All posts by Darren Cambridge

Form Doesn’t Mean Formulaic: Finding Creative Approaches to ESSA Assessment Plan Design

ESSA Fordham blogI was always a free-verse guy back when I was serious about writing poetry. In creative writing classes, however, my teachers challenged me to express myself with the rules of forms—the villanelle, the sestina—that I would not have chosen on my own. This imposition of structure, even when it felt arbitrary, often forced me to be creative in new ways, to consider economy, focus, and balance in ways that enriched my less-constrained compositions.

The recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) offers states a great deal more flexibility in designing assessment systems than they had under No Child Left Behind and the waiver system it spawned. States will now be genuine authors of their plans to assess student learning and diagnose inequities in outcomes for the first time in over a decade. But the law does impose a form on those plans, prescribing a set of components and characteristics that each system must include. For example, school rankings must consider not only still-mandatory yearly test results aligned with state standards but also a “school quality” indicator, such as a measure of school climate or student engagement. Those of us who might prefer free-verse assessment are out of luck.

In the debate over the bill, there was much disagreement about whether these requirements were the right ones or, indeed, if the federal government ought to be setting requirements at all. This debate will certainly continue, but the immediate challenge for states and districts is to craft assessment plans that best serve their students within the rules set by the law. As this process unfolds, states could look for the paths of least resistance to comply with the law, an approach that was common under the waivers system. Alternatively, like poets writing within a form, they could use the constraints within the law to generate creative approaches that might significantly improve on the status quo.

A recent ESSA assessment design competition hosted by the Thomas D. Fordham Institute in Washington gives me hope the second approach will prevail. Loosely modeled on American Idol, the competition included ten finalists who gave brief presentations about possible designs for state assessment systems within the rules of ESSA. A panel of judges asked questions, and then both judges and audience members voted on how well they liked the proposed system. In the spirit of ESSA itself, which assumes that different approaches will work best for different states, there was no winner declared.

Like the judges, I didn’t find any one of the proposals a perfect solution. However, I was impressed by the thoughtfulness and creativity of many of the entries. Those imagining a more effective assessment system to increase equity seem to have benefited from having to work within the rules of the law.

Proposals included intriguing ideas that go well beyond path-of-least-resistance compliance. Here are some examples:

  • Sherman Dorn of Arizona State University proposed a citizen “grand jury” structure for determining which schools are in need of improvement, juxtaposed against the prevailing “algorithmic” systems that use a rigid quantitative formula for identifying underperforming schools.
  • The BE Foundation proposed the use of student digital portfolios to track student success and school quality, representing learning both in and out of school indexed to competencies and providing information relevant to students, parents, and community stakeholders.
  • Bellwether Education Partners’ proposal suggested that should states over-identify schools in need of improvement based on the blunt instruments of student achievement and growth measures and then choose the schools in which to trigger intervention based on a rigorous inspection process conducted by outside experts.
  • Separate proposals from America Succeeds and Education First both argued for allowing districts some choice of indicators within a larger state-set framework to encourage innovation and improvement in areas targeted by the local community.
  • A thoroughly impressive group of high school students from Kentucky who serve on the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team argued for measuring school climate based on student surveys, an idea echoed in proposals from the University of Southern California and TeachPlus.
  • Several proposals considered incorporation of measures of social-emotional competencies, such as persistence and relationship skills.

Not all these ideas are likely to be good ones. For example, as Bill Penuel of the University of Colorado at Boulder pointed out during the lively Twitter conversation during the competition, using existing noncognitive measures in high-stakes assessments runs into potentially serious problems of validity and gaming the system. However, these proposals do demonstrate that even within the form set by ESSA, there are opportunities to innovate in ways that have the potential to provide better information to states, districts, school, teachers, and parents about how to better prepare students for successful and happy lives. Let’s work to ensure states capitalize on the opportunity.






ESSA Passes, Our Work Begins

capitol buildingThis week Congress voted to pass, and President Obama signed, the most far-reaching federal education bill in almost fifteen years. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) reauthorizes the Elementary and Second Education Act 50 years after its enactment and represents a genuine compromise within a deeply divided Congress. As with all compromises, it is far from perfect, but it has the potential to help teachers and their allies meaningfully improve on the current state of affairs.

Several provisions of the legislation have the potential to help improve the conditions for literacy education for all learners:

  • ESSA authorizes the Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) program that NCTE worked with our allies in Congress to develop. It provides dedicated funding for comprehensive literacy education across all grade levels and subject areas.
  • ESSA explicitly allows for investment of funds in several types of professional learning and collaboration activities that are strongly aligned with the collective inquiry approach to capacity building to strengthen literacy learning.
  • ESSA includes a more progressive definition of professional development than is found in any previous federal law. It also aligns with the collective capacity-building vision to which NCTE is committed.

There are also elements of the legislation that are likely to be counterproductive:

  • Like No Child Left Behind, ESSA requires states to adopt academic standards, mandates yearly testing, and requires the results to be taken into account in states’ accountability systems. However, it gives states considerably more flexibility in the design and implementation of these systems, allowing for inclusion of multiple measures, and significantly reduces the Secretary of Education’s authority to influence states’ decisions.
  • It authorizes the creation of “teacher preparation academies,” which would allow individuals to be certified to teach without completing an accredited educator preparation program and requires states accepting funds for this purpose to allow academy students to serve as teachers of record prior to completion of their training.
  • It includes increased funding to incentivize states to develop workforce management systems that include performance pay tied to student test scores.

ESSA authorizes programs, but it does not fund them. In order for them to be implemented, Congress must appropriate funding. So, one crucial next challenge is to urge Congress to fund at high levels the programs that serve the literacy learning of our students and to convince them to minimize funding for those that do not.


Theme IV: Diversifying through Professionalization

Early Childhood
Lily Jimenez, Early Childhood

Last month, 24 teachers and school leaders, mostly NCTE members and ranging from early childhood educators to high school technology coaches, gathered at NCTE Headquarters in Urbana, Illinois to share their concerns. They were joined by one of the US Department of Education’s Teacher Ambassadors, Matt Presser, a literacy instructional coach from New Haven, Connecticut, who was in town as part of the Secretary of Education’s annual Back-to-School Bus Tour. (See the third blog,  Barriers to Innovation and Improvement. )

Many of the schools in the communities the teachers serve have a majority of students of color and large numbers of students for whom English is not their native language. In contrast, the vast majority of educators in these schools are white. Many of the teachers pointed to a need to develop an educational workforce that better reflects the makeup of the students it serves.

Laura Koritz, High School Teacher

Students share this concern. In Laura Koritz’ social justice class at Urbana High School, students researched the lack of teacher diversity. Because most teachers in the district were trained at the University of Illinois, the students examined the demographics of students within the teacher education program there and found the same lack of diversity they observed in their school. Noting that many students in the program came from the region, they surveyed their peers, asking them if they were interested in becoming teachers and coming back to their hometown to teach, and, if not, why not.

Most of the students who expressed such an interest looked like the existing staff of the school. Students who could contribute to diversifying it explained their reluctance to embark on a career in education by citing many of the same issues teachers highlighted throughout the night: a punitive, test-driven environment, scarcity of resources, low pay, and lack of respect.

NCTE recognizes that the educator workforce does not reflect the diversity of students they are teaching today, as reflected in its resolution “to expand its efforts to recruit, guide, and retain ethnically and culturally diverse group members, for example, Hispanic, African American, Asian American, and American Indian, who might enter the English language arts teaching profession.” Other NCTE position statements demonstrate the organization’s resolve to recognize students’ right to their own language, assign diverse literature and respect all students, no matter their background.

Rebecca Ramey, Elementary EBD Coordinator
Rebecca Ramey, Elementary EBD Coordinator

One of the ways NCTE is working to improve the professional environment for all teachers and to ensure that all students, particularly those in groups that have been historically underserved, are taught be excellent teachers is through its participation in the Coalition for Teaching Quality. NCTE is working with Coalition members from over 100 other educational organizations across the United States to develop and put into practice a Profession Ready Framework. The Framework charts a path for teacher and principal growth throughout their careers, beginning with recruitment and training, proceeding through induction into professional community as practicing educators, and proceeding to demonstration of mastery (such as through National Board Certification) and substantive opportunities for leadership.

The teachers who assembled at NCTE’s Urbana office, on their own time and at relatively short notice, made a powerful statement about how we ought to transform educational policy to better support literacy learning. Not only will the Teacher Ambassador carry that message back to Washington, but NCTE staff and members will do so throughout the year.






Theme III: Barriers to Innovation and Improvement

Educators gathering at NCTE with Teacher Ambassador Matt Presser
Educators gathering at NCTE with Teacher Ambassador Matt Presser

Last month, 24 teachers and school leaders, mostly NCTE members and ranging from early childhood educators to high school technology coaches, gathered at NCTE Headquarters in Urbana, Illinois to share their concerns. They were joined by one of the US Department of Education’s Teacher Ambassadors, Matt Presser, a literacy instructional coach from New Haven, Connecticut, who was in town as part of the Secretary of Education’s annual Back-to-School Bus Tour. (See the second blog,  Teachers and Assessments and Accountability.)

 A tragic consequence of this punitive, competitive, test-driven education policy environment is that it both discourages and distorts innovation. Real change takes time, perhaps five to seven years, longer than any political cycle. Genuine innovation may lead to test scores going down before they go up, which the current system will see as a sign of incompetence.

Matt Stark, High School Principal

Matt Stark, principal of Urbana High School, argued that policymakers mistakenly think about education as a production model, rather than as a Research & Development model. The goal shouldn’t be to produce identical, flawless students. Rather, innovation—both in educational practice and through students’ actions in the world after they graduate—comes from differences and experiments, both successes and failures.

Bus Tour at NCTE-1812
Jill Quisenberry, First Grade Teacher

Jill Quisenberry, a first-grade teacher at Wiley Elementary School, Urbana, commented that when policy makers do celebrate innovation, they often confuse genuine ingenuity with compelling everyone to embrace the “next big thing.” Rather than digging into the real issues, we “cut ribbons and throw confetti.” Echoing a point made by scholars such as Louis M. Gomez, Quisenberry commented that the form of innovation most likely to make a meaningful difference may look closer to the less sexy “improvement,” in which expert teachers and school leaders work together over time to get better and better at practices and tools they have evidence are working.

Innovation in any form is impeded when resources are limited and collaboration is difficult. The combination of funding cuts and competitive distributions of what funding remains means that school leaders have to make untenable choices between, for example, lower class sizes in kindergarten and staff support for technology integration. When innovations are developed in this challenging environment, there are few opportunities to share them across districts. In fact, most of the teachers reported not even having the opportunity to visit each others’ classrooms within their own schools.

NCTE believes that the best way to support innovation and improvement is through collective capacity building, Much of our federal policy work over the last decade has focused on establishing federal formula funding for comprehensive literacy education, encouraging the use of effective practices through inquiry-based collaboration of teams of educators across grade levels and subjects. The LEARN Act—which NCTE helped write, and portions of which are included in the ESEA reauthorization bill passed overwhelmingly by the Senate earlier this year—codifies this approach.

In its 2015 Education Policy Platform, NCTE writes, “As a society we share collective responsibility for building the capacity of all those involved in improving the conditions for literacy learning. Instead of pointing a finger and placing blame, our focus should be on creating informed and knowledgeable stakeholders who are responsible for optimal learning environments for all students, including legislators, school board members, administrators, teacher educators, teachers, and parents.”

It is time we all work together to create an environment in which our students learn and thrive.



Theme II: Assessments and Accountability, a Competitive, Punitive System

Alex Valencic, 4th grade teacher

Last month, 24 teachers and school leaders, mostly NCTE members and ranging from early childhood educators to high school technology coaches, gathered at NCTE Headquarters in Urbana, Illinois to share their concerns. They were joined by one of the US Department of Education’s Teacher Ambassadors, Matt Presser, a literacy instructional coach from New Haven, Connecticut, who was in town as part of the Secretary of Education’s annual Back-to-School Bus Tour. (See my previous blog, Bringing Washington to the Teachers.)

Tara Olsen
Tara Olsen, Elementary Instructional Coach

 The conversation began with teachers from all levels expressing concerns about the way that assessments are being used for accountability purposes. Too much time is being spent on testing, with results slow to arrive and of little practical use in improving instruction. When new tests are added, old ones often don’t go away. For example, educator Scott Filkins, English teacher, Champaign Central High School, noted that improving ACT scores at the high school level is still stressed in Illinois despite the addition of the PARC assessment, yet ACT and PARC value writing in differing ways. So teachers feel pressured not only to teach writing to the test, but to teach to two different tests. Many of the teachers felt that they had to “play the game” rather than “do what’s right for kids,” amounting to “educational malpractice.”

These teachers certainly aren’t opposed to assessment. Formative assessment is integral to their practice. However, they diagnosed the model of assessment being imposed upon them and their students as a symptom of a larger disease, a punitive and competitive model of education fundamentally incompatible with teaching as a profession. Schemes that judge schools and teachers purely on the basis of a single test score demonstrate a lack of trust in teachers to use their professional expertise to develop curriculum and choose instructional strategies that best support students’ learning. Funding educational programs through competitive grants rather than according to equitable formulas leaves many schools without the resources they need to innovate and improve.

NCTE has a number of position statements on assessment. They range in topic from machine scoring to formative assessment that truly informs instruction. NCTE has issued standards for the assessment of reading and writing at the K-12 level and a white paper on writing assessment in higher education.

NCTE is working on several fronts to capitalize on opportunities to improve assessment and to address the underlying issues of harmful competition and de-professionalization (which I’ll address in a later blog.) NCTE’s Assessment Story Project is collecting and analyzing the actual experiences of teachers across the country with assessment, surfacing both challenges requiring innovative policy solutions and powerful practices developed by educators at the local level.

During Connected Educator Month in October, NCTE is leading the Innovations in Assessment theme to help showcase assessment practices that truly support powerful literacy learning. NCTE is issuing a challenge during the month for participants to envision a transformed accountability system that addresses the crucial need to identify inequities across schools, districts, and student subgroups while also aligning with the practice of expert teachers. This dialogue will begin in October but continue throughout the year.