Perfect Assessment: We Tried That Before

Evaluation of student performance is a difficult issue in schools. Schools have to measure student performance according to some sort of comparable system in order to qualify for various state and federal programs, but the assessments are often controversial and resented by students, parents, and teachers. Witness, for instance, the opposition brewing up in many states against Common Core, the standards for education achievement developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

But as Robert Rothman points out over at Education Week, we’ve actually been here before. As he writes:

Rereading the twenty-year old book [about performance assessment programs from the 1990s], I was struck by how contemporary the events seem. The educators who developed the performance assessments said they wanted students to be able to use their knowledge to solve problems, reason, and communicate effectively. They wanted assessments that would be indistinguishable from instruction and that would engage students in real-world tasks. They wanted to transform teaching so that students would take responsibility for their own learning.

All of this sounds awesome, of course. Magical assessments that are “indistinguishable from instruction and that would engage students in real-world tasks” have long been the dream of education reformers.

One Denver suburb tried to do this, and made a valiant effort to put it into action. And then reality intervened:

At Littleton High School…the school staff put in place what would now be called a competency-based system. The staff identified 19 skills students would be required to master–such as the ability to write articulately and effectively, to apply mathematical principles to solve a range of problems, and to use research to make decisions–and developed “demonstrations,” or performance assessments, to determine whether they have mastered them. Students had to demonstrate “proficiency” on all 19 skills, and “excellence” in two, in order to graduate.

Soon after the assessment systems were put in place, they attracted opposition from a group of parents who considered them misguided and potentially harmful. Led by William Cisney, a fabric-store owner whose son attended Heritage High School (which implemented a program similar to Littleton’s), three parents formed a slate of candidates for school board and pledged to scrap the new assessments and go “back to basics.”

And it worked. Cisney and his allies won and the school went back to “basics.” The innovative assessment plan died as, well, they often do when parents and the community get involved.

This brings up something I often think about when looking into education policy. There are, really, very few new ideas in education. It’s so very, very often the case that we’ve already tried this stuff before; we just didn’t learn our lesson.

We’d maybe have more success if we worried a little less about coming up with the most sophisticated and innovative reform system, and focused more on why previous reform efforts didn’t work. This is often put down to a lack of community “buy-in” but there’s a reason communities object to these kinds of reforms; because they often seems poorly thought out, unlikely to improve the community much, and very, very expensive.

If we tried that before what makes us think it will work better this time?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer