Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now


2015: A year of buying into blame or a year of becoming better?

So 2015 is here.

What is different? Not much.

What is the same? Quite a bit.

That being said, we have the opportunity to make a difference this year in a number of areas, one being our approach to assessment.

Let’s face it, when it comes to assessment, especially standardized tests, we’ve gotten into the habit of playing the assessment blame game. Rather than looking beyond the tests to consider their implications, we tend to ignore the potential implications and look for ways to demonize.

Let’s take the Common Core rollout and assessment process in New York State, for example. I will be the first to admit that the rollout of the Common Core in New York was much less than perfect. I’ll also be the first to admit that there is much in New York State’s 3-8 math and ELA assessment scheme that needs to change if these assessments are really to be measures “for” learning, rather than simply measures “of” learning. Regardless of this, throwing our hands up in the air and stating that the Common Core standards “are broken” because we don’t like what we see on the tests is throwing the baby out with the bath water and engaging in a blame game with a solution that won’t better education — not to mention it promotes flawed analysis, something we don’t want any of the learners we work with to engage in.

Ask anyone who has worked deeply with standards writing or analysis and they will tell you this:

“Standards are not the same as curriculum, nor are they, in themselves, a form of assessment.”

And yet, we blame standards for everything from the curriculum we are currently using to the measures our learners will one day experience. Why?

I recently read a great piece in the Hechinger Report by Sarah Garland. It was a mix of a profile of Jason Zimba (one of the lead writers for the math branch of the Common Core State Standards), a history up to this point of how the standards came to be and a speculation of what the future might hold.

At one point, Zimba says, “We took a look at a lot of standards … the best of them were little more than test blueprints. They were not blueprints for learning math.”

When standards exist as a set of content or key ideas that can easily be replicated on a simple multiplication sheet, schools teach to those standards as a means of teaching to the test. We begin to see the standards as a form of curriculum, of sorts, and teach directly to the standards, as mundane (and mind-numbing for learners) as that might be.

However, the Common Core has approached things differently, and in a much more complex manner.

And therefore measures to test understanding of these skills changed.

And therefore grades plummeted.

And therefore backlash began.

It’s a predictable progression, but not a logical one. As our schools and districts regularly decide on curriculum choices; they should never be mandated by a set of standards.

There’s another issue here, one that hits much closer to home for all of us. I was talking to a colleague of mine last week, and I asked him a question that I don’t know the answer to (but I’m guessing it is a bit of both):

Is it so much that the Common Core assessments are bad, or is it that things were so much easier with old standards and old assessments?

As educators, we have to ask the hard questions — if for no other reason than to teach the learners we work with to do the same thing. It is always much easier to place full blame on something else than to reflect inward and assign some of the blame to ourselves and the practices we don’t want to give up.

Maybe we’re a bit afraid of exposing some of the strategies we’ve used for ages that don’t work as well with the Common Core. Maybe we don’t like the fact that the more complex standards push more challenging learning onto younger students, and both for professional (whether based on research or not) and personal (maybe this means we have to expand our knowledge and skill base more than we would like) reasons we don’t approve.

But these are not truly about the standards, and, if we truly boil it down, not often about the learners we work with.

They are about us.

As this year’s assessment season gets geared up, maybe we can focus less on blaming standardized tests to prove a point, and instead prove a point by using the standards (whether Common Core or otherwise) to change our methods so that the curriculum we build is even more meaningful for students, and therefore, important enough to them to see the value of the skills and information we’re sharing.

And maybe, just maybe, if we do that, an added bonus will be even greater learning from whatever measures of assessment students engage in.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the director of SCIENCE 21 and currently serves as Assistant Director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES. Fred is an ASCD Emerging Leader and along with writing here, he also blogs at ASCD EDge.

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s email list for more stories about education. We offer newsletters covering educational leadership, math education and more.