A decade of CSAP testing: Assessing the assessment
If you asked the question: “What one thing has changed public education more than anything else in the last 20 years?” there could only be one answer: The rise of state accountability testing.
Before this seminal development, if you wanted to know how your local schools were performing, only the schools themselves could tell you, and not surprisingly, this involved some risk of bias. The favored method of reporting was the old norm referenced test, which measured children not against what they actually knew or could do, but rather against what a carefully selected group of other children knew or could do.
The result of all this was a hodge-podge of countless different tests, benchmarked against countless different “norms,” which actually allowed a situation (documented by the US Department of Education) where 85 percent of the children in the country were “above the national average.”
All of this changed dramatically when a group of activist Governors – mostly Democrats and led by Roy Romer, Bill Clinton and Jim Hunt ” pushed for and got uniform state testing that allowed every school in the state to be compared with every other school. A further important change was that the new tests weren’t norm-referenced, but criterion-referenced, which meant that kids weren’t measured against other kids, but against an absolute standard of what it was thought they should know, and be able to do.
The first thing the public noticed about the new tests was that the results were much worse. State after state (Colorado, in 1997) went from an era of most kids being “above the national average” to most kids being “below the state standard.”
These adverse results galvanized a generation of elected officials to pass laws aimed at “fixing” what they reasonably viewed as an unacceptable situation.
In Colorado, Gov. Romer signed into law the Accreditation Accountability Act of 1998. Two years later, Bill Owens delivered the School Accountability Reports, and two years after that, the President of the United States topped them all, winning overwhelming passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which based its sharp-edged and intrusive reform measures almost entirely on the new state accountability tests.
As these events unfolded across the country, a new thought entered the conversation around testing: Could these test results, now mostly used to judge and frequently criticize schools, actually be used to help them improve?
The test results contained a wealth of data, if only we could properly master how to organize, analyze, report and store it. When disaggregated by sub-groups, or even down to the individual student level, this data represents invaluable clues as to what components of instruction aren’t working for a particular child, and thus what methods or interventions might be most useful in lifting him or her toward proficiency.
In a recent validation of this direction, Colorado’s General Assembly passed ” by a 99-1 vote ” a joint resolution affirming this longitudinal approach, which has the potential to provide every parent with a progress report regarding their children’s individual achievement growth.
Today, the thoughtful use of CSAP results is transforming the face of Colorado education, as an ever-expanding number of schools and districts are recognizing and utilizing data as an immensely powerful instrument for lifting student achievement. Best of all is the ever-increasing evidence that, with quality instruction, children of poverty and color can soar just as high as their more affluent white counterparts.
In area after area, new and better data, driven by new and better technology, is revealing more accurate pictures of educational realities. Be it data regarding instruction, drop-out/graduation rates, or spending trends, to name but a few, all are driving us down a road toward better accountability and a more responsive system.
Without state accountability tests like CSAP and the industry-wide changes spawned in its wake, little if any of these things would be happening. Still, we are now only beginning to tap the full potential of data technology’s capacity to transform both instruction and accountability.
Progress, while impressive at one level, remains slow and uneven. Technical obstacles and cost factors remain daunting. Yet, that Promised Land is clearly in view, and that sight should energize our determination to get there, as soon as possible.
William J. Moloney is the Colorado Commissioner of Education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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