The standardized systems and assessment thicket

I’ve been reading Julie Pennington’s The Conquest of Literacy, which is a study derived from the 15 years Pennington worked at an elementary school in Austin, Texas. The elementary school was 93% Hispanic students and about half-and-half Hispanic and white teachers. (Austin, by design, is an immensely racially and economically segregated city.) In the book, Pennington talks about the challenges the school and students faced in trying to maintain a definition of literacy as a communal, social understanding, rather than as a rigid, state-defined phenomenon. Part of that difficulty came from the sheer number of programs, requirements, and assessments that came down from the state. Here’s a list of some of the alphabet soup of acronyms she and her peers had to deal with:

  • the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)
  • the Texas Reading Initiative (TRI)
  • the Reading Excellence Act (REA)
  • No Child Left Behind (NCLB)
  • the Texas Examination of Assessment of Minimal Skills (TEAMS)
  • the Iowa Test of Basic Skills
  • Site Based Decision Making (SBDM)
  • the Early Literacy Inservice Course
  • the Primary Assessment for Language and Math (PALM)
  • the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA)
  • Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS)
  • Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS)
  • the Texas Primary Reading Inventory (TPRI)
  • The Flynt Cooter Informal Reading Inventory

And note that this is all pre – Common Core. Some of these Pennington sees more positively, some less. But what’s clear is that educators and administrators were dealing with an impossibly Byzantine set of guidelines, requirements, goals, and tests. How can organic, adaptable teaching survive in an environment like this? Many of these programs are the product of the George W. Bush gubernatorial administration in Texas, and this vision of education is what Bush tried to make national policy as president.

I’m not opposed to all assessment — assessment of writing is one of my chief research interests, I’m writing a dissertation on a standardized assessment, I’m helping to run an assessment of the introductory composition program at Purdue this fall, etc. But I firmly believe that we can assess effectively with a much lighter footprint than we’re now using. The NAEP is the gold standard of national assessments, and it functions without unduly burdening students or teachers. It’s possible, but it’s only possible through a genuine policy choice, one that is rigorously applied and defended by administrators. We’ve got to allow teachers to dictate their own teaching. Of course, letting teachers determine their own pedagogy can make it harder for private entities to monetize public education….