School Beat: Educational Assessments – Where Are The Parents?

by Bill Ring on February 11, 2010

While California struggles with an overwhelming budget deficit and faces potential lawsuits for inadequately providing for public education, the state, along with 39 other states and the District of Columbia, has submitted an application to the U.S. Department of Education with the hope of qualifying for the so-called Race To The Top program.

This competitive grant process promises to award 4.35 billion dollars to the most successful states or consortia of states. It is estimated that California could receive up to $700 million from this grant, but even among those school districts in the state that signed a memorandum of understanding in support of the state’s application, it is unclear what will be required in order to be successful. Grants will be made in two rounds – the fall of 2009 and spring of 2010. California will learn in April, 2010 if its application qualified.

In these past few months leading up to the awards, the Department has been holding a series of meetings in Washington, D.C. and around the country with the intention of hearing from districts, states and the other so-called “stakeholders” in public schools as to what are the most important considerations in addressing the criteria set by the Department. Here are the key tenets and goals of the Race to the Top program:

• Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;

• Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;

• Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and

• Turning around our lowest-achieving schools.

The most recent of the meetings in Washington, DC, held on January 20, 2010, was called as a “public and expert input meeting” to address the assessment component of Race to the Top. The purpose of the meeting was to hear from technical experts, academics and practitioners on the nuances of student assessments and systems. The feds have set aside up to $350 million of Race to the Top funds to develop more accurate and valuable assessments and systems to support students, teachers, principals and schools and these meetings are ostensibly being used to gather experience and input from the field.

The meeting opened with remarks by Joanne Weiss, Director of the Race to the Top Program (and former Partner and Chief Operating Officer of NewSchools Venture Fund which itself is overseen by CEO Ted Mitchell, President of California’s State Board of Education). Presentations were delivered by Scott Marion (National Center for the Improvement in Educational Assessment), Randy Bennett (Educational Testing Service—ETS, R&D Division), Jeff Nellhaus (Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education), Lizanne DeStefano (University of Illinois, College of Education), Jamal Abedi (University of California Davis School of Education) and Laurie Wise, (Human Resources Research Organization).

There were opportunities for questions to be submitted after each presentation and there were several technical discussions that followed, capped by a conversation among the presenters and Department staff and finally, a chance for members of the public, such as myself, who had pre-registered for the opportunity to speak before the group.

Much of the day’s discussion related to the need for a universal assessment design and modeling. Also addressed was the need for a well-defined theory of action along with suggestions as to how to best utilize the resources being brought to bear for improvement in general and technical assessments under the Race To The Top funding competition. These are not the kinds of topics that are typically shared with parents of public school students yet they should be. That is why I felt it was important to attend this meeting, to bring the voice of parents.

At one point during the discussion, I submitted a question to the group: Is there a role for parents in any of the piloting of the proposed school-based assessment models? Here’s how that went:

Randy Bennett, ETS – “Yeah, I think there certainly is because parents are consumers of assessment results and ideally you would want to design an assessment program that would be capable of giving parents assessment results that they could, number one, understand and number two, have some possibility of doing something with. So I didn’t include parents – and I gave a list of the types of actors that I thought a consortium should make sure to work with in doing innovation. But parents should be among them.”

Lizanne DeStefano, University of Illinois – “ And I think the use of theory of action provides a great role for parents because when you involve parents you have to make sure that you’re putting them in a role where they can be successful and they can be equal players. And I think the use of theory of action is a good niche for parents. And also, the usability testing of reporting and performance descriptors and other information that surrounds testing, certainly involving parents in the testing of that.”

So had I not at least asked the question as to whether parents should be included, an explicit acknowledgement of the importance of parents to the process would likely have been omitted from the day’s discussion and from the record, as well. Not only that, but the responses to my question clearly indicated that no one had been thinking seriously about the role of parents and the contribution they can and should make. Parents are just not part of the equation in these conversations.

In addition to discussions regarding accountability in delivering, analyzing and applying results of student assessments, a part of the meeting was devoted to a discussion of holding high schools accountable for delivering a diverse yet rigorous curriculum. Participants were asked, “If you could wave your magic wand and define the ideal system, what would the pieces, the components, (look like) at a high level and how would you put them together?” Predictably, there was once again no discussion of the role of parents in a system of accountability.

It is clear that if parents are going to have a place at the table in creating assessment mechanisms to be used by states and school districts but also to be of value to us, we’re going to need to carve out that place and make sure that the system is responsive to our needs and the needs of our students. More information on Race To The Top assessments, the schedule of meetings, locations, topics and downloadable transcripts of all public input are available here online.

Bill Ring is Vice-Chair of the LAUSD Parent Collaborative and Director of TransParent®, an advocacy, parent education and leadership development organization. He may be reached at lausdparents@aol.com.

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