Jennifer Brown Lerner
This post originally appeared at American Youth Policy Forum on October 31, 2016.
As my own children are feverishly planning which houses to visit tonight, based upon who has given the best Halloween candy in the past, I’ve been thinking a lot about tricks and treats. We don’t often evaluate education policy through this lens, but I think it might be useful, considering the support (or lack of) for competency-based learning under ESSA, the recently passed federal law governing K-12 education. In this post, I will explore two aspects of ESSA, assessment (including the assessment innovation pilot) and accountability, which have been touted as supportive of competency-based learning, but perhaps more like the neighbor who hands out boxes of yogurt-covered raisins, a treat that tricks us into thinking it is healthy.
Under ESSA, states can move away from single, end-of-year exams to assessments which measure demonstration of mastery and integrate many points of learning evidence that produce an annual summative score. I’d file this change squarely in the category of treats in support of competency-based learning.
Yet, it also feels like there are some tricks associated with this one. Pivoting an assessment system from the current model of annual tests is going to be a heavy lift for state agencies, districts, and educators. While end-of-course exams might not be the best mechanism to measure mastery, for better or worse, they are what we know and what we know how to do.
The trick of this treat is the limited investment under ESSA to support educators and school leaders in developing and transitioning to a more robust assessment system. Before you take issue with my point, I recognize there is SOME funding, which is better than nothing. There are still grants to states for the development of assessments with new uses for these funds, but it does not specifically include professional development. Note that under Title II Part A, states can utilize up to 3% of their funds for developing and supporting principals and school leaders with the transition to personalized, student-centered (which could be, but don’t necessarily have to be a competency-based) learning environment. But, in my opinion, this is like getting a single Tootsie Roll that might even fall out of your candy bag.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the Innovative Assessment Pilot, a demonstration program authorized under ESSA to allow a select group of states or consortiums of states (no more than 7) to pilot high-quality, rigorous assessments. Modeled after PACE which New Hampshire received authority to introduce through their NCLB waiver, states would develop and utilize assessments which validate mastery of academic knowledge and competencies through performance tasks.
This might sound like a delectable treat in support of competency-based learning, but hold off on your salivating until after you understand the fine print. States have five years to develop their systems, demonstrate comparability to the current state assessment, and scale the assessment system statewide. Given our track record and attention span in K-12 education for pilots and innovations, I question whether or not this pilot will propel us towards performance-based assessment systems. (more…)