Injecting Tech Into Assessment

As we all well know, last year the U.S. Department of Education awarded $350 million to develop new assessments to go with our Common Core State Standards.  Those assessment consortia — the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) — have been working to start developing the tests that measure the achievement of the student performance against the new common standards.

Since the beginning of the consortia effort, questions have been raised.  Recently, many have asked about the progress of the consortia, wondering if they will be able to deliver test to states for implementation in 2014.  But queries about technology have existed before the feds even cut the checks, with initial hypotheses (since proven incorrect) saying that PARCC wasn’t even interested in the adoption of new technologies in its assessment model.
To help focus on the issues of technology and CCSS assessment, the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) recently released Technology Requirements for Large-Scale Computer-Based and Online Assessment: Current Status and Issues, a discussion draft report currently available on www.assess4ed.net, a new online community supported by the U.S. Department of Education to explore RttT assessment issues.  
Among the issues posed by SETDA in the discussion draft:
* Striking the right balance in specifying technology requirements, while recognizing the heterogeneity of the technology in use in schools today and tomorrow;
* The specifications for test administration – including especially the length of the testing window – may have the single greatest impact on school technology readiness for computer-based and online assessment;
* Coordinating technology requirements, management, and related costs for assessment with other educational technology investments;
* Employing IT industry best practices to extract cost-savings via the shift to computer-based and online assessment;
* Creating processes and plans to both take advantage of future technology innovations and to take out of service obsolete technology;
* Architecting a system that can accommodate the trend away from seat time requirements and toward increasing online and blended (part-online, part face-to-face settings) enrollments;
* Striking and maintaining the right balance between comparability and validity in implementing next generation assessment systems;
* Providing meaningful opportunities for students and teachers to become comfortable with the assessment technology prior to implementation; and
* Coordinating work with state and district technology leadership.
Without question, Eduflack applauds SETDA for asking the right questions and pointing to the right issues when it comes to technology and the next generation of student assessments.  And the report is particularly useful in providing a series of charts and graphs on both CCSS and the states themselves.
As this Technology Requirements was issued as a draft for review and comment, I just can’t miss the opportunity to provide two comments (additions really) for the authors to consider:
* In addition to providing meaningful opportunities for students and teachers to become comfortable with the assessment technology, there is a real opportunity to position the ed tech standards (NETS) established by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) as a key component for linking technology, assessment, instruction, and learning. 
* While online assessments are important, they really only get us half of the way to our destination.  If we are serious about deploying meaningful tests that will serve our states and districts for decades to come, we must look at exams that are both online and adaptive.  Adaptive testing technologies are advancing rapidly.  Some states, particularly those in SBAC are already using online adaptive technologies to build a better testing mousetrap.  We need to learn from those states, constructing for the future of testing, not for its past.
Now is the time to speak up folks.  SETDA has put a valuable and intriguing marker down on the the discussion of technology and assessment.  Contribute to the discussion, both through the draft report and through www.assess4ed.net.  These are important discussions.  Speak now or forever hold your peace.

So You Say You Want a National Curriculum?

In case you missed it, about two weeks ago the Pearson Foundation announced that it was receiving funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create a national K-12 curriculum.  Gates ponied up $3 million to have Pearson develop 24 courses, 11 in math and 13 in English-Language Arts.  At the announcement, both foundations positioned it as the next logical step in the adoption of Common Core State Standards.

The announcement seemed to go over with a bit of a thud.  First, it met some people’s fears that a Common Core would undoubtedly lead to a common curriculum.  And for the growing chorus that believes in local control and local decisionmaking, having bureaucrats in Washington (or even with a non-partisan foundation) determine what fifth grade math needed to look like on the third Tuesday of March just reeked of the nationalism folks have pushed back on for decades (or even since the creation of public education in the United States itself).
Others were concerned by the implications of Gates and Pearson Foundations working together.  After all, was the Pearson Foundation simply developing curriculum, on Gates’ dime, that the parent company, Pearson, would then turn around and sell?  After all, who better to “align” with a common curriculum than the company perceived to develop the curriculum itself?  Isn’t it logical that Pearson’s textbooks and PD and turnaround services and testing would then get the seal of approval from the Gates/Pearson Foundation partnership?
While the head of the Pearson Foundation told EdWeek “no firm exclusivity agreement” was in place with Pearson, it hardly takes a Ph.D. to realize that Pearson, and not McGraw-Hill or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, would have the inside track to the Pearson Foundation’s new course sequence. 
   
If the Shanker Institute was the serve from the left, we now, most certainly, have the return from the right.  Over the weekend, the K12 Innovation Manifesto was released.  Citing concerns with national assessment consortia, national curriculum guidelines, national curriculum models, and national curriculum materials, the group objects to “transferring power to Washington, DC.”  Specifically, the latest group to weigh in on the nationalization of American education highlights:
* There is no constitutional or statutory basis for national standards, national assessments, or national curricula
* There is no consistent evidence that a national curriculum leads to high academic achievement
* The national standards on which the administration is planning to base a national curriculum are inadequate
* There is no body of evidence for a “best” design for curriculum sequences in any subject
* There is no evidence to justify a single high school curriculum for all students
This latest manifesto is led by Bill Evers, the former assistant secretary for policy in President George W. Bush’s Education Department.  Signatories include names like Doug Carnine, John Chubb, Will Fitzhugh, Jay Greene, Charles Miller, Grover Norquist, John Silber, Sandra Stotsky, Bob Sweet, Abigail Thernstrom, and Richard Vedder. (So it is safe to say we won’t be seeing this on HuffPo any time soon.)
This could shape up to a little more than just some East Coast/West Coast dueling education manifestos.  The Al Shanker Institute is very much offering the music that Senate Education Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (IA) loves to hear.  Meanwhile, Evers and the K12 Innovation crew are singing from House Education Committee John Kline’s (MN) hymnal.  So this could very well be one of the first meaningful ESEA reauthorization fights shaping up. 
After all, it has everything we need.  Ideology.  Dollars.  For-profits.  Big brother.  Local control.  Good data.  Squishy data.  And a soapbox that virtually anyone can stand on.  I smell a series of DC-based education blob forums in our future …
  

Standards or Curriculum, Curriculum or Standards?

Over at ASCDedge (a professional networking community managed by, of course, ASCD), Steven Weber reflects on recent Education Week coverage on the topic of Common Core State Standards and how it relates to curriculum.  One of the key questions Weber asks those in “the community” is “Do you think that the Common Core State Standards are curriculum or do you believe there is a distinct difference between standards and curriculum?”

When I was out at ASCD last week, I heard some very similar concerns from educators across the country.  Lots of teachers freaked out by CCSSI because they believe it is the “new curriculum” to go with the new world order likely coming through the reauthorization of ESEA.
If one ventures over to the CCSSI website, it is nearly impossible to even find the word “curriculum.”  In describing what CCSSI is, the good folks at National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are pretty darned clear about what common standards are, and curriculum ain’t it.  Just take a look at the description:

The standards are informed by the highest, most effective models from states across the country and countries around the world, and provide teachers and parents with a common understanding of what students are expected to learn. Consistent standards will provide appropriate benchmarks for all students, regardless of where they live.

These standards define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs. The standards:

    • Are aligned with college and work expectations;
    • Are clear, understandable and consistent;
    • Include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills;
    • Build upon strengths and lessons of current state standards;
    • Are informed by other top performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society; and
    • Are evidence-based.

Lots on skill.  Lots on standards.  Nothing about curriculum.  The closest we have is they are built upon current state standards, which in theory tie to current state curriculum.  But is there anyone who believes that the hodgepodge of current state standards is very definition of a model curriculum?
So why the confusion and the concern?  First and foremost, it is driven by a lack of information.  CCSSI was released nearly a year ago, and virtually every state in the union has signed onto the movement.  But beyond those policymakers who put their states into the CCSSI camp and those consultants who wrote Race to the Top applications pledging to follow the Common Standards, few actually know what this means.  We’ve signed on to CCSSI, the thought process goes, so now what?
In the absence of information, we make it up.  We know CCSSI isn’t assessment and tests, because we have federally funded tests aligned with CCSSI currently under development.  But the feds don’t develop curriculum.   So we have a choice.  Vendors claiming their products are the CCSSI curriculum or the notion that CCSSI is the curriculum itself.  And while many vendors may be quick to claim CCSSI alignment, no one has yet been bold enough to claim they are the embodiment of the curriculum itself.  The only remaining choice, then, is that the standards must be the curriculum.  After all, what value is the alignment of product if it isn’t aligned to both the standard and the curriculum?
We all know that moving the concept of common core state standards into practice is going to take time.  We have standards.  We are developing tests.  It is now likely going to take us a few years to develop a curriculum (particularly with the 15% add ons most states will take advantage of) and then create the professional developments and supports to go with it.  Yet here we stand, expecting all of this to take hold in a matter of months, rather than the years it typically takes the education community to get up to speed.
Before we rush to accept national standards as a new curriculum, it seems we need to ask ourselves one important question.  Do national standards mean a national curriculum, or is curriculum best left to localities and teachers to determine?  Seems CCSSI is all about providing us one universal yardstick, but it should be left up to the user to determine how to hit a given mark.
    

It’s Common Core-tastic!?

As the great Yogi Berra is reported as saying, it’s like deja vu all over again!  

This past weekend, dear ol’ Eduflack was out in San Francisco for the ASCD Annual Conference.  On Saturday, I had the privilege of addressing more than 100 folks who came out on a monsoon-like Saturday morning to learn more about how to build, execute, and measure a successful public engagement campaign in the education space.  A good time, I hope, was had by all.
After the conclusion of that merriment, Eduflack wandered over to the exhibit hall to see what companies, non-profits, IHEs, and government agencies thought ASCD attendees would be most interested in.  It was a full hall, comprised of many of the same organizations that make the rounds during the spring education conferences.
But the one thing that caught my eye was how many booths and vendors bore the supposed blessing of the Common Core State Standards Initiative.  We had “Common Core approved” and “Common Core certified.”  For those not quite willing to go out on the limb, we had even had quite a few “Common Core aligned.”  The label could be found on curriculum and supplemental materials, professional development and assessment tools.  It seemed to be applicable for everything short of the tote bags and candy giveaways.
Yes, I realize that most states have signed onto Common Core and are currently in the process figuring out how to move that adoption to implementation.  Yes, I realize the embrace of Common Core was a requirement of Race to the Top and is likely to play a role in ESEA reauthorization.  And yes, I realize the importance of having a one national yardstick by which we measure all U.S. students.
But we also have to be clear here.  States are adopting relatively general standards in just two subject areas.  We have no curriculum to go with those standards yet.  We have no tests to go with the standards yet.  We have no textbooks or workbooks or cookbooks that go with those standards yet.  in fact, we don’t even have the full standards yet, as all states have the ability to add 15 percent of their own priority standards to the common ELA and math standards currently in play.
So it just seems far too premature for us to be peddling the “Common Core approved” when we still don’t know what Common Core looks like in the schools and THERE IS NO ONE TO APPROVE ANYTHING ON BEHALF OF COMMON CORE!  No one is certifying or approving on behalf of CCSSI.  At a time when states and districts are worried about Common Core (and many at ASCD were), we have vendors marketing their wares to those concerns, promising the magical elixirs that will fix everything.
And that’s where the deja vu comes into play.  It was only seven or eight years ago when we saw the exact same scene unfold around scientifically based research.  In 2002, 2003, 2004, just about anyone who was anyone at an education conference was selling an SBR-based product that was aligned with NCLB.  Didn’t matter if it was true or not, everyone was scientifically based.  Everyone had an evidence-based core.  You could talk to a dozen reading programs on conference row in 2003, and they were all SBR.  Ask them what their research was, and most handed the same document to you — the National Reading Panel report (or the NCLB legislation itself).
The problem here is that people understood the expectation (everything needed to be scientifically based) but they didn’t understand (or didn’t care) what that meant.  The type of research required under the law took four or five years to develop, and the sales cycle didn’t allow for that sort of time.  So take the NRP report, slap a focus group or two together, put together some bar graphs, and there was your research base.  Add a colorful “checklist” aligning your product with the NRP and you were really excelling.
(As an aside, perhaps my favorite vendor at ASCD this weekend was one peddling a product labeled as “scientifically researched based.”  I don’t know what scientifically research is, but I’m guessing that extra “ly” makes the research extra good.)
Here we go again.  We all saw how successful it was to sell vapor and snake oil as SBR in the last decade.  It cost us another generation of students.  It killed a potentially strong program in Reading First and wasted millions (if not billions) of dollars in the process, as we couldn’t distinguish between the real deal and the posers.  
Before we rush to reach for the Common Core label, can we just take a moment to actually digest CCSSI?  Can we let states ID their 15 percent add on?  Can we see how districts apply it to instructional expectations?  Can we see how the assessment consortia begin developing their products?  And can we see, please, if these standards actually move into the classroom or if they just hang out there as a good idea that we agree to, but don’t actually implement?
Of course, there is one difference between SBR and CCSSI.  WIth SBR, the federal government established a new pot of money, $1 billion a year under RF, to help fund the acquisition of those new SBR products and services.  With Common Core, there doesn’t appear to be any new money.  Perhaps, as districts and states are spending their own funds from existing obligations and aren’t playing with house money, that they will scrutinize their purchases a little more, ensuring they are buying the real deal.  
There are some great products and services out there that do match up well with Common Core and can help districts and schools meet their current and future obligations.  But anyone can slap a label on a product.  It is up to educators to discern the strong from the squishy.  
  

We Need a National Curriculum!

First it was common core standards.  Then common core assessments.  Today, the Al Shanker Institute started talking about common core curriculum.  But instead of calling for a true national curriculum, the logical next step in the common core movement, they call for curriculum, defined as a “sequential set of guidelines in the core academic disciplines.”  is it too bold to ask for someone, anyone to come out and call for a national curriculum?

That is the question I explore this week over at the Education Debate, asking about A Common Curriculum?  Check it out.  

Eduflack for Senate?

For the past three years, Eduflack has touted the role the states (and localities) play in true school improvement.  As “interesting” as the federal role is with its carrot/stick approach, the real work is happening at the SEA/LEA level.  That was the case during the NCLB era, and it is certainly the case as we move into the College- and Career-Readiness Act era (OK, we need a catchy acronym for what EdSec Duncan and company are dreaming up for ESEA.)  Real change, real improvement, and real decisions are ultimately found in our state capitals.

This is even true in Eduflack’s home state of Virginia.  This year’s legislative session was an ongoing battle of priority between K-12 education (and to a lesser degree higher ed) and transportation.  Do we focus on roads or schools?  Add in the Old Dominion’s continued refusal to sign onto the Common Core standards, our inability to fund all-day kindergarten, our continued struggle with the role of charter schools in the state, and the highs and lows demonstrated in measures such as Quality Counts, and one can see that Virginia could be ground zero for a statewide effort to improve public education for all students.  Yet Virginia is rarely seen as a “reform” state.  In fact, most advocates and school improvement voices stay away from Virginia, concerned our state is not “open” to the sort of changes necessary to offer a lasting improvement that can narrow the achievement gap and provide real opportunities to students, particularly those from historically disadvantaged groups.
So why the background on Virginia and its commitment (or not) to public education?  Indulge me a little.  Historically, Eduflack likes to stay away from the personal on this blog (with the exception of bragging on my two perfect, incredible children).  I try not to write about my work on my local school board.  I try to stay away from detailing my day job and the organizations I do business with professionally.  Separating that side of Eduflack’s life from the opining and ranting on this platform just seems the prudent thing to do.  But today will be an exception.
On Friday, Eduflack’s state senator announced her retirement, after nearly four decades in public service.  This year, the residents of Arlington, Fairfax, and Falls Church will elect a new state senator to send to Richmond.  And dear ol’ Eduflack, apparently, is on the list of potential candidates to replace her.
Why do I post this here?  Simply as a matter of full disclosure.  The thought of serving in the Virginia State Senate never crossed my mind until I was approached this week.  I’m happy with my life.  I enjoy my work.  I love serving on the school board.  And I treasure every moment I get with my incredible wife and my perfect children.  Why in the world would I want to upset that balance?
At the same time, I can’t shake why I am motivated to do what I do in the first place.  Back in the fall of 2008, when I was bringing my daughter (the future governor of Virginia, and likely the first Latina woman governor of the Commonwealth) home from Guatemala, I wrote on my educational hopes for her and why I’m in this game in the first place.  Nearly two and a half years later, those concerns haven’t lessened.  If anything, they’ve grown stronger.
So those voices in my head ask a very simple question (simple to ask, not to answer).  is it better to focus on the local, ensuring my own children have the very best public education available in the Commonwealth?  Or is it better to fight for those conditions for all kids in Virginia?  And if the latter, can the Virginia State Senate really focus on public education (early childhood, K-12, and higher ed) in the sort of way where those conditions can take hold just as easily in Petersburg as they can in Arlington?
No wrong answers here.  Just pesky voices.

A Tea Party Comes to Education?

Today, the 112th Congress officially takes its seat.  Anyone who watched the November elections realizes that a major change in philosophy takes the gavel in Washington, riding on the momentum of the “Tea Party” movement.

Sure, we pretty much have no idea how that wave is going to affect education policy on Capitol Hill.  During the campaign, those Tea Party candidates spoke little, if at all, about education.  We know they’d prefer to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education, but we really don’t know where they stand on ESEA reauthorization, turnaround schools, charters, and all of the other topics that seem to freeze up the Congress.
But all of the analysis pieces on how the Tea Party movement will affect government in general has Eduflack thinking.  What would happen if we applied the Tea Party philosophy to education?  No, I’m not talking about federal education policy, but rather the K-12 education space in general.  Perhaps it would look a little like this:
Fiscal Responsibility (Funding) — “We are simply paying too much on public education.  The federal government keeps taking more and more from our paychecks to pay for expensive programs like Race to the Top and i3, and the states are taking more and more in property taxes to cover the rest.  We need to be smarter with how we spend our education dollars.  Why is it some of our best school districts can educate kids at $10,000 a head, while our worst-performing districts are spending close to twice that?  It just doesn’t make sense.  We need to get back to basics, focus on the core needs of our kids, and ensure we are receiving return on investment for our education dollars.  It is time to do more with less.”
Limited Government (Control) — “The federal government needs to get out of our classrooms.  No one knows what our kids need best than our local community.  We elect our local school boards to look after our interests.  They know us.  We know them.  And they held accountable for their actions.  The feds care about our money, our localities care about our kids.  We must restore local control to our schools, telling the feds to keep their noses out of how we spend our money, how we teach our kids, how we test our kids, and how we know when we are doing a good job.  Our schools, our rules.”
Free Markets (Choice) — “We need to restore power to individual parents and individual families.  As the individual is the one funding our schools, the individual should have the power to decide how those dollars are spent.  if your neighborhood schools aren’t doing the job, you should have the right to take your child — and your dollars — and go to a school that meets your needs.  Speaking through the pocketbook is the only way to get those broken schools to fix themselves, and it is the only way to ensure our kids get the education they need.  We should not just accept what we have been given.  We need to encourage choice and competition, letting the schools and the teachers who have failed us be cycled out of the system for good.”
Personal Responsibility (Parents) — “For too long we have trusted government to do what is right for our kids.  As a result, our schools are failing and our kids are uncompetitive.  It is time to take that responsibility back.  The US Department of Education isn’t going to fix our schools.  The state isn’t going to fix our schools.  Parents are going to fix our schools.  It is time for all parents to rise up and demand better.  It is time to get in schools, demand answers, and refuse to leave until those answers are put into practice.  These are our schools, and we need to retake ownership of them.”
Maybe it is just me, but aren’t we already sitting down to a tea party in K-12 education?  We are making hard choices, asking our schools to do more with less and questioning high per-pupil expenditures in struggling urban districts.  There is a growing chorus (led by the new chairman of the House Education Committee, John Kline) to restore more local control to education, taking away much of the power shift resulting from NCLB.  We’ve long talked about school choice, with the current turnaround schools effort likely leading to a greater call.  And even President Obama has been talking for the past few years on parental responsibility and how families need to take more active, hands on, and impactful roles if their kids are to be college and career ready.
Is Michelle Rhee’s Students First education’s Tea Party Patriots?  Is 50-CAN or DFER’s “Ticket to Teach” the edu-Tea Party Express?  Only time will tell …