Our First Person feature spotlights the voices of people on the front lines of the critical education issues facing Colorado. This latest installment is from Eric Mason, director of assessment for Colorado Springs School District 11. If you ‘d like to contribute to First Person, here are the details.
For the last two years I have been the director of assessment for a large district in central Colorado. My first year on the job was a transition year for everyone. Colorado moved from the old testing regime to the online PARCC test.
After I accepted the position, I proudly told friends and acquaintances about my new responsibilities. When I did, I would often get a reaction that went something like this, “Wow. You are a brave man. Why in the world would you take that job?”
Truth is, I love what I do. I love the people I work with. I love the challenge. I annoy people with how much I like to talk about assessment, education, and most especially, civil rights. For me, it isn’t all about the test. It is about equity.
As an assessment director, my primary responsibility is to assure that state testing goes off without a hitch in 60 schools for over 28,000 students.
However, I work in a broken system. The state assessment system in the United States is broken because leaders from every quadrant have failed to ask the most important questions, or if they have, they have failed to listen to the answers.
They see tests as requirements. I don’t. I see them as products. I see those I serve as customers. Frustrated customers who are forced to buy products they are unhappy with. This is why we have opt-outs.
For me, it is summed up by one phone call, from my own daughter.
“Dad,” she asked, “will you opt me out of the PARCC?”
“Are you kidding?” I replied, “I am the assessment director of a district.”
“Yes, but, everyone is opting out. We don’t need this test. The teachers say they won’t even see the scores forever. Plus, it’s stressful. And, for what?”
“It’s the law, honey,” I interrupted. “We need these tests to make sure everyone gets a good education, no matter their background or race.”
“But none of the parents like it,” she said. “It’s not even on what I’ve been taught. It won’t help anyone get to college.”
She did take the test. As a freshman, and then again as a sophomore. But the truth is, she was right about all of it. Parents and students who opt out cite numerous reasons. Stress. Common Core. Uselessness. Data Privacy.
We have arrived here because leaders should have asked what their stakeholders wanted and needed. Instead, tests have just gotten longer and more complex.
Parents want assessments that are relevant to them. Students want assessments that don’t make them feel like the world is on their shoulders. Teachers want assessments that give accurate results quickly. Everyone wants assessments that are shorter.
When I was a kid, I remember my father looking at buying TVs with no remote. Imagine buying a TV today that doesn’t have a remote. As times change, companies improve their products to meet the needs of their customers. However, our leaders have failed to think this way about tests and testing.
Schools still take nearly a week to test. The scores are often doubted by users. This year, Colorado didn’t receive scores back until August. This, despite the fact that online, computer testing was lauded for quicker, more accurate results.
All these criticisms aside, my heart breaks at the current state of affairs. Educational assessment is a civil rights issue. Where I grew up in south Texas, there were still separate schools for immigrants. Today we are still struggling to assure that all students of all backgrounds receive the best education the state can provide.
How do we know if one school is failing students of color? Assessment. How can we better understand the gaps our students have in college or career readiness? Assessment.
But, now, we have families turning their back on standardized testing. Now, even if we build the perfect test, we would still have to regain their trust. But with so many opt-outs, our data has holes in it. How can we trust the results when the picture is incomplete?
This year, nearly 100 schools in Colorado lost a performance rating or more because of opt-outs. Administrators are being forced to determine the impact of instruction in other ways. What does that mean? Another assessment. We hope it will be accurate, meaningful, and short, but it will still be another test.
There is a better way. There are better tests. I believe that with all my heart. Our leaders must commit to getting input from all stakeholders — teachers, students, and parents — to improve the tests and the results.
If we commit to this, and demand better of test-makers like Pearson, ETS, or AIR, we will see opt-outs decrease, and maybe, just maybe, more equity in schools because teachers themselves will embrace the picture these tests paint.
Why in the world did I take this job? I took it because I think this is important. Essential, even. However, the customers have spoken. I hope that those who can make a difference will listen.
About our First Person series:
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.