With states like North Carolina and Florida doing their best to bury public education and dance on its grave, it's nice to see some states can still stand up for their schools.
Earlier this week, the Vermont State Board of Education adopted a statement and resolution on assessment and accountability. It's worth a read, but let me hit the highlights for you.
The Board starts by recognizing that uniform standardized tests can be a useful tool for helping schools chart a path toward successful delivery of well-designed standards. And then comes the pivot-
Despite their value, there are many things tests cannot tell us. Standardized tests like the NECAP and soon, the SBAC, can tell us something about how students are doing in a limited set of narrowly defined subjects overall, as measured at a given time. However, they cannot tell us how to help students do even better. Nor can they adequately capture the strengths of all children, nor the growth that can be ascribed to individual teachers. And under high-stakes conditions, when schools feel extraordinary pressure to raise scores, even rising scores may not be a signal that students are actually learning more. At best, a standardized test is an incomplete picture of learning: without additional measures, a single test is inadequate to capture a years’ worth of learning and growth.
Unfortunately, the way in which standardized tests have been used under federal law as almost the single measure of school quality has resulted in frequent misuse of these instruments across the nation.
In order to avoid that sort of foolishness getting loose in the Green Mountains, the Board lists eight guiding principals for the appropriate use of standardized tests.
1) The proper role of large scale tests must be stated before giving the test, and that use must be demonstrated as scientifically and empirically valid. That includes proof that the test can predict performance on "other indicators we care about, including post-secondary success, graduation rates and future employment." And you can't use the test all by itself-- mix it up with other measures.
2) Public reporting. Schools need to do that, but they need to report a wide variety of indicators that give a full picture of what they're doing.
3) Judicious and proportionate testing. Reduce the amount of time on summative and standardized testing. The feds should back off on multiple subject testing grades 3-8 as well as high school (so, you know, all of it). "Excessive testing diverts resources and time away from learning while providing little additional value for accountability purposes."
4) Test development criteria. Any big standardized test used in Vermont needs to be built in accordance with principles of American Educational Research Association, National Council on Measurements in Education, and the American Psychological Association.
5) Value-added scores. Near as we can tell, these are crap. We will not be using them in Vermont "for any consequential purpose."
6) Mastery level or Cut-off scores. This whole paragraph is pretty awesome.
While the federal government continues to require the use of subjectively determined cut-off score, employing such metrics lacks scientific foundation. The skills needed for success in society are rich and diverse. Consequently, there is no single point on a testing scale that has proven accurate in measuring the success of a school or in measuring the talents of an individual. Claims to the contrary are technically indefensible and their application would be unethical.
7) Use of cut scores and proficiency categories for reporting purposes. The fed since NCLB was born have required this. Here's a list of ways in which it has been documented to create negative effects. We'll keep doing what the letter of the law requires, but it's crap.
8) Just as the state high quality education, the federal, state and local governments must provide adequate resources to get the job done. If you're going to demand a report on the quality of the school's work, demand a report on the sufficiency of the resources provided to the school "in light of the school's unique needs."
These are followed by several whereas's that note that the the nation's have been spending an ever-increasing amount of time and money on testing of a sort and in ways that are known to be No Damn Help to anyone and wrapping up with
WHEREAS, the culture and structure of the systems in which students learn must change in order to foster engaging school experiences that provide joy in learning, depth of thought and breadth of knowledge for students [emphasis mine, because, damn, wouldn't you like to see that in every school's mission statement!]
And then we get the Be It Resolved portion
-- The Secretary of Education should re-examine the accountability system and come up with one that sucks less (I'm paraphrasing)
-- Congress should get off its collective keister and amend the ESEA
-- Other state and national groups should join us in this
I grew up just across the Connecticut River from Vermont, playing in my front yard and looking at the big beautiful mountains, but I have never loved Vermont more than I do reading this resolution. If you see Vermont today, give it a big hug for me. And send Arne Duncan a copy of their resolution. It's true these are just words-- but they are damn fine words.