The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There are better ways to assess students than with high-stakes standardized tests. These schools are using them with success.

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For years, education policy dictated that student standardized test scores be central in the assessment of students (not to mention teachers and principals and schools) — despite protests by parents, educators, students and even assessment experts.

More recently, however, we’ve seen reductions in how often students are tested and in the importance of the results — and now there are schools finding success with assessment alternatives.

This post details that success and how it can be expanded to other schools and districts. This was written by Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a nonprofit group known as FairTest that works to end the abuse of standardized tests.

By Monty Neill

The misuse and overuse of standardized testing has greatly damaged education. The harm has been most severe for low-income and minority-group children, often turning their schools into little more than mind-numbing test-preparation programs. The evidence clearly shows it has failed to improve educational outcomes. The good news is the nation is making slow progress toward leaving the high-stakes testing era behind.

This progress is gradually removing major impediments to genuine assessment reform. But what would that look like? Are there good models?

The New York Performance Standards Consortium is an excellent example for high schools that is also relevant to elementary and middle schools. The consortium focuses on inquiry-driven, project-based learning measured by performance-based assessments — and its success with the most vulnerable students makes its outcomes particularly impressive.

The consortium is made up of 38 traditional public high schools. Thirty-six are in New York City. These follow the same admissions process as other New York City high schools that do not require entrance exams. The student populations largely mirror the city’s student body, with nearly identical shares of black and low-income youth and students with disabilities, and higher percentages of Latinos and English language learners (ELL). Students enter consortium high schools with slightly lower English Language Arts and math average scores than citywide averages.

A new report, “Redefining Assessment: Data Report on the New York Performance Standards Consortium,” shows that consortium schools significantly outperform other New York City public schools.

It found that the consortium’s dropout rate is significantly lower than that of regular New York City public schools. Four- and six-year graduation rates for all categories of students are higher than for the rest of the city. Graduation rates are roughly 50 percent greater for ELLs and students with disabilities. Eighteen months after high school graduation, the college enrollment rate is 83 percent. That’s 24 points higher than the city’s. These rates compare favorably with national data on persistence into the second year of college. The college enrollment rate for “minority males” is more than double the national average.

Performance Assessments

Central to the consortium’s success are its “proven practitioner-developed, student-focused performance assessments.” These are created by teachers and rooted in inquiry-based curricula and teaching. Students learn to investigate topics in depth and to explore their own interests within each subject.

To “demonstrate college and career readiness and to qualify for graduation,” all consortium schools require students to complete four Performance-Based Assessment Tasks (PBATs). These include an analytic literature essay, a social studies research paper, a student-designed science experiment, and high-level mathematics problems with real-world applications. They have both written and oral components. In the oral component, students respond to questions from a panel of teachers and outside experts, similar to a graduate school thesis defense.

For example, in social studies, each student must write and defend a research-based analytic paper on questions that have grown out of a history, government, or economics class. The Data Report explains that “in some cases the tasks are crafted by the teacher and in other instances by the student.” The report includes samples of the wide range of interests addressed by the students.

Avram Barlowe, who teaches history at consortium member Urban Academy, says PBATs require students to learn perseverance, how to assess and apply evidence, and explain their thinking in written and oral forms. They “demand that students learn, through practice, how to read, write, calculate, observe and research in a critical manner.”

A DVD series, “Teacher to Teacher,” shows how teachers and students build their courses to attain these ends. One student said: “Being educated at a consortium school had a profound effect on my life. Every student is entitled to an educational community as enriching and inspiring as mine was.”

School Improvement and Accountability

The consortium has permission from the New York Department of Education to administer only one of the five required state graduation tests, English Language Arts. The PBATs, generally completed in 11th and 12th grades, replace the Regents exams in other subjects and for school accountability.

All the PBATs and oral defenses completed for the common graduation requirement are evaluated using consortium-wide scoring guides. (They are in the report.) Written and revised as needed by consortium teachers, they enable consistent evaluations across schools. Samples of student work are blindly re-scored to evaluate both reliability of scoring and the challenge level of teacher assignments. Carefully selected examples help scorers and students think about high-quality work. These scoring guides could be adopted by other schools as well as states.

The college persistence data show that the extensive reading, writing and long-term planning required for the performance assessments prepare students well for higher education. Consortium head and FairTest board member Ann Cook argues this evidence is far more valuable than test scores.

The consortium’s success challenges other schools and states to overhaul assessment and put educators back in control of assessment. The results give the lie to the claim that low-income youth need a tightly controlled intellectual and social environment or top-down mandates to succeed. The focus on teacher- and student-led performance assessments enables true instructional “personalization.”

The consortium is also collaborating with elementary and middle-school teachers to design new assessments. These enable close observation and documentation of student growth and support inquiry-focused education. The City’s Education Department has approved the consortium’s assessment as one of the options for schools to use when assessing preschool children.

However, an overhaul in Grades 3-8 runs into federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) mandates. One path forward is for states to take advantage of ESSA’s Innovative Assessment pilot project. The pilot is based on New Hampshire’s success in transitioning from standardized tests to teacher-crafted performance tasks. FairTest’s report, “Assessment Matters,” uses New Hampshire, the consortium, and other strong examples to show how states can build a new system that ends the educational domination of standardized tests. And the consortium shows how implementing performance assessment can have great success where it most matters – for the students.