

Meaningful assessment data reveal what students know and are able to do, and provide teachers with the information they need to track student progress and to identify and support students who are struggling. Assessment data give central-office administrators and school boards the crucial information they need to allocate and evaluate resources effectively and to set policies.

So why do we need a three-year moratorium from accountability systems based on state tests? At this crucial time in American public education, when we are correctly focusing our attention on the rigorous Common Core State Standards (CCSS), we must organize for success in the future and not remain fixated on the past. Critics of a moratorium and defenders of the status quo say my approach jettisons accountability for schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. We must build systems of accountability and support that use the right assessments to measure the right things. Accountability and support can often be seen as competing demands, but comprehensive assessment data actually serve both functions.

I started my administrative career in 1998 as director of accountability for a small district, and later served as the director of school performance and accountability for New York City public schools. In Montgomery County, Maryland, where I am now superintendent, we are on our way to building an accountability system that uses student data in meaningful ways to measure progress and improve instruction at important checkpoints along a child’s educational journey. Having designed accountability systems for different types of districts, I recognize the importance of developing indicators that can inform an organization’s actions.

Current assessments, unfortunately, do not measure what our students need to know and be able to do in the 21st century. Basing decisions on these outdated state test-score data may lead to structural changes that seek to address the wrong problems.

The Legacy of NCLB

Public education is extremely complex. Multiple entities govern, drive, and constrain the work of educators, from federal and state laws and regulations to local political structures, funding authorities, and interest groups. Effective district and school leaders must mitigate the clamor of competing interests and demands, and focus on organizing teaching and learning systems around what really matters. State and federal accountability systems should provide and enhance that focus, not distract from it.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) provided this focus for public schools over the past decade, whether we like to admit it or not. Regardless of lofty mission statements that spoke of meeting the needs of the whole child, cultivating artistic curiosity, and having high academic standards, every school in America has had one primary mission since 2001: to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Curriculum was narrowed and aligned to tests; professional development centered on data-based decisionmaking; supports and funding were put in place to improve test scores; data systems provided information for school and district leaders to make decisions about policy and allocating resources; and political entities had evidence to celebrate or complain about the investment of tax revenue.

NCLB did a good job of making data an important part of the school improvement process and of exposing the persistent achievement gaps at even the most high-achieving schools. But these data are based on assessments that are very limited in what they measure and don’t reflect the skills and knowledge our students need to be successful. Moreover, the goal of 100 percent proficiency may properly reflect the desire to ensure all children achieve, but it’s not realistic. It’s akin to saying that a person is only physically fit if she can run a marathon. NCLB’s goal was “adequacy.” Now we need to develop measures that will tell us whether our children will thrive in a 21st-century economy and world.

NCLB is dying a slow death. We have entered a new era of American public-education reform, brought on by Race to the Top and the Common Core State Standards. In Montgomery County, we are creating new systems that holistically measure whether a school is supporting a student’s academic success, creative problem-solving abilities, and social and emotional well-being. This requires a different approach to teaching and learning, and to supporting and holding schools accountable.

New Tests for a New Standard

The major change happening in public education today is the democratization of information. As we all have greater access to information than ever before, educators must enable students to create knowledge and wisdom from the information surrounding them. We have to rethink what we’re asking teachers, support professionals, and leaders to do, and then build the organizational structures to support them.

This is a complex conversation. It will require an enormous amount of time and energy to engage adults in new learning about what students should know and be able to do when they graduate in 2025. Along the way, we must tackle some very important questions. What should the classroom look like? What materials and technologies are available to support instruction? What training should teachers undergo? What are the roles of the instructional leader and the central office? How are the community and families to be engaged? What are the right funding mechanisms? What policies and practices should be in place? These are questions that must be addressed at the school, central office, and board and community level, and the answers may very well be different among districts.

In organizing these new systems, we cannot have two areas of focus. State standardized tests—the foundation of NCLB—are not aligned to the CCSS, yet these tests are still being given and are now tied to revised accountability systems under the NCLB waiver program. For example, in math, state tests measure computation skills only, while under the CCSS, students need to show their reasoning ability in addition to computation skills. While we are in this transition, we are telling our teachers, leaders, and authorizing, funding, and governing agencies that we’ve got to prepare for a whole new standard that will make us more competitive internationally. So where should we focus our attention? How do I explain to my principals and teachers that the current state tests are meaningless because they assess an old standard, even though they are administered, used for accountability purposes, and reported in the media? How do you ask people to work harder than ever to learn new methods of teaching and learning, design new data systems, and invest in new technologies when their evaluations are being tied to the old measure under Race to the Top? How do we determine an appropriate rate of change, one of the most confounding leadership decisions, one that will enable us to switch, almost overnight, to new testing and accountability systems, while also giving people a chance to learn, grow, and adapt with these new systems? Teacher evaluation systems like the professional growth system in Montgomery County are excellent examples of assessing teachers’ skills and competencies without an overreliance on an annual state-administered test.

Managing the Transition

As a school superintendent, I have to balance the need for consistent standards for outcomes and processes with my belief in school-level innovation and creativity. I also have to help our organization transition from a bureaucracy that looks much like it did 25 or 50 years ago to one that performs with speed and flexibility. I have to communicate our progress and our needs to the community, the board of education, and the local elected bodies that provide funding. I need a starting point for determining how to allocate resources, invest additional time and energy, provide supports, and ensure accountability. It is essential, then, that I have a handful of clear indicators that provide starting points for further analysis.

When I go to the doctor I have my vital signs taken first. I believe we need similar vital signs for public education. In Montgomery County, we are organizing our efforts around five milestones:

1)  reading on grade level by 3rd grade

2)  completing 5th grade with the necessary math, literacy, and social-emotional skills to be successful in middle school

3)  completing 8th grade with the necessary math, literacy, and social-emotional skills to be successful in high school

4)  having a successful 9th-grade year, as measured by grade-point average, well-being, and eligibility to participate in extracurricular activities

5)  graduating high school ready for college and career, as measured by such existing indicators as performance on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams and SAT scores.

These are not the only indicators of an excellent, well-rounded education, but each is an important milestone in a child’s education and is a starting point for our team to focus attention. Data for each area need to be analyzed by school and by demographic, socioeconomic, and programmatic subgroup. Other data will also be needed to determine whether a school is on the right path.

By focusing on indicators at different stages, rather than every year, we are establishing a developmental approach to accountability. School improvement takes time, and students can blossom over the course of a few years. Schools need to be given the opportunity to grow and develop. But current state tests measure annual performance. School improvement could more effectively focus on the needs of individual students if the message to schools was that their accountability for student achievement was tied to the time they had to improve outcomes.

What happens between these milestones must be the focus of efforts to support a school, while the milestones become the focus of accountability. For example, if one subgroup of students isn’t successfully completing 9th grade at the same rates as others, then the school needs to drill down on what’s happening with that subgroup. If the school then needs additional resources and support from the district—or is unable to improve outcomes—my team and I would step in. If, over time, a school, with our help, has been unable to improve those outcomes, we would have to employ accountability mechanisms.

Building this type of system takes time, resources, and commitment. Montgomery County Public Schools started working on aligning curriculum to the CCSS four years ago. Even with all of the infrastructure and support in MCPS, it will still take more than two years to fully implement our new accountability system and even longer before all elements of it are effectively used in every school.

A moratorium from state standardized tests tied to NCLB is necessary to allow school districts the opportunity to organize their systems to what we’re being asked to do now and in the future: prepare adults to engage students in much deeper learning so they will be equipped not just with the academic skills but with the problem-solving skills necessary to be globally competitive. We have to organize our systems to achieve this goal, which is incredibly difficult when we’re still being measured by an outdated model. In the interim, we can continue to measure ourselves by standard indicators of college and career readiness, such as SAT, Advanced Placement, and ACT tests and graduation rates. We could also use a nationally accepted criterion-based reading test to determine our current status, but not for high-stakes accountability purposes.

Once the CCSS is fully implemented and the new assessments aligned to these standards have been completed, we can begin to construct a meaningful accountability system that truly supports teaching and learning.

-Joshua P. Starr

Joshua P. Starr is superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Md.

This article is part of a forum on high-stakes testing. For another take, please see Assessments Are Vital for Healthy Schools,” by Margaret Spellings.

This article appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Starr, J.P., and Spellings, M. (2014). Examining High-Stakes Testing. Education Next, 14(1), 70-77.

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