The boxes arrived last week. Those boxes stacked high, full of Iowa Assessment test booklets, answer sheets, and directions for administration. They arrived and are sitting against the far wall of my office – not physically, but philosophically in the way. In two weeks, our students will take those tests. They will spend multiple hours over a course of a week filling in bubbles to demonstrate to the federal and state governments that they have grown academically in content areas like reading, math, science, and social studies. There will be no test on grit or perseverance – except their ability to complete the test without creating a pattern on the answer sheet. There will be no test on creativity – unless they do create a pattern on the answer sheet.
All of this will happen in the midst of a year where my district has truly pushed itself to know the learner better to grow the learner better. We have pushed hard to mold ourselves into what our students need, not mold the students into what we need. We have more teachers that ever using data to revise instruction, using standards-based learning, and thinking about competency-based education. We work toward a new goal of personalized learning in our district – and it is exciting, invigorating, daunting, and … the right work.
So, those boxes sit in my office while I have the pleasure of attending a convening hosted by the Nellie Mae Foundation and KnowledgeWork on the federal accountability framework in light of competency-based education. The convening was a great two days focused on assessment, core CBE principles, the role of the federal government in education, and the unintended consequences of building a new framework that is easy to understand (and which may do more harm to CBE than the current one).
The discussion on accountability traveled far and wide. Some of the main points and questions raised included:
- We do not want to see competency education mandated from the federal government. We want to have federal accountability policy be structured to enable competency education and its core principles.
- Is it possible to establish policy that builds upon a continuous model so that districts can use one set of reporting systems that tracks student achievement rather than two, one for themselves and one for the federal government?
- What would it take to have teachers make the determination of proficiency and then have that data roll up into a school, district, state and federal reporting system focused on student progress and achievement?
I was excited by the opportunity to impact federal policy, yet realistic enough to know that it would not be done when the convening was complete. We must struggle with the enormous task of changing a federal mindset that accountability is one battery of tests once a year. This is completely antithetical to competency-based education and personalized learning. We must work to change this mindset and the system of accountability derived from it if we are truly to have an opportunity to meet every student where they are at and guide them to where they can be.
I know it will not be an easy fix, but it is the right work to do. We must persist, we must challenge, and we must ask the questions that change policy, challenge politics and improve the learning environments and experiences of our students. A student is not a series of data points. Each student is a complex combination of dreams, passions, fears, and possibilities. No test, or battery of tests, will ever fully measure all of that. But we can – and should – get a lot closer to it.
Jason Ellingson is superintendent/curriculum director for Collins-Maxwell Community Schools. Jason is the president of Iowa ASCD, teaches for Viterbo University’s Iowa leadership program, and is working on his doctoral dissertation focusing on central office / system responsibilities through the University of Northern Iowa. Jason was just named to ASCD’s Emerging Leaders Class of 2012. He is married with four children ages 2 to 8. “I am committed to building a better system of learning for my children and their peers. First, we must recognize what we have built before we can build better.”