The lessons of assessment politics are often “ILEARNed” the hard way

The lessons of assessment politics are often “ILEARNed” the hard way

By Dale Chu

Tomorrow, the results from Indiana’s new state test—called “ILEARN”—will be released to the public at the Indiana State Board of Education’s monthly meeting. Wednesday’s release has been preceded by considerable hubbub because the scores are disappointingly low according to parents and school officials who already received their results last month.

As a former Indiana education official, a few thoughts have crossed my mind in observing the festivities from afar. The first is that my former home is far from the only state wrestling with the fallout from testing-related issues. In fact, Indiana is one of several states that have played musical chairs with their assessments in a game that kicks the can down the road in all too familiar fashion, putting the instant gratification of politics ahead of the delayed fulfillment of sound policy.

Second, the Sturm und Drang in Indiana belies their poor faring in closing the honesty gap when compared to other states. It’s easy to forget that Hoosiers were once out in front in the adoption of Common Core and PARCC. Although this was before politics completely upended the conversation, the irony was not lost upon me that (as of 2017) the states leading the pack in being forthright with parents were those remaining in the PARCC consortium.

The third is a counterfactual: What would the response have been if the scores had been higher than anticipated? Instead of the current calls for legislators to pass (again) a “hold harmless” exemption that would insulate educators from any adverse effects, my guess is the rhetoric would be decidedly different, perhaps even effusively upbeat about the hard work of students and teachers alike.

I don’t mean to make light of the situation. I certainly understand that these results can impact both a school’s accountability rating and a teacher’s compensation. After all, I helped to install some of these provisions. But the eagerness and enthusiasm for hitting the pause button whenever the results don’t line up with our expectations begs the question of a state’s commitment to the fundamental tenets of testing and accountability. Namely, their central role in the advancement of equity and the improvement of educational outcomes.

The entire episode reminds me of a conversation I once had with a state representative following a particularly impassioned meeting. The topic wasn’t testing, but the lessons are universally applicable. In making my case for the best course of action to take, the representative looked me straight in the eye and said, “That might be the best policy, Dale, but it’s not the best politics.” His words underscore the symbiotic relationship between politics and policy, and in the case of assessments, the proper alignment between measurement, rewards, and incentives—without which bad policy can often prevail.

Unfortunately, politics seems to be getting the better of policy when it comes to state tests. And there seems to be more fair-weather accountability fans than diehard stalwarts who recognize the importance of consistency and conviction in the utility of assessments. So long as this dynamic continues—with the focus on adult interests and ramifications—our kids will continue to be collateral damage.

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