Local school priorities trump national assessments

Teacher's evaluations of students will measure progress better than Common Core tests
By: | Issue: June, 2015
May 18, 2015

Student assessment in public education has taken on an unprecedented primacy during the 2014-15 school year, as states scramble to administer one of two new national assessments.

Whether one of the 18 states listed on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) website as “governing members” or one of the 12 states listed on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers (PARCC) website as “PARCC States,” the collection of student data from national assessments has never been more robust.

Some school leaders, and certainly many parents, have begun to consider the interplay between these assessments and their impact on the kind of education districts are delivering and students are experiencing. The rate at which parents have been notifying schools that they are refusing to have their children participate in either SBAC or PARCCÑlike the assessments themselvesÑis another new experience for many schools and districts.

Most public school districts, including the one I am honored to serve, have established over many years a distinct and locally derived reputation or “brand.” In Randolph, that has long meant a focus on academic excellence as a companion to the delivery of an educational experience intentionally rich in the fine and performing arts.

The two are most certainly not mutually exclusive. In Randolph, they are inextricably linked.

Conversations have already begun about the first iteration of PARCC assessments in my district and how they are impacting our program now. Just as we expect our teachers to be reflective about their daily work, so must district leaders be reflective about the many elements of how a district operates.

In the examined context of delivering national assessments to gauge local successes, the impact of one on the other deserves the careful consideration of everyone.

Keep it local

At the March 2015 District Administration Leadership Institute in Colorado Springs, a room full of 80 superintendents from around the country was asked in small groups to consider a notion that neatly ties together the concepts of national assessments and local district priorities. That simple notion was to identify the ideas about public education that were ready for reconsideration or “retirement.”

As each small group reported out to the gathering, several themes emerged with one consistently held belief surpassing all othersÑnamely that educational policy decisions made predominantly by political figures should be reconsidered. The advent of national assessments, though developed with noble intent, has the potential to subvert the ability of local districts to retain their unique character.

Few school leaders would ever advocate a system that completely discards the value or usefulness of data to inform instruction. Data is in fact a cornerstone of most successful districts. The use of formative data derived from teachers who know their students well and who understand local priorities is one of the best ways to assess learning outcomes and to measure the successful delivery of any curriculum.

The use of summative data derived from a national assessment and intended to assess learning outcomes without regard to local priorities has been a flashpoint in many districts this year, prompting many to reconsider or at least question the wisdom of the course we have taken.

It is one topic in recent memory that has had the rare ability to align the far right and left around a common purpose: to reconsider whether national and summative assessments are somehow better than local and formative ones.

Most school leaders I interact with welcome the conversations and debates that continue to evolve around student assessment and their proper place in the evaluation of districts and teachers. It is my hope that, as assessment protocols are refined, the need to evaluate programs and personnel is not done at the expense of maintaining and celebrating local priorities.

There is no better definition of a “smarter balance” for the students we all serve.

David Browne is superintendent of the Randolph, New Jersey public schools, a suburban K12 district of 4,800 students.