Balanced assessment: Pipe dream or in the pipeline?

Balanced assessment: Pipe dream or in the pipeline?

By Dale Chu

In June, Forbes published an intriguing interview with two educators—Theresa Morris and Christa Krohn—on the evolution of education reform as it pertains to testing in the state of Ohio. Although the piece opens with some questionable assertions about the root causes of today’s K-12 shortcomings, the interview itself contains a few observations worth considering, as well as one eye-raising claim about the progress made on assessment in the Buckeye State.

The frame for the conversation is the purported misalignment between standardized tests and college and career readiness. To wit, Krohn surmises, “Our K-12 assessment systems only measure the content knowledge-based skills, so it should be no surprise that we produce students who are now no longer college and career ready.” Of course, the former doesn’t cause the latter; rather, the useful information provided by tests (e.g. 60 percent of fourth grade students in the United States are struggling to read) alerts us to the issues that must be proactively addressed before students can be remotely college or career ready. Standardized testing tropes aside, however, things get really interesting halfway in when the interviewer dives into the policy changes required to improve state testing systems.

Instead of today’s reliance on standardized tests, Morris and Krohn argue for a “balanced assessment system” that fully leverages the power of performance assessments. Morris defines these as follows:

Performance assessments ask students to think, produce to demonstrate learning through work authentic to the discipline and real world. It is this authentic application that helps students develop the qualities that employers and colleges want. These assessments can range in size from a small scale taking less than one class period up to a large scale curriculum embedded project or capstone project that takes several weeks.

I’ve written previously about the need to explore possibilities beyond standardized tests. As a former teacher and principal, I’ve seen firsthand the benefits performance assessments can offer in the classroom. As to whether they can be practically scaled more broadly, however, like others I’m skeptical. But herein lies a statement from Morris that really knocked my socks off:

I often hear people say performance assessments are not scalable statewide, and if you could do that, then surely you can’t ensure reliability and validity. I am happy to say that we have proven all of these things [emphasis added]. Currently, in Ohio, a consortium of 6 districts have created a portfolio of performance assessments and we have proven validity through a rigorous 10 step process in adhering to a common architecture. We have also proven reliability through norming calibrations led by Stanford’s Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity and Envision Learning Partners. 

Consider the weight behind this claim for just a moment: The reliability, validity, and scalability of performance assessments have been definitively “proven.” As in comparable within and across classrooms, schools, and districts? As in externally validated? As in financially doable? This would, to put things mildly, be a hella big deal. Talk about burying the lede. Even if Morris was being slightly hyperbolic, her statement raises all sorts of questions. For starters, why haven’t they thrown their hat into the ring for the ESSA assessment pilot? C’mon Ohio, don’t hold out on us!

There’s only so much the reader can gather from one interview, but my interest is certainly piqued. My worry, however, is that these types of casual claims—at least currently—are more often than not vulnerable to human error and wishful thinking. I’ll be keeping my eyes on this one.

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