Instructional transparency hits a dead end

Instructional transparency hits a dead end

By Dale Chu

One year ago, EdReports and the Center for Assessment announced a joint effort to bring greater transparency to the commercially available, and financially lucrative, interim assessment market. That project recently collapsed when assessment publishers demurred, citing a laundry list of misgivings ranging from timing, capacity, proprietary concerns, and skepticism about the need for an independent review. It was a disappointing and somewhat surprising denouement, given the success of EdReports’ disruption—a long overdue one—of the curriculum industry.

Surprising because today’s instructional materials renaissance was catalyzed in no small part by the hundreds of reviews of math, ELA, and science curricular materials undertaken by EdReports over the last several years. States and districts now rely on these reviews, and publishers unabashedly pursue the coveted “green” rating that confers a stamp of rigor and quality assurance.

Disappointing because educators need as much help as they can get when it comes to understanding the utility of their materials, including formative exams. Imagine a color rating scheme for commercial testing that could help educators separate the assessment wheat from the measurement chaff. To be sure, capacity constraints and proprietary matters are valid concerns—after all, assessment items take time and resources to develop—but they shouldn’t be a roadblock to empowering teachers with greater knowledge about the instruments they use to gauge student progress.

Earlier this week, Education Week wrote up the brouhaha. To their credit, some publishers welcomed the effort at greater transparency. To wit, Curriculum Associates said EdReports’s process was “resource intensive and well worth it. It forced us to take all of these rich rationales that we had in our minds and in our words and put them on paper.” In contrast, NWEA declined the invitation, and Renaissance seemed lukewarm on the process before things ground to a halt. One observer noted afterward that this was ultimately a lose-lose proposition for publishers: “If their customers are happy with their product, why would they bother participating in this hassle?”

Given the link between curriculum and assessment, it would have been a natural extension of EdReports’s valuable work to help create a similar understanding of and demand for standards-aligned interim assessments among teachers and principals. There’s always been a desire to crack open the black box that is interim assessments, but the need for doing so is all the more heightened following the pandemic and the troubling news that not only have students not caught up, they may be falling even further behind.

So what happens now? EdReports is trying to put a happy face on what has been a sorry showing on the part of publishers, encouraging districts to pick up the mantle by throwing the power of their purse strings at the lack of transparency. Specifically, they say, districts should not purchase any commercial assessment product unless publishers can answer questions relating to alignment, efficacy, development, reliability, and validity. It’s a nice thought, but it’s hard to see most districts having the capacity, let alone the wherewithal, to do any of this.

No, absent direct and external pressure—the variety that would have been exerted by an independent review—districts will largely remain in the dark on their interim assessments. And that’s too bad.

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