As school districts across the nation head back to school, stakeholders like district and state officials, school administrators, teachers, parents, and students undoubtedly have many questions. One such question from educators specifically is, “How and in what ways will I be held accountable?” In a year where COVID-19 has only exacerbated headwinds, many barriers exist for all stakeholders, especially students and parents.
As a former educator of 8 years and a current data professional, I live in the grey area around empathy and analytics. I know what it’s like to work with students and families, and I even have some experience in virtual/remote teaching from my time as a Personalized Learning and STEM educator. And as an educator, I always appreciated data. It gave me clarity on my students’ individual goals, our classroom’s goals, and the school’s goals. Data paved the way for me to provide differentiated instruction so students could succeed.
But wait, succeed how? Even before the pandemic, I always felt uncomfortable that excelling in my career, and helping my students to excel in their K-12 educational journey, meant I needed my students to perform well on standardized tests. I understand that students must show academic readiness, but there are barriers to educational access that are not distributed equally, and which show themselves clearly come testing time.
Take my home state of Texas, where students underperform national averages and meet college readiness benchmarks less frequently, with large achievement gaps between race, income, and language populations. While 56% of White students are considered college-ready graduates, only 34% of Latinx students and 28% of Black or African American students show the same level of readiness.
These gaps start early, and we’ve all seen the media outlets describing how COVID has affected communities of color and low income communities the most. (To be clear, I am not saying those two communities are one in the same.)
Assuming that trend is true, how do we equitably hold students (and really, all stakeholders) accountable? What does it mean to hold someone “accountable” in the American education landscape? Accountability metrics can determine a school districts’ and schools’ funding, their local and state rankings, the type of talent they attract, and most importantly, the quality of the services a school provides to its community.
If testing is the answer, why paper-based tests that don’t fit our current technological landscape? Why not have K-12 tests be similar to some college assessment exams, like the GMAT for business schools, which is adaptive and changes based on the user’s answers? Or why not a test that meets each of its individual students’ levels?
Source: Learning Policy Institute
And yes, I know MAP testing (through NWEA) is a common tool employed by districts and schools alike. I used it for six years across elementary and middle school. I’m in favor of MAP testing but using it to inform teacher evaluations, rate schools and districts, and potentially alter funding appropriations, may be a stretch. In fact, NWEA themselves published a guide urging caution on the use of test results in teacher evaluations. I’m not advocating for MAP testing specifically, nor am I saying it’s the silver bullet. But couldn’t states start to consider adapting assessments and diversifying what’s measured and how it’s measured?
One such example was a computer adaptive assessment I gave to my students when I taught in California. They completed a multistep problem task, where each student was given a scenario and asked how they would react or ‘roleplay’ in the scenario using mathematics and science. For instance, one such simulation was that students were stranded in the wilderness and had a limited amount of rations. Students had to use Algebraic thinking and apply their understanding of systems of equations to portion out their rations based on the number of calories they needed each day for the given amount of time to survive.
Now, this example may not be the most culturally appropriate for all students. But that’s when a good educator adjusts based on their audience and what they know about their student’s lived experience. Assuming an educator has rooted out hidden bias, this could be a great way to incorporate our students into our assessments.
So, back to COVID-19, assessments, and accountability. Should we hold education professionals, institutions, and students accountable in the same way now as we did before the pandemic? How about we ask them and use their input to redesign what learning and assessments look like in a time of a global and national health crisis? Why not incorporate the needs of the workforce and what the community values when designing assessments? Why can’t assessments resemble performance tasks for job interviews?
After all, a paper-based standardized assessment didn’t help me in my education nor did it make me better at (any of) my jobs. Project-based learning assessments that are created to meet the needs of each student, are culturally responsive, and are designed to equitably measure students’ growth, combined with the possibility of virtual adaptive assessments, should be considered in a time when there’s no excuse not to innovate.
What will we do with the data? That’s an op-ed for another time.
Vladimir Dinolov is a STEM Master Teacher and Data Scientist tackling complex problems in public education and the education technology industry. Vladimir currently builds critical data infrastructure and manages Marketing Analytics at SAM Labs. When he’s not tinkering with data, he enjoys spending time with his family, dogs, and exploring new music.