Seven Reasons Why the Assessment Consortia Will Matter More than Race to the Top

(This post also appears on The Quick and the Ed.)

Four years from now it will be clear that while the Race to the Top competition drove important state-level policy changes, the work of the assessment consortia will have made the most direct impact on teaching and learning. Consortia decisions will have also directed hundreds of millions in funding from a variety of other state and federal programs.

After reading the applications from Smarter/Balanced and PARCC, the two assessment consortia that are each likely to receive awards of $160 million a little later this year, I’m struck by a few immediate reactions:

The applications and the depth of thinking behind them are Herculean efforts. Not only are they lengthy — 250+ pages each, 1,000+ with appendices — but they are extensive in their breadth and depth of coverage. Both consortia are to be commended for their vision. If they can pull this off, then we will have significantly improved assessment — and teaching and learning — in our country.

But the scope of the applications also reveal a critical element for policymakers, educators, and the public to understand. This endeavor encompasses much, much more than just creating tests. And, given the relative lack of public scrutiny and my interactions with state officials over the past few months, I’m almost certain that the full impact of this work has yet to be realized — even by many of the very people that are essential to implementation.

  1. Implementation of Common Standards — Each of the consortia will set the course for curricula development (and perhaps even sequence and pacing in the case of PARCC), “unpacking” the common core standards into curricular frameworks and the stuff that teachers actually use to teach the standards.
  2. Professional Development — The applications delve deeply into professional development, envisioning this as the vehicle by which teachers will understand the core standards and build assessment literacy. We can assume that this work will drive Title II expenditures — PARCC makes this explicit in its application.
  3. Technology — Both consortia will invest heavily in online testing. This will drive states’ technology funding priorities, as the infrastructure and implementation costs will be state responsibilities. It will also drive the further use of computers in day-to-day instruction, since it will be important that students are familiar with computer-based tools, for instance using an online equation editor, prior to being tested.
  4. Data and Reporting Systems — Both consortia have grand plans for powerful reporting and data systems. How these will integrate with and/or replace both state and district level data systems, whether they create closed systems or integrate with other instructional systems, and their overall effectiveness will go a long ways towards determining the extent to which classrooms can seamlessly adopt other digital tools and high-quality data is available to both educators and students/families.
  5. Accountability and ESEA Reauthorization — The more that ESEA re-authorization is delayed, the more likely that the administration’s guidance on the implementation of a variety of assessment-related technical issues will set the de facto course for ESEA, impacting growth models, teacher evaluation, and many other areas. And, an essential part of the consortia’s work is to set common performance standards, the measuring stick by which students, educators, and schools will be evaluated.
  6. Research Agenda — There are serious holes in the research base for many of the things that the consortia are trying to implement. While other countries have elements of the various proposed assessment systems in place (and we’ve done pieces here), we’re going to be trying this out on a scope and scale that is unprecedented. Moreover, if we consider how assessment results are the metric by which all other interventions are now weighed and millions are spent on randomized controlled trials, new assessments will by necessity impact all of these judgments.
  7. Articulation with Higher Education — Both consortia are attempting to use this as the vehicle to align high school and post-secondary institutions and make decisions about remediation and placement more transparent for students.

There’s more. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing specific components from each application and ideas for ensuring successful implementation. We must get this right.

PS — I’m a masochist, but I’d actually like to read the 1,000+ pages of appendices for each application. But, I haven’t seen a link. Perhaps someone could help me out?

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