The Intersection: Jun 2016

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Assessments and Accountability: Listen to Parents

“Most of all we need an education which will create an educated mind. This is a mind not simply a repository of information and skills, but a mind that is a source of creative skepticism, characterized by a willingness to challenge old assumptions and to be challenged, a spaciousness of outlook, and convictions that are deeply held, but which new facts and new experiences can always modify.”
— President Lyndon Johnson, July 21, 1965
Remarks to the Delegates to the White House Conference on Education

President Johnson’s words from 1965 about the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) could not be more prophetic today. The current enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the latest update to his signature education law, again significantly modifies U.S. education policy based on new facts and experiences, especially when it comes to testing and accountability.

Passed with strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, the ESSA maintains the annual testing requirement of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), but gives states greater authority and flexibility to develop standards, implement testing and create new accountability systems for teachers and schools. It also eliminates many of the “federal” remedies for low-performing schools, empowering states to develop their own approaches to closing the achievement gap. This is welcome news to many who chaffed at the limitations of NCLB, but it also puts greater onus on the states to improve results and ensure every student has access to a quality education, regardless of their ZIP code.

Fierce Debate over Testing

Long overdue, this latest ESEA update has been shaped by years of divisive debate with extreme claims and major doses of vitriol from liberals, conservatives and education reformers of every flavor. The debate has been dominated by the loudest and shrillest voices, obscuring the opinions of one of the most critical stakeholders in education: parents. Yet, data show that parents actually want accountability and testing – which should be a signal to state policymakers not to move too far in the opposite direction under ESSA.

Over the past year, some states have begun to back track on high quality annual assessments due to political pressure. Yet 66 percent of parents want annual testing for their children, according to EducationNext’s 9th survey of school reform, released in 2015. The same survey clearly shows that a majority of parents want accountability in education, but they also want local and state authorities to determine whether schools are succeeding or failing, and which remedies should be implemented to support low performing schools.

In another poll, PDK/Gallup, Americans are divided on whether “standardized testing” is helpful (45 percent yes, 54 percent no). Interestingly, a clear majority of respondents think standardized test scores are important to evaluate the effectiveness of public schools and 78 percent support the use of tests to determine whether a student should be promoted from one grade to the next.

Better Tests and Better Data

There are some conflicting results in these recent polls, but it seems abundantly clear that parents support annual assessments (even when they are called standardized tests) and support the use of test scores to evaluate student progress and the effectiveness of schools. Parents want objective, specific and actionable information to ensure their children are ready for the next grade and are on track to be college and career ready by graduation.

While our country has not reached 100 percent student proficiency yet, there has been progress in the last few years. Scores on the nation’s report card, NAEP, show continual improvement for all students and, importantly, advances in closing the achievement gaps for African American and Hispanic learners. The metrics and transparency requirements of NCLB, and the investments in new assessments and analysis tools through Race to the Top grants, have promoted gathering objective and more detailed data about learning outcomes that can support student achievement. New assessments have been developed that move beyond the old bubble tests to truly gauge critical thinking, problem solving and the ability to communicate clearly. We have made progress, but we have a long way to go to ensure a great education for every student in every state. We will not get there if we turn our backs on parents.

With the passage of the ESSA, greater responsibility now lies with the states and local governments to determine how best to raise achievement for all students, to assess students, to implement new accountability systems, to retain transparency and to support teachers and students on the path towards 100 percent proficiency. State and local policy makers should listen to all parents – not just the loudest.