The Journal Gazette
Saturday, March 12, 2016 10:09 pm

A complex issue, simplified

Phil Downs

The major problem of the current model of assessing students and schools is not tests; it is the misuse of tests.

Children are complex. The situations children live in are complex. The skills and knowledge students need to master are complex. The desires of children and their families are complex. The needs of a community are complex. You are complex. I am complex. Life is complex.

Elegant simplicity in design is something to which all engineers aspire. People admire the simple and effective over the complex and unwieldy. The iPod and iTunes are great, the Zune and MSN Music weren’t.

There is a point at which simplicity is neither elegant nor effective; it is just simple. Simple is often inadequate and just plain bad. In trying for simplicity, No Child Left Behind forced schools to use tests for purposes for which they were never designed, ignored complexity and ended up with simple.

Those who have backed tough accountability measures argue tests are an easy way to measure student achievement, student growth and teacher performance. "Why can’t there just be one grade for a school? People would understand that." Their arguments are simple and seductive. They sound elegant and reasonable.

However, when confronted by the complexity of the world, the accountability systems developed have proven to be inadequate and just plain bad. The high stakes attached to them have necessitated an ever-increasing amount of security, stress and cost. While the argument "it’s just not that simple" might sound obstructionist or even whiny, that doesn’t make it any less true. What sounded simple has become an expensive, highly complex house of cards.

Any minimal research into the history of standardized tests reveals the dangers of placing too much value on them and the difficulty in trying to simplify the complex. Anya Kamenentz’s bestseller, "The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be," has a very accessible summary of this history.

In spite of what some say, an exit test near the end of high school does not cause some students to succeed nor does it guarantee they will go to jail. However, a large number of those test scores can give us information to help answer how well the school system as a whole is working and where it can improve. Just as a batting average gives you an idea of a baseball player’s career, it cannot predict the result of any one at bat. None but the most aggressive gamblers would place a large wager on any single at bat. Why do we ask students, parents and teachers to wager on one at bat?

With the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces No Child Left Behind, Indiana has an opportunity to develop a system of continuous improvement for its schools that also lets parents, taxpayers and businesses know how schools are performing. This system must account for our complexity, and in order to do that, the system:

• should identify who should hold schools accountable and how;

• must be focused on continuous improvement, not punishment, as well as use multiple measures of performance;

• should broaden the view of education beyond tested subjects to "21st century skills" such as communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking;

• must provide ways for parents, students, teachers and businesses to provide feedback to schools on research-based factors of successful schools; and 

• must ask all schools, especially in the lowest 5 percent of performance, to measure how well they are removing barriers to education and re-engaging disconnected students, particularly though community partnerships.

A group of trusted, expert practitioners should be at the center of designing such a system, and those creating the system must work diligently to de-politicize the education of children.

There is a movement in the Statehouse led by Sen. David Long to study a move to a system that honors the complexity of children, their education and their communities. I applaud this and ask you to as well.

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