‘Tis the gift to be simple

’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
’Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

We learned this song in elementary school and sang it every Thanksgiving. We played it in band in high school, and in college we played Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. A version of the song is sung in church on a regular basis, and it has been featured at the inaugurations of presidents as varied as Reagan, Clinton, and Obama.  I am starting to think that there must be an important message within this simple verse. 

As I spent this weekend working in the yard and walking through the neighborhood rather than packing the car in preparation for joining the Thanksgiving throng driving along the Northeast Corridor, I pondered what true simplicity might mean for those of us whose lives are immersed in large-scale state assessment and accountability.  What must we do to find ourselves in the place just right. Spoiler alert: The answer is not a CAT or automated scoring.

Picking the low-hanging fruit

The first step is to review and reduce the list of intended purposes and uses of large-scale assessment. Given that critics, proponents, and specialists agree that we are expecting too much from a single test score, one would think that it should not be too difficult to reach consensus on a scaled-back set of purposes and uses for large-scale state assessment programs.

We should hold on to providing an estimate of students’ overall proficiency on the state’s academic content standards.  Everything else, however, would be on the table for evaluation and reconsideration. That includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  • The goal of informing classroom assessment by modeling the type of assessment items and tasks that we would like teachers to use
  • The yet-to-be-defined concept of providing actionable information to inform classroom instruction
  • The use of test scores as a first-level indicator of teacher/teaching effectiveness
  • Subscores – especially for individual students

Reaching just a little higher

Moving a little higher up the tree, we need to have serious conversations about the scope and stakes of large-scale state testing.  Both the scope and the stakes associated with state testing have increased dramatically since NAEP-like custom-designed state assessments ushered in the modern era of state testing in the mid-1980s. Most of the change, of course, has been driven by federal law (IASA, IDEA, NCLB, ESSA), but some changes have also been driven by states (e.g., the adoption of college admissions tests as high school state tests, development of the Common Core State Standards), and other changes such as computer-based testing, in general, and the above-mentioned computer adaptive testing and automated scoring are the result of advances in technology and access to technology.

The scope of state testing has increased in almost all measurable aspects of the term scope – with  the possible exception of the number of content areas tested.  Longer tests of more complex skills are administered more frequently to more students in more grades over extended testing windows at an ever-increasing cost. 

Similarly, with the possible exception of the use of test results for high stakes decisions for students such as promotion and graduation, which appears to have declined, the stakes associated with state testing have increased for schools and school staff, particularly in lower-performing schools.

Thirty years after the ill-fated attempt to shift to performance-based testing, twenty years after NCLB, and ten years after the introduction of the Common Core it is time to step back and examine testing policy by asking basic questions such as “Based on What?” and “To What End?” in an effort to determine “Where We Go from Here.”

Know Thyself

Most important, as assessment professionals, the key to being able to come ‘round right is to understand and be comfortable with our place and role within the education ecosystem.  We are but one small player in a large and complex system.  Yes, the smallest pieces can play significant, sometimes vital, roles within complex systems; but they play specific, well-defined roles.

We are not teachers, building administrators, central office administrators, or state policymakers – even if we served in one or more of those roles in our past.  In other words, we are far removed from students. For the most part, we are even far removed from the researchers who use test results as part of their evaluation of educational interventions or data scientists who look for patterns in the wealth of data that we provide.

Our job is to help some of those people do their job better by providing them with data that they need in a format that is most useful to them.  I would also add that our job is to be upfront about the limitations of our data and its usefulness for many purposes.

I have long asserted that a teacher or building administrator learning something they did not already know about their students or school from a state test is the signal of a problem or breakdown in the system, not a desired outcome.  I will expand that to include the assertion that a state assessment program can play an important role in kickstarting an education reform effort, but if the role of the assessment program has not diminished significantly within five years, there are serious shortcomings with the initiative.

Simplify, Simplify

Like the clutter in my house and the excess fat around my midsection, much of the unnecessary complexity in state testing has accumulated incrementally over the past 30 years. Additions to state testing that might have been a good idea at the time are rarely scaled back. We simply add on and add on and add on.

Well-intentioned attempts to innovate and improve state testing have fallen into the trap of trying to build a better measurement instrument rather than trying to build a more useful tool for the job. We have often used the thermometer as a metaphor for state tests. When I went for a haircut last week, Ann held a small plastic thermometer somewhat close to my forehead and seconds later received a digital readout of my temperature that was more than sufficient for her purposes. Form follows function. We have all heard some variation of the phrase “Faster, better, cheaper – pick two” in the context of state testing. It has usually been a given that “better” was one of the two we would pick, but perhaps, in some cases, faster and cheaper are sufficient for our purposes.

Of course, the need to simplify and to come down where we ought to be applies to ourselves and our lives as much as to our tests.  When we move beyond the current situation, I think that lunchtime might be a good place to start.  Head over to the Clam Box and enjoy a clam roll while sitting on the seawall and looking out at the ocean; or stop by Nelson’s Cheese & Deli for an ice cream and stroll around the lake; or just go for a walk along the river or sit on a bench in the park.  Don’t allow your life to be frittered away by detail.

Image by yamabon from Pixabay


Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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