On a Whim and a Prayer

You win a multi-year contract for a new, innovative state assessment program.

 You spend the next six months staffing up, getting the project infrastructure in place, and working with the state to begin the initial design and development process.

 A new governor takes office and the assessment program and your contract are canceled immediately.

Much has been written about state assessment programs, particularly innovative programs, being run on a wing and a prayer – our field may not have invented the practice of “flying the plane while we are building it,” but we have certainly embraced it as our own.  As nerve-wracking as that process might be, I have to admit that it can be quite exhilarating while you are in the mid-flight.

There is nothing exhilarating, however, about having the rug pulled out from under you.

The scenario laid out above is not new. I went through it for the first time in the early 1990s.  However, that scenario, or one similar to it, seems to have become much more common in state assessment over the past decade. Several states have switched assessment programs three or four times in the past seven years.

Rather than operating on a wing and a prayer, all too often we find our projects, and sometimes our jobs, balancing on a whim and a prayer.

All state assessment contracts contain a clause stating that the continued operation of the program is dependent upon the availability of state funding. One can accept contracts being cancelled or altered when national events like the Great Recession or a pandemic occur. It’s even understandable when there is an unexpected budget shortfall at the state level.

Being a pawn in the middle of a feud between the governor and the commissioner of a state is a different story. As is an outgoing governor striking the assessment program from the budget on his way out the door out of spite, or a legislature that passes a law effectively mandating the selection of a particular test after being caught up in the latest fad or after being lobbied by an advocacy group or testing company. .

In some cases, canceling the entire assessment program outright might not be the unkindest cut of all. Eviscerating a program by chopping off its performance events or cutting its administration time in half can be worse. Unrealistic time constraints for reporting results or for getting a new program up and running can emasculate an assessment program and dishearten those working on it either at the department of education or for their assessment contractor.

Disruption Requires Stability

We know that Education Reform requires a long-term commitment.

As part of that long-term commitment to reform, innovation in assessment requires time:

    • Time for design
    • Time for development
    • Time for implementation
    • Time to revise and adjust, as needed

Even when purchasing a tried and true innovative assessment off the shelf, time will be needed to implement and make necessary adjustments to fine tune the implementation process. The same applies to an innovative curriculum and instructional materials; and ideally, those are being considered in concert with the assessment as part of any serious reform effort or proposed innovation.

I was fortunate in my career to work with two programs that were given adequate time to grow and flourish – and all involved benefitted greatly because of it.

  • In Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Program (MCAS) enjoyed bipartisan support and survived a revolving door of governors in its early years. So many pieces of the education puzzle were in motion and little felt stable as the Massachusetts Education Reform Act was being implemented. The commitment to the assessment program was unwavering and provided some needed stability.
  • The New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) was able to survive for a decade until the states moved on to the Common Core consortia only because of the commitment and cooperation of the commissioners and governors of the participating states. This commitment to the program and to their partner states remained in place even when one of the states faced severe budget shortfalls.
Stability Requires Strong Leadership

It is not an easy task to keep a state assessment program, particularly an innovative assessment, from becoming a campaign issue or a political bargaining chip to be bartered. Keeping the assessment and politics separate is especially challenging when teachers’ unions are not on board with the assessment. In Massachusetts, we were at least fortunate to have leadership from one of the two major unions willing to sit at the table and participate in the decision-making process with us.

Ultimately, an innovative assessment program has to speak for itself.  However, it also needs a champion. Strong leadership from the commissioner’s office, interacting with the governor, board, legislature, media, advocacy groups, and other stakeholders is necessary to set appropriate expectations and to ensure that the assessment has the time needed to get to the point where it can speak for itself and stand on its own.

As the tenure for commissioners of education has decreased, finding this type of leadership has become more challenging.

Worth The Fighting For

To support leadership in their efforts, we can do our part to give them an assessment that is worth fighting for.

A critical part of that process requires being very clear about the intended use of the assessment, its purpose, and how you plan to accomplish that purpose (some of my former colleagues might refer to this as a part of a theory of action).

Another critical part of the process will require us (i.e., assessment specialists) to decide which of our practices, customs, traditions, or standards (for lack of a better word) are worth fighting for and which we can let go.  Self-awareness, self-reflection, and an awareness of how assessment fits into the big picture have not been among our strengths in recent years.

Most importantly, if we want assessment to play a role in what is shaping up to be a defining moment in public education in the United States, we need to be better in all of those areas to give ourselves, our leadership, and our assessment programs a fighting chance.

There will never be a guarantee that our efforts won’t seem in vain as our assessment program is shut down on a whim, but we can avoid creating situations where we don’t have a prayer.

Image by Ulrike Leone 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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