The Greatest Assessments in the U.S.A.
(and other such nonsense)
guest post by Alyson Williams
During the first public meeting on anything Common Core related in Nebo School District it probably should not have come as a surprise to the USOE that there might be a number of intensely inquisitive or disenfranchised parents in attendance… or that their questions might extend beyond the bells and whistles of the new testing software that was being introduced.
This is, after all, part of a broader reform that was set in motion when former Governor Huntsman and Superintendent Harrington signed a Memorandum of Agreement to participate in the National Governor Association’s Common Core State Standards Initiative in the spring of 2009.
Mr. John Jesse, the Assessment Director for the USOE must have felt like he’d been fed to the wolves… or more accurately to bears of the mama and papa variety.
Perhaps feeling caught off guard by the unusual and poorly communicated standards adoption process that required this initial agreement of participation before the standards were even written (recently re-framed by the State School Board as an “exploratory” phase minus the ability to explore), parents were understandably critical of Mr. Jesse’s emphatic claim that these tests were the “best in the United States” and that Utah was a shining example to the rest of the country of all things assessment.
“But, you said these particular assessments haven’t even been written yet, or piloted anywhere, right?” one mother clarified in an attempt to point out the glaring credibility gap of showing the timeline of implementation that is just beginning while at the same time making this emphatic claim.
There were so many questions a decision was made to have parents write their questions on a white board, to be answered at the end, in order to allow Mr. Jesse to complete his presentation (or even complete a sentence) with some coherence.
The introduction to the testing company that Utah has contracted with included the disclaimer, or justification, that a company can be involved with a variety of projects or seek certain societal outcomes that one does not agree with, but it is still okay to use their products that are unrelated.
This was likely intended to pacify or pre-empt concerns about the mission of the testing company, American Institutes of Research (AIR), to promote global values as key supporters of the Clinton Global Initiative, or with their work on issues of mental health and sexuality as applied to children.
In other words, as long as the tests themselves meet the need, it shouldn’t matter that Utah tax payers are giving $39 million to a company whose mission they would not otherwise support.
The main advantages of this software, according to Mr. Jesse, are features to accommodate special needs, i.e. hearing or vision impaired, that it is adaptive (questions each student sees are determined in real time based on previous response) and that the results are instantly available.
He also touted the optional, formative assessment capability that is basically the ability to administer both mini-tests and mini-curriculum from an open source curriculum library that has been developed by AIR and comes pre-loaded with the system. After being pressed on the issue, Mr. Jesse confirmed that student activity while using the formative system is tracked.
A number of teachers attended the meeting as well, and one had to wonder what was going through their minds as Mr. Jesse pointed out at least three times that these tests were not high-stakes tests for children but that they were high-stakes tests for teachers and for schools. (A reference to a law passed in 2012 linking teacher pay and school grading to tests.)
What might an experienced teacher’s reaction be to his explanation of how, with the help of precise statistical analysis by a computer, a teacher could really know if a student was struggling or excelling?
Is there research that substantiates the claim that student-teacher interactions are enhanced and not disrupted by certain applications of technology? This would seem an important reference to offer along with this particular assertion. So often in education assumptions that seem sound based on anecdotal observations have unexpected outcomes or unanticipated side effects.
Mr. Jesse did not touch on the aspect of the tests that might be considered the specialty of AIR, the integration of psychometric predictors – a science that requires far more scrutiny when applied to statewide assessments because of its powerful ability, in combination with statistical data mashing enhanced by the existence of interoperable State Longitudinal Data Systems, to profile individuals and assess “dispositions” without it being apparent in the questions or content of the assessment itself.
Utah Child Psychiatrist Dr. Gary T. Thompson has publicly expressed that parents and students deserve a more thorough explanation of how this science will be applied in these assessments. http://www.earlylifepsych.com/common-core-note-to-the-community/
He, along with Edward D. Flint Esq. Special Education Attorney at Law, issued the following assertion as part of a longer article addressing this topic:
“Someone, independent of AIR, MUST have access to every single item on the tests being designed in order to insure that absolutely ZERO behavioral indicators are being measured on tests that parents in Utah believe are only measuring “reading, writing and arithmetic.”
As the question portion of the meeting began, Mr. Jesse reiterated his focus on assessments and his inability to answer unrelated questions. He took a head count of parents who expressed concern over the broader reforms related to the Common Core State Standards with the promise to report this to the USOE along with a request that there be another forum in the future for questions to be answered on a broader range of topics.
In response to the concerns related to content and the inaccessibility of the test questions to parents, or regarding the “use of behavioral indicators” (as specified in the section of 2012’s House Bill 115 governing computer adaptive testing) Mr. Jesse said that there would be nothing objectionable in the tests and that the audience should take his word for it, challenging those present to check his references if there were any doubts about his credibility.
This ironically was the straw that, in light of the circumstances already mentioned, broke the proverbial camel’s back in terms of credibility. “Trust me,” is not a phrase that any parent in the state wants to hear from anyone involved in the implementation of any aspect of Common Core right now… nor should it be sufficient regardless of the circumstances when it comes to a parent’s right to vet any program to which their child will be subjected.
As the tone of the meeting further devolved, insults and accusations of misinformation were exchanged leading to an abrupt end to the Q&A.
Mr. Jesse was admittedly put in a tough situation, and the meeting by any account was a disaster.
An informal survey of sentiment afterward garnered reactions that ranged from disappointment over the tone of both presenter and attendees in their remarks, to surprise that the audience had not been even more insistent that answers have some verifiable basis other than the word of the person whose job it is to promote the project.