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Beyond a Summative-Only View

On Oct. 16, I participated in the release of a CIE/SCOPE publication, “Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm.” It was an opportunity to lay out a set of principles that we, as authors of the report, feel should undergird new state systems of assessment and accountability. The release was a good opportunity to listen to critics of the new design that we are promoting. Front and center is concern about our proposal for less reliance on summative assessments, to be replaced by more balance between formative and summative.

Our concern is that summative assessments were designed to insure institutional accountability, not to discern individual student status nor as a sole determinate of professional performance. They are not designed to produce the finite data about student learning necessary for the purposes of guiding learning and instruction. We argued that it is possible to create balanced systems that meet both the local need to advance learning and the state need for institutional accountability. We respect individual state decisions about how these systems will be developed; among the options on the table is the design of future summative assessments. States should engage in serious conversations about the nature, design, and purpose of summative assessments. I happen to believe that the questions of how often summatives should be administered, to which students, for what purposes, and how they complement local assessments should be on the table.

I received a number of calls and e-mails proposing that I am putting at risk all we have accomplished by raising these possibilities. These friends feel I am backing away from accountability, that we will free educators to replace objective tests with soft subjective measures, that we cannot trust that teachers have the skill or desire to make judgments.

First, none of the above is my intent. Quite the contrary, I honestly feel we have milked out of summative assessments all the benefits we are capable of ascertaining. Extending their applications will only weaken their credibility. To reach the important aspirations we have set for our students and our educational system will require deep engagement of those in direct contact with students. Yes, we must maintain the state’s appropriate role in ensuring local districts and schools deliver on their compact with us — and their communities to reach the new expectations and to ensure equal outcomes for all students. We need state standardized assessments to validate district- and school-level formative judgments. We must continue to support the recent advancements in both the nature of these assessments and the methodologies they are developing.

And we must expend thought and resources in local formative assessment processes that include state oversight and support. I have seen what can happen when local communities take on the challenge to develop complementary assessments that inform individual student status; track multiple factors influencing learning; provide guidance to professional practice and growth; stimulate conversations across schools, districts, and states about effective practice, and provide direction for continuous improvement. These are the conversations that lead to excellence, and without this ownership we will continue to fall short of the important goal we are seeking.

The report is meant to stimulate conversation, and it is. I, for one, welcome these opportunities to bring into the open our areas of consensus and work toward the resolution of our differences.

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