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Can We Bridge the Divide Between Accountability and Learning?

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The recent award of $330 million in federal funding to two large coalitions for the design of next generation assessment systems aligned to the Common Core State Standards brought a fractious debate back into the spotlight. Many educators get "hot under the collar" when they think of assessments, due in part to their association with the external standardized tests made famous by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Regardless of the heated discourse on standardized testing, there seems to be an agreement that timely and formative assessment plays an integral and essential role in teaching and learning. Ask anyone about a very positive and successful learning experience they've had in- or out-of-school, and you'll hear a story about getting truly helpful feedback on performance that enabled deeper understanding, improved skills, and strengthened the person's confidence and self-esteem. That is, assessment done right.

There is a fundamental tension between the two purposes of assessment: assessment for accountability and assessment for learning. Assessment for accountability has been imposed on schools and teachers by external stakeholders who need to understand educational outcomes. Assessment for learning is recognized as the best practice for effective teaching and learning. Finding strategies that align these purposes will move us away from the debate and towards quality instruction and public accountability which will increase the needed public support for education.

Assessment for purposes of accountability is not a bad thing, and it's not going to go away just because some educators are unhappy about how it has been implemented in the past. For better or worse, preparing students for college and career readiness is no longer just a nice thing to do for those who see personal benefit in it; preparing all students for college and career is a social and economic necessity for which schools, and especially public schools, will be held accountable.

So what do we do? How do we find the happy medium of meeting accountability and learning needs? The solution is to more systematically utilize formative assessment, assessments that give teachers an understanding of what students are learning in a way that allows them to modify their practice, while intentionally including key learning outcomes that are of interest both to teachers as well as external stakeholders.

If next generation assessment systems are to get it right, they must directly support schools and classrooms by helping teachers engage, motivate and improve student learning.

For the past two years, the National Academy Foundation (NAF) has partnered with WestEd, the educational research, development, and service agency recently named, "Project Management Partner" for the 31-state SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, to develop a comprehensive student assessment and certification system for NAF's career academies. The system includes a multi-method approach to assessing a broad range of content and skills that allow students to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways, while at the same time employing rigorous high-stakes assessment practices to ensure a valid and reliable certification assessment. The certification assessment combines classroom-embedded, performance-based tasks with multiple-choice and constructed-response assessments. NAF and WestEd began field-testing the assessments in NAF academies last year and will continue through to the next year. Initial responses from teachers have been positive.

"We're already seeing the results from NAF's new assessment system. By allowing students to construct their responses, the assessments make them think, and we can tell whether they really understand the concepts," said Wayne Clemons, a teacher at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The new certification assessment does not burden teachers or students with excessive additional requirements. The NAF curriculum is built around project-based learning and other active learning strategies, thus formative assessment occurs naturally, but unevenly. To ensure all students benefit and that assessment data is fully leveraged for program improvement and accountability purposes, systematic extensions and documentation are necessary.

As we build out our comprehensive assessment and certification system to include more systematic formative assessment, we expect pushback. After all, effective teaching and learning are hard work, for both teachers and students. Bottom line, we must develop more creative ways to use technology for more systematic formative assessment to produce better results with less effort. Change from within -- easier said than done, but totally worth the effort.