Beyond the Test: A Kentucky Experiment

Over at Tennessee Education Report there’s an article featuring highlights from a piece written by teacher Ezra Howard in Bluff City Ed. Howard notes that the current model of testing doesn’t work well for many students and argues for a move to a portfolio-based model of assessment.

Now, there’s this piece at NPR noting that in one school district in Kentucky, schools are moving toward a form of portfolio assessment.  Early results show this method of assessment holds some promise.

Here are the highlights from the NPR story:

Kentucky was the first state in the nation to adopt the Common Core and the tests that align with it. This spring, the 1,700-student Danville district thinks it’s found a better way to teach the Core.

Danville has moved to performance-based assessments.  And at one middle school, here’s what that looks like:

The entire curriculum at this school has been redesigned around interdisciplinary projects, which take several weeks to complete. The English and social studies seventh-grade PBATs were group projects that took place in the fall.

One by one, the students stand and give a 20-minute solo presentation with a PowerPoint or video. Separately, they’ve handed in 15-page research papers. They’re giving these presentations to panels of judges made up of teachers from other grades or the high school, officials from a neighboring district, education students from the University of Kentucky, and fellow students.

I watch as student after student confidently answers questions about the steps of the scientific method, experimental design, math concepts like mean and median, and, most impressively, how the project relates to his or her life. And they listen respectfully to each other, giving helpful feedback.

Most projects are graded “outstanding” or “competent.” A few are judged “needs revision,” which means the students will keep working on them until they pass muster.

Better than the PARCC?

What makes the Danville experiment particularly noteworthy is that Kentucky was out ahead of the nation on adoption of the Common Core State Standards for English and math. Swann believes the standards are worthwhile, but thinks schools can do better than the tests that go with them. Though the new Common Core tests have been touted as improvements over what they replaced, she says they are really “the same old multiple choice,” and adds, “I feel like on a standardized test you’re really showing what kids don’t know.”

If performance-based assessment is so good, why keep standardized tests?

Of course, there are reasons U.S. schools have gravitated toward standardized tests instead. They’re (relatively) cheap, easily administered, and they carry the promise of some kind of “objective” measure. In other words, they’re “standardized.”

Growing Support?

The chief state school officers in Kentucky and eight other states have formed a group known as the Innovation Lab Network. These states have adopted performance-based learning as one of their “critical attributes” for a successful school. (The other states are California, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, West Virginia and Wisconsin.)

Several of these states are moving to include a performance-assessment option in public schools. Vermont is taking similar steps, and there is a New England Secondary School Consortium of 400 high schools using it as well.

In other words, a state can have both Common Core State Standards AND “authentic assessment.”

And while for now, the kids in Danville still use the state test as well, there’s a move in the legislature to allow exemptions for districts that implement performance-based testing.

Moving toward a hybrid model, where performance-based assessment becomes the primary means of assessment and standardized tests are used at key checkpoints in a child’s educational career, could be the educational wave of the future.

Yes, there are costs associated with administering and grading these assessments.  And they don’t easily fit into existing statistical “growth models” for teacher evaluation. But, shifting toward performance-based testing could facilitate a shift in the way teachers are evaluated — where teachers are assessed based on the actual, demonstrated growth of the students they actually teach.

Much is said in the world of education policy about the importance of putting students first and not doing what is convenient or expedient for adults. Performance-based assessment is student-focused and sets a high standard for teachers and school leaders. As Kentucky continues its exploration of this model, surely there are lessons that can be applied across the country.

For more on Kentucky education politics and policy, follow @KYEdReport

10 thoughts on “Beyond the Test: A Kentucky Experiment

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