Five Takeaways

By: Marie LaCassa, middle school math and AVID teacher at Portola Middle School in Orange, California.

Reprinted with permission from the Center for Teaching Quality, home to the Collaboratory, a virtual community for all who value teacher leadership. Read the original piece here

Earlier this month, I attended the 2014 EdSource symposium, an event drawing some of the biggest names in education to discuss “Testing Students and Evaluating Schools in the Age of the Common Core.” Much of the discussion revolved around professional development and the field tests for California’s statewide assessments, also known as Smarter Balanced.

While most of the attendees were California teachers and educators, I think many of these takeaways are relevant to educators in other states as well.

My Top 5 Takeaways

1. “Trust the teacher standing in front of your children.” – David Rattray, Senior Vice President of Education & Workforce Development, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce

There are a number of reasons why this is good advice. Teachers spend hours each day with our students. We know their strengths and what areas need improvement. Teachers are constantly learning and working to develop better practices, differentiate instruction, and analyze assessments. We have tried a hundred different ways to present information to students—and we know that what works for some students will not work for all.

Teachers should be front and center when it comes to test creation, implementation, and scoring. We are the pilots of the plane that policymakers are building, and we should have control of the flight plan. The American public trusts us—and so should leaders at the district and state level.

2. “Teachers need degrees of autonomy from the hierarchy, but not from one another.” – Michael Fullan, author and systems change expert

Collaboration is the key to success when it comes to the Common Core State Standards. Linda Darling-Hammond noted that teachers in the U.S. teach twice the number of hours per week as do teachers in other countries, who have time to work together to improve their practice. I love thinking about what American teachers could do with more non-instructional time: collaborating with colleagues within and outside of our districts, engaging parents, and designing challenging assessments that are better aligned with the CCSS.

3. “The SBAC is sexy but doesn’t promote effective instruction.” – Robin Avelar La Salle, CEO, The Principal’s Exchange Foundation

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium only measures a small facet of what the Common Core is all about, as Linda Darling-Hammond noted. The SBAC doesn’t evaluate students’ ability to think critically or work on a team. It also doesn’t measure how college or career ready a student is for life after high school.

The SBAC is just a small piece of the CCSS puzzle. Teachers are leaders for positive change in instruction, but we need formal opportunities to lead the broader system of assessment. If we want students to take ownership of their learning, teachers must be given the time and professional development necessary to develop long-term, project-based performance tasks that truly measure college and career readiness.

The idea of taking an online high-stakes test is appealing—to those who believe that a computer test with open-ended questions is the be all and end all of assessment. Yes, we should be requiring higher-level thinking from our students, and, more importantly, letting students take ownership of their own learning. The SBAC is a step in the right direction compared to older tests. But it’s not enough, and it’s no silver bullet.

4. “Embrace the ambient ambiguity.” – Michael Fullan

We’re on a promising journey, even if the destination is not yet clear. Implementing these standards throughout our schools is an exciting challenge for teachers, students, administrators, and parents. As teachers, we need to embrace change and implement “Common Core-y” strategies (as Robin Avelar La Salle put it) in every class. While a Core-aligned system of teaching and learning is not yet in place, we can still see that our students are growing and learning as we focus on these rigorous standards. And without the pressure of standardized testing this year or next, let’s enjoy the journey—while continuing to make sure that those outside the classroom are informed by what we know.

5. “How about a dashboard of student achievement?” – Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education and Faculty Director, Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education

For more than a decade, school quality in California has been linked to Achievement Performance Index (API) scores: a single measure based on standardized assessment results. But think about this: Ontario uses 15 indicators to assess school quality, of which test scores are but a single measure. If multiple measures can be used to assess school quality, we ought to expect similar efforts to gauge teacher effectiveness as well as student college and career readiness.

We need to ask questions that press on the idea of tests as single indicators: How will the data from the SBAC be used, now and in the future? What is the purpose of gathering ELA and math proficiency data on every third through eighth grader in the state? Wouldn’t a smaller sample size allow us to spend more money on higher quality assessments?

I left the symposium with a feeling of excitement for what is to come, a sense of confusion about the unknown, and a passion greater than ever for education. While teachers do not yet know what the future of assessment systems holds, I will continue to work towards shaping my students’ ability to communicate, think critically, be creative, and collaborate.