Theme II: Assessments and Accountability, a Competitive, Punitive System - National Council of Teachers of English
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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.