Although we educators can complain about the work that has been mandated by the state in so short a period of time — aligning curriculum with the Common Core Standards and the new evaluation system, in particular — such challenges present us with opportunities for raising important clarifying questions.
In this instance, the clarifying question is what should we be assessing when we attempt to measure student growth in learning. This will take some explaining.
The new statewide evaluation system requires that every educator establish one goal based upon improving professional practice and one goal that focuses on student growth. The first goal, the professional practice goal, looks at instruction and the ways educators can better themselves and what they do in the classroom. The second goal, the student growth goal, seeks to identify the impact our instruction has on student achievement, or growth.
A student growth goal calls for comparing all students in a particular grade and subject. For example, how are all fifth-grade students across the district doing in math? Or, how are all Grade 11 students doing when compared with one another in history? In both of these examples, what is needed to make these comparisons are common assessments, assessments that all fifth-grade students have administered to them and similarly, common assessments that all Grade 11 students with similar ability grouping have administered to them.
As part of our implementation of the new evaluation system, we intend to develop such an assessment system across the district.
As we develop those assessments, we will be ensuring that each and every question is properly aligned with the Common Core Standards and/or with the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. In this way, common assessments begin to address how we align our curriculum with the Standards (the first of the two issues mentioned above).
This, then, brings us to the central question at hand:
What is it that we assess in order to measure student growth. How much of it is knowledge and information? And is knowledge and information the measure of student growth? Or, do we measure the way students demonstrate their ability to reason, to think critically, and their ability to show how they understand what they are learning?
I have a memory of when I was a student in a Social Studies class in high school, where the teacher told us that we were going to learn and be tested on “concepts.” You can imagine our confusion when we students were almost exclusively asked questions on a quiz such as what year Florida was purchased by the U.S. from Spain, and who were the two purchasing agents? I cannot imagine how such information would allow us to measure student growth today.
It seems to me that if we are to measure student growth that is meaningful, then we have to establish assessments that not only ask for facts and information, but which call upon students to provide explanations, to analyze situations, and to apply those facts and that information.
We must be able to assess students’ understanding of multiple perspectives and empathy, and we must determine the extent to which students are able to relate what they learn to their own self-knowledge. We need to be able to measure their ability to make inferences and to make evaluations and judgments based upon evidence. And assessments that measure these elements must be age and ability appropriate.
So, as you can see, the mandates that we are faced with today bring us to terms with very important questions and challenges. With respect to assessment, they bring us to the very heart of the matter, namely, what is it we need to measure as growth as we educate each and every child.
And that is the challenge that the district is taking on full force this year as we integrate the Common Core and implement the new Evaluation System.
Richard Safier is superintendent of the Gloucester Public Schools.