I had an opportunity to have a phone conference with two representatives of the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE); Angela Chamness (Director of Assessments) and Wes Bruce (off-site consultant). It was an amazing exploration of why we are doing PARCC the way we are (see previous post), where we came from and where we are going. But before I go further, both individuals are very open to hearing from others in regards to Assessments and invite you to contact them:
Angela Chamness: firstname.lastname@example.org
Wes Bruce: email@example.com
During my conversation with Angela and Wes, I expressed several concerns:
- Preparing for PARCC, let alone actually taking the test, takes away many hours of instruction time
- The TestNav website very much limits the student’s test-taking experience, to the point that it is overly distracting
- Pearson has a history of providing tests that test how well the one being tested can take a test
- There is no benefit to the student, nor to the parent, given that the teacher already knows how a student is performing; the only benefit to the school is that they receive state and federal money
Ms. Chamness and Mr. Bruce helped me to understand a lot of what is going on from their point of view, which I found exceptionally enlightening. Moreover, both seem to have a strong desire to see they system improve, and realize that what we have now is far from optimal. They argue that what we have now is a step in the right direction, away from what we had last year. But what struck me the most is their desire to bring back a sense of creativity for both teachers and students, and that the current system, perhaps as an unintended consequence, only serves to smother creativity (my words, not theirs).
Angela, as Director of Assessments, told me how she has been working with many teachers and community members on how to assess student progress, and how that gets implemented and what it looks like. Also, as a former educator and administrator herself, she is very passionate about making sure these are relevant and can smoothly be integrated into teaching. She painted a “big picture” of what a better method of assessment might be like, and I concurred with the idea that, ideally, teachers should be able to assess students on the fly as they cover core curriculum material. It sounds like the hard part is standardizing that part of it, so that Teacher A from one school district will have an assessment that can be equally compared to Teacher B from another school district. To me, it seems like Common Core already provides this, with the new Common Core report cards we already have. But back to the point, Angela has some really great ideas about the future of assessments. For instance, right now they are working on evaluating an open-source assessment tool (no more details provided as of yet, hoping to get more); I think this is awesome because it gives more control to “stakeholders”. Angela is also very aware of the need for accountability; while she did not say this, it seems to me that Pearson is not accountable to anyone, nor those who worked on PARCC.
A brief history. Once upon a time, we had “No Child Left Behind”, which was a federal mandate applied to all states. Folks got tired of one state’s “standard” test score did not correlating at all to another state’s, so they hashed out a set of standards which became known as “Common Core State Standards”, with the idea that all states would embrace them as a way for an” A” to be absolute. CCSS, as a framework, did not specify exactly how states would assess students, teachers and school districts, so another group of folks formed a consortium to define a common way to test and monitor. This became known as PARCC, and only 13 states joined the consortium (with Pennsylvania getting honors as “participating” whatever that means). They had a procurement committee that put out a bid and awarded Pearson the contract. So while all 13 states participated in developing test questions and content, it was all dumped into Pearson’s melting pot and mixed together, with no vetting of the end product.
Wes comes from a more technical background, and told me of how he has fought (and lost) many battles in Indiana over the topic of testing. He believes it is important to offer the test on a device that a student is already familiar with, but I took that a step further and suggested that, since a computer (or any “device”) is really just a tool, like a pencil, why cannot the student choose which tool they wish to use? It doesn’t make any sense to me that we force students to use a tool, especially if the tool gets in the way of assessments in the first place. But I really value Wes’s input; it seems like he “gets it”. He understands how computers have a lot of potential, especially in our evolving world. In fact, he seemed rather passionate that our technological world is changing so much, we need to develop and allow students the necessary agility and flexibility to adapt to those changes by exposing them as often as possible.
It was a very exciting conversation, mostly because there was a lot of give and take on both sides. Angela and Wes are both very genuine, energetic, involved and intelligent individuals. I told them, on several occasions, that to me it is important to be a problem-solver in regards to PARCC; they responded with agreement and wanting to cultivate a generation of students who are also problem-solvers. For our action steps, we came up:
- Angela will get the ball rolling on a “big picture” website, which will provide a 10,000 foot view of what assessment is and why we do it, where we came from, where we are, and where we are going. I suggested it be easy to read, light, have pictures and brief, easy to digest quickly.
- Angela is forming engagement groups and will invite me to one; the purpose is to look at what we have and how we can improve it
I was reminded that Common Core is supposed to provide a framework, a skeletal set of standards so that we have a common benchmark. With this in mind, here is what we read on the PARCC website:
“These high quality, computer-based K–12 assessments in Mathematics and English Language Arts/Literacy give teachers, schools, students, and parents better information whether students are on track in their learning and for success after high school, and tools to help teachers customize learning to meet student needs. The PARCC assessments will be ready for states to administer during the 2014-15 school year.”
The general contact information for the ISBE Assessment office is:
Division of Student Assessment
Illinois State Board of Education
100 North First Street, E-216
Springfield, IL 62777
Phone: (866) 317-6034
Fax: (217) 782-6097