Time to rethink education assessments and standards

21st century thinking requires different approach to curriculum, testing

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new. – Socrates 

THIS PAST SUMMER saw the failure on the part of the Legislature to arrive at a compromise piece of legislation designed to begin the process of remedying the flaws to educational funding formula articulated in the report released three years ago by the Foundation Budget Review Commission. That failure generated an almost universal backlash from educators, parent groups, advocacy organizations, and even some members the Legislature itself.

In 1993 with the prospect of a looming court case, policymakers came together with a massive infusion of fiscal resources designed to alleviate the shortfalls of the funding mechanism at that time. That action – the Education Reform Act — came with conditions that dramatically changed the educational system here in the Commonwealth and worked to make Massachusetts the best in the nation.

We are now 25 years removed from that landmark legislation and many of the factors that prompted the actions taken at that time have resurfaced. It remains to be seen if the political willpower exists today to remedy the situation. The discussion of why this is so important often centers (and rightly so) around the idea of equity. The quality of a child’s educational experience should not be dictated by the zip code in which they reside. This is the issue that drove the McDuffy case then and which will likely drive any potential lawsuit now.

This issue of equity has been discussed by many and I would like to focus on another important reason to provide adequate funding for our schools. It’s often been pointed out that our current educational system is a reflection of our industrial past. It is the perfect system designed for that period. The problem is that the economy of the 21st century and beyond is no longer driven by the same forces that gave rise to our educational system and thus that system needs to adapt to this new reality.

Why is funding crucial to meeting this challenge? The fact is that the funding public education receives is not adequate to maintain the status quo let alone institute the changes necessary in our system. We are seeing an ever widening gap between the skills employers say they need in this new economy and the skills our educational system is designed to develop in our students. Educators recognize the need for change, however, there is no longer any trust in public education so systemic change languishes. Change involves risk, and to take risks there must be trust and a sense of safety that failure will not be punished if intentions were good.

So, what do we do about this problem? First, change the dynamic from accountability and punishment to inspiration and innovation. We fund what we value. Stop putting money into monitoring bureaucratic compliance. Scale back current state assessments and limit it to grades 4, 8 and 10 (which is actually what was required by ed reform, prior to its expansion by the federal No Child Left Behind law).  Additionally, stop releasing percentile rankings for schools, which creates competition rather than collaboration and merely ranks schools by the relative wealth of their communities in any case. This will still give the state the “hard” data they desire while freeing up millions of dollars, with appropriate monitoring mechanisms in place, to encourage and inspire innovation and a change in practice.

Second, in recent years we’ve dramatically expanded what we expect schools to do. We now need to broaden what evidence we use to determine whether or not they’re successful at it. It’s time to redefine how we measure success for our kids and schools. This must be more than just academics. Furthermore, assessment needs to be an integrated part of learning and not something merely tacked on at the end of the year. There is a new push in the educational spectrum to integrate project based learning and performance assessment practices into classroom instruction. This both leverages the power of technology and the access students now have to information to build those critical thinking and collaboration skills employers are demanding.

The difficulty is that these practices, while pedagogically sound, do not align with our current state assessment mechanisms. However, that doesn’t have to be the case if we look to change that system. There are groups out there and schools already doing this work. We need to support their efforts and build off their accomplishments.

Third, schools need to be afforded the flexibility to break us out of the pattern where seat time is seen as the only vehicle to learning. We need the ability to flex our scheduling to accommodate non-traditional forms of education. We need the flexibility to open non-traditional paths for our students where they’re not tightly bound to the traditional core courses of math, science, English, and social studies. We need to be open to pathways where the “electives” which often reflect content, topics and skill development that directly apply to today’s society, are allowed to become part of the new core. This will of necessity require involving higher education in the discussion as much of what students take in high school is driven by what colleges require.

Meet the Author

Educators and policy makers are similar in one very important way with respect to education: both groups are resistant to change. This is directly a reflection of the importance of this field and the fear of the negative impacts of making mistakes. Education involves the future of our children and that should cause stress and apprehension when deciding a pathway for the future. Excuses and roadblocks are easy to imagine. However, we have reached a point where we must be more afraid of maintaining our current practices than we are of taking a chance and changing our system. The first step must be to demonstrate the courage necessary to reach consensus and appropriately fund public education.

Todd Gazda is superintendent of the Ludlow Public Schools.