As the assessment world turns

As the assessment world turns

By Dale Chu

With school accountability drawing some attention at the top of this new year, the elephant in the room continues to be what Uncle Sam has in store for its red headed stepchild, spring testing. There’s a growing sense that the feds plan on taking a hands-off approach once again, by issuing matter-of-fact statements about the law being the law while—with a wink and a smile—doing little to actually enforce it. Frankly, there’s a side of me that would prefer it if they would simply say the quiet part out loud: “Hey states, if you don’t administer your standardized tests for a third consecutive year because of Covid, we’re totally cool with that.”

In all seriousness, it’s worth stepping back to try and understand the dynamics and competing interests behind the fed’s schizophrenic tack on testing. Unfortunately, this testing pundit doesn’t have an inside track into the behind-the-scenes machinations, but best I can tell, there are a number of different camps jockeying for sway in assessment world. Here’s how I might imagine it:

Team USED-Unions: It’s no secret that the teacher unions have the ear of President Biden on a number of issues, and testing is no exception. Remember that the former head of the nation’s largest teachers union almost became education secretary. Although that didn’t happen, Secretary Cardona’s number two at the U.S. Department of Education is as establishment as one can get when it comes to being skeptical about reform and assessments. Indeed, there are a number of USED brass that are either former union staff or status quo sympathizers that have never been keen on using standardized tests to gauge academic progress—moreso now when those results stink following two years of interrupted and intermittent schooling.

Team USED-Obama: At the same time, there are a number of Obama-era staff as well as veterans of respected ed reform organizations working on Cardona’s team, and they are no doubt doing their best to hold the line on annual assessments. This split between Obama officials and union staff at USED was foreshadowed from the get go when the president announced his transition team back in 2020. It’s a microcosm of the intraparty rift among Democrats on the issue, and as such there’s little reason to be surprised by the back-and-forth observers have noted when it comes to this administration’s lukewarm posture towards testing.

Team White House: Despite Obama veteran Carmel Martin—a strong supporter of NCLB and assessments—helping to lead Biden’s domestic policy shop, the anti-testing voices in the White House are clearly winning. To be fair, the internal conversations are likely less about pro- versus anti-testing and more about having bigger fish to fry (i.e., weathering the upcoming midterms). That said, based on Cardona’s Twitter account alone—which dutifully takes it’s cues from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—you can be sure the White House has concluded that any fight around state testing is a conflict not worth having.

Team Capitol Hill: Despite the tumult in the executive branch, both U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and U.S. Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) have been reliable stalwarts on annual assessments. Their joint statement in November 2020 exemplifies their shared support for the essential guardrails afforded by sound measurement and evaluation: “In order for our nation to recover and rebuild from the pandemic, we must first understand the magnitude of learning loss. That cannot happen without assessment data.” To be sure, this means their respective staffs—praise be upon them—have their hands full working to protect testing in the face of complicated headwinds.

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Put simply, what this all means is that despite rising public support for testing, consensus on the issue will remain elusive, and the swirling ridiculousness on whether quality assessment data is needed during a generational pandemic will continue. Which is too bad, because those most affected by the internecine squabbling will be the students, parents, and educators who could really stand to benefit from the thoughtful use of reliable data.

To the extent there is any common ground to be had, expect it to be on the far periphery. Case in point: the energy being spent on assessment innovation/pilots. But even when it comes to potential new forms of testing, we’re nowhere close to where we need to be in light of present circumstances. Look for more on this topic in future blog posts.

Alas, like sands through the assessment hourglass…

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