Quarterly for Education and Technology: Two words are inextricably connected

Two words are inextricably connected – Brief Article

Judith A. Billings

Two words are inextricably connected in today’s education lexicon: accountability and assessment. The combination of concepts drives the system.

As a state superintendent who advocated for standard-setting/assessment legislation, I now seriously question where we are going with a driver that seems drunk with power.

It is not that I dislike having standards to give focus to teachers and students as they pursue active, creative learning. But when a score in the newspaper, a set of percentages of how many students achieved what level of proficiency, seems to be the measure of children and teachers and schools, I think we are stepping backward, not forward. Living in today’s and tomorrow’s world requires a set of skills and understandings that go far beyond a reading, writing, math, or science score.

As I write, we are just concluding the ten days when the WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning;, or “We’re All Stressed Lots,” as it is not so affectionately known) is administered. Parents, educators, and students alike are anxious, cranky, prayerful, optimistic, cynical, fearful, belligerent in random succession. Some kids think they won’t pass if they do a poor job, some parents resent the stress they feel for themselves and their children, and teachers wonder what happens when the accountability hammer falls because scores haven’t improved enough from year to year.

Two groups mildly ecstatic about the current standards/assessment/accountability focus are academic researchers and test and assessment companies. Talk about a bonanza! In the “publish-or-perish” world of higher education, there is a bottomless pit of possibilities for research projects and subsequent articles comparing groups of kids with certain characteristics, schools, states, teaching methods, tests, accountability punishments and rewards–the horn of plenty overfloweth!

And the assessment industry has never been so healthy. New off-the-shelf standardized tests based on state learning standards are being developed, and assessments designed specifically for particular states are another fertile, profitable area. Most of this is still in the developmental, trial-and-error stage in a majority of states, so growth possibilities stretch out to a far horizon.

My bottom-line concern in this frenzy is that we will not only leave behind the students with whom we have traditionally done poorly, but that we will leave them farther and farther behind. To prevent that outcome, we must insist that state and federal policy makers finally listen to the public’s insistence about the critical importance of education and ensuring that every child has an equal opportunity for success. And that doesn’t mean just drilling them for four weeks before an assessment. Washington state’s constitution reads: “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders …” Not a bad national mission.

Judith A. Billings Executive Director Washington Council, Economics America

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