An article in the Wall Street Journal on January 10th reported that schools are getting a taste of their own medicine. At least ten states have adopted programs in which they hand out letter grades to schools to evaluate their performance. Recently, a school in Oklahoma, which parents generally considered to be very good, was assigned a “C.” Parents were shocked and unhappy. Some were in disbelief. One incredulously remarked that she wasn’t convinced the state “assessed what’s going on [in the school] very well.”
The grading system is modeled after one that was introduced in Florida in the late 1990’s. These types of systems gather “reams of data,” feed the numbers into formulas, and compute letter grades. The formulas take into account students’ test scores, graduation rates, attendance, and progress among the lowest-achieving students.
As you can imagine, opponents of the letter grades say that they rely too heavily on data that isn’t that important, like standardized test scores. But what I’m interested in here is not how states evaluate their schools, but how that assessment will change the ways those schools operate. It’s another example of how assessment drives instruction.
There are dozens, if not hundreds of factors that affect school quality. The factors being considered by the states are certainly among those, but opponents are bothered by the weight being given to factors which might not accurately reflect the overall quality of the school. Even so, schools being assessed by those criteria will inevitably now focus their energies on the things on which they’re being assessed. So, while a school might once have devoted resources to curriculum development and new teacher training, its efforts will now shift to raising test scores, finding ways to help kids graduate, and lifting the lowest-performing students. While these latter efforts sound wonderful for students whose test scores need to improve, who are most likely to leave school before graduating, and who need extra attention, they draw focus away from the majority of students who are doing just fine and could be doing even better if schools’ energies were focused on them.
The principle behind this shift is that assessment drives instruction. Both teachers and school leaders should be thinking about this as they design assessment tools for their classrooms and for their schools. When schools think about how they assess themselves and their faculty, they should keep in mind that the things they choose to assess will inevitably draw the faculty’s attention to those areas more than others. Similarly, teachers designing assessments for their classes should be aware that the choices they make on those assessments push their students to focus disproportionately on those things.
As educators, we need to be highly conscientious about how what we test for will focus our students’ energies on those matters. No matter what we say in class about what is really important (big ideas, etc.), when we test for minutiae, that’s what our students (and faculty) learn is important.
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