I realized very early in my career that the law of the lever, as explained by Archimedes in some variation of the quote above, was critical to my success. In short, there was little that I could do on my own as an assessment specialist, or psychometrician, to improve education; but working in concert with the right lever, we could move the world. My task, therefore, was to identify and associate with those levers.
In large-scale assessment that lever most often is a state policymaker; that is, a deputy commissioner, commissioner, board member, or governor. I left state assessment directors off of this list, because in many ways they are in the same position as I am. Without a policymaker as a lever, there is little that an assessment director can do. And there is no need to explain why federal education officials are never the appropriate lever.
[Aside: From my perspective as an assessment specialist, I see policymakers as my lever. From their perspective, I may be their lever. That is not really important. What matters is the understanding that we need each other. I may need them more than they need me, but we do need each other.]
Like operating a simple lever, the process of working with a policymaker is quite straightforward. Begin with a policymaker who has a clear vision of what she or he wants to accomplish and a sense that assessment can help. From that starting point, identify ways in which assessment can be used to support or advance the policymaker’s goals. Working together, determine what type of assessment is needed and how best to convey information from the assessment. Understand what the policymaker would like to say (or needs to say) and work together to figure out a way to help her or him say it in their own voice. Equally important, help them understand what the assessment cannot do and what they should not say.
When it all comes together just right, it’s a beautiful thing. Over the course of my career, I have been fortunate to be associated with several policymakers and assessment programs where things did come together quite well.
Of course, the pieces do not always come together exactly as you hoped. Perhaps there are too many constraints (cost, time, capacity) to design and develop the assessment that is needed. Perhaps the education leadership, governor, and legislature are not on the same page. Perhaps other goals are higher on the policymaker’s priority list. Or perhaps things came together for one brief, shining moment, but could not be sustained.
It is in such less than ideal situations that working with the right levers becomes even more important. With the right partners, you are often able to adapt, work through the issues, and make the best of the situation; sometimes just treading water until the context changes. Without the right partners in place, however, oh you’ve got trouble. There is little that an assessment specialist can do – the assessment program flounders and the state moves on to another assessment program.
What about assessment in the classroom?
The importance of having the right partners is easy to see with regard to large-scale assessment. Ideally, the assessment specialist and policymaker are working side-by-side to implement and maintain the assessment program. That type of direct relationship rarely exists with regard to assessment in the classroom. However, understanding the importance of partners is just as important to an assessment specialist when considering assessment at the classroom level.
My lever in the classroom is the teacher rather than the policymaker. As an assessment specialist, however, I am likely to be much farther removed from a teacher than I was from a policymaker. I will seldom be in a position to interact directly with teachers as they make assessment decisions and use assessment information. The basic equation, however, remains the same. For my work to make a difference in the classroom there must be an appropriate partner ready and willing to use it.
My task becomes providing tools that will help put the right information at the right time into the hands of a teacher who can use it to inform and improve instruction – in support of the ultimate goal of improved student learning.
That task is complicated by the fact that there are some teachers who are not prepared to be good levers and others who may be in situations that do not allow them to be good levers. I might provide the same information, in the same way, at the same time to two teachers in the same school and see very different results. Without a teacher prepared to use it, any information that I can provide will be much less effective.
How does this impact what I do and how I do it?
First, I have to acknowledge and understand the role of the teacher as my partner. Although I will not be working side-by-side with individual teachers during implementation, I cannot work in isolation from teachers during the design and development process.
Second, I have to make the assumption that there will be a good partner in place at the classroom level. I have to design tools and resources that will be useful to an effective teacher.
Third, I have to realize that there will be many cases where the second assumption above is false. I am convinced, however, that the solution is not to try to develop tools and resources so that can be used by any teacher, regardless of the knowledge and skills they bring to the table. That is a fool’s errand.
Rather, the solution is to identify and work with other partners to make the second assumption above more likely to be true. Those partners will include state-level policymakers, district and school administrators, developers of curriculum and instructional support materials, and teacher educators. Throughout the entire process of preparing, certifying, and providing in-service support to teachers there must be a concerted effort to ensure that teachers are equipped to effectively use assessment in the classroom.
In short, …
The solution is not to try to make assessment teacher proof.
The solution is not add-on programs and materials designed to make teachers “assessment literate”.
The solution is to work with partners on multiple levels to better provide useful information to teachers who are prepared to make use of it.