Spoiler Alert: This post may reveal information about Inventing Anna that you don’t want to know yet.
Content Warning: This post may reveal information about the Race to the Top Assessment Program that you have tried to forget.
As I watched Inventing Anna, the Shonda Rhimes version of the Anna Delvey story, unfold before me on Netflix, I started to get a strange feeling, a sense of déjà vu. The story felt familiar, too familiar. And then it hit me. This was a story that I knew all too well. For as the saga of Anna Delvey and ADF was playing out in New York City, an eerily similar story was taking place some 200 miles to the south in Washington, DC.
A Tale of Two Cities
Anna Sorokin (her real name) chose New York City – the city that never sleeps – as the place to make her mark, or simply as her mark if you prefer.
State Assessment (which has too many aliases and alter egos to name them all) chose Washington, DC – the city that cannot shake its image as a sleepy Southern town. (I mean, it’s one thing for my daughter to have to Uber back to College Park after a night in DC because she missed the last Metro train. That can happen in a lot of places. But only in DC have I ever had to wait patiently for a Metro station to open in the morning as I hurried to make a conference presentation.)
NYC v. DC
As described in Hamilton, it’s a debate that goes all the way back to the Founding Fathers. Each city has a lot to offer a person, or an assessment, with a dream.
NYC. It has the pulse, the beat the drive. It blinks, it tilts, it rings. The type of power and prestige that Anna Sorokin was seeking is best created in Manhattan. In her vagabond designer shoes, Anna was longing to stray right through the heart of it. If she could make it there, she’d make it anywhere.
Everything that State Assessment desired, however, existed Inside the Beltway.
Washington, DC. It is the place that literally can print its own money. Washington, DC, the place that gives you the money first and asks questions later – much later, if at all. For as we all know, even after all the money has been spent, rarely is the question asked, “Is our children learning?”
And since 2001, DC has been the straw that stirs the drink on all matters pertaining to state assessment and accountability.
In other words, if you can sell your assessment idea to the Feds, you have struck gold, my friend, solid gold, the golden goose.
It Was the Best of Times
Anna’s dream was ADF, the Anna Delvey Foundation, an institution that would take the concept of a private members-only social club to a whole new, never before imagined level, putting all that came before it to shame. State Assessment’s dream was the Race to the Top Assessment Program, which, in a nutshell, was going to do the same sort of thing for large-scale state testing.
For a project of this scope to have a chance of succeeding it needs to have a cheerleader, a champion, a frontperson, if you will, to sell it. And it’s much more effective, of course, when someone with established power and authority (i.e., street cred) is selling your dream for you.
In the case of State Assessment and the RTTT assessments that person was Sec. of Education Arne Duncan. He tied the assessments to the CCSS, wildly popular at the time, and in his now notorious (and difficult to find, by the way) September 2010 Beyond the Bubble speech, he was over-the-top in his praise of the yet-to-be-developed assessments.
“I am convinced that this new generation of state assessments will be an absolute game-changer in public education.” They will
- be “tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning”
- “support good teaching in the classroom”
- “provide students with realistic, complex performance tasks, immediate feedback, computer adaptive testing, and incorporate accommodations for a range of students.”
- allow “all students to show that they can analyze and solve complex problems, communicate clearly, synthesize information, apply knowledge, and generalize learning to other settings,”
He backed up those words with hundreds of millions of government dollars, and of course, money begets money, so the government stake was supplemented by additional grants. We may never know exactly how much money was poured into the RTTT assessment dream.
Money also attracts a crowd. There are the true dreamers and the entrepreneurs who really believe in the project and will sacrifice health and happiness to make it succeed. There are those in search of the next great whale to fund their current testing endeavors. There are the hangers-on who want to be close enough to the power and the process to catch some of the scraps that fall off of the table. And there are those whose eyes are filled with dollar signs and simply want to carve out a slice of the pie for themselves.
Of course, because State Assessment’s dream was funded largely by federal money funneled through state procurement offices. For principals in the State Assessment dream, Anna’s lavish dinners at Le Coucou were replaced by box lunches and coffee runs to the Starbucks on the corner, but there were plenty of opportunities for a good meal and the other trappings of such a project.
Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end. We’d sing and dance forever and a day.
It Was the Worst of Times
But end they did, and the end is never pretty. By 2017, it was clear that the story wasn’t going to end well for State Assessment (or for Anna, for that matter). The bloom was off of the rose for the RTTT assessments and the CCSS on which they were based. (We’ll save the chicken v. egg analysis of that relationship for another day.)
The deathwatch had begun for PARCC. As for Smarter Balanced, well, SBAC had successfully created a CA and CAT lifeboat and was willing to employ the CT exception to ensure its survival. But it too, failed to live up to the overblown expectations that had been created for it in 2010.
Of course, there was a ripple effect that was felt by other testing programs beyond PARCC and Smarter Balanced. When that boulder breaks free from the top of the mountain, there’s little that can stop it from expanding as it accelerates out of control and scoops up every anti-testing issue in its path.
Once regarded as the gleaming sword wielded by archangels in the battle to provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps, State Assessment is now viewed as a burning cross brandished by the long arm of white supremacy.
Let’s pause for a moment and take a step back.
In the end, ADF was never more than a fantasy, but the RTTT assessments, for all of their flaws, were very real.
Anna Delvey was a fake German heiress, but Laura, Mitchell, Joe, Tony, and the others, for all of their flaws, were real people who for years gave their all to building innovative assessment systems that would help inform instruction and improve student learning.
But you see, here’s the thing.
The line between innovation and fraud, or inspiration and delusion (purposeful or unintentional), in our field has always been razor thin. Consider the description of Anna Delvey provided by her former “close friend” Rachel Williams in a recent podcast:
“She had this very grand dream and she could paint this illusion of it.”
“She doesn’t understand why if she says something is so, that it can’t be”
“She uses her confidence as a way of almost manifesting whatever it is that she’s going for.”
I don’t know about you, but perhaps change one word “illusion” to “portrait” and I’m all in. Those are the very characteristics I long to see in the next generation of people reinventing state assessment.
For years before there actually was a Vermont Portfolio Assessment, Ross Brewer travelled far and wide extolling its virtues and touting its benefits to teachers and students. (Yes, I know that’s a dated reference and it didn’t turn out well but the link is worth reading. Consider it a bonus cautionary tale.)
We’ve all heard the old joke asking, “On what platform does [insert name of software package] perform best?” Back in the day, the answer was the overhead projector, then it was PowerPoint, and today it might be Zoom.
We laugh, but we wonder. Is this the next big thing?
Every dream, every innovation, has to start somewhere.
Reinventing State Assessment
So, once again State Assessment will have to reinvent itself. But it has risen from the ashes before, and my guess is that it will again because large-scale state testing still fills a void.
There is a problem to be solved, there remains a lack of an existing solution, and there is money to bring about innovation in assessment. Undoubtedly, in its next incarnation State Assessment will and should look very different than it does now.
However, those three factors cited above also produce a fertile breeding ground for con artists. And therein lies the problem.
For every visionary entrepreneur like Rich Hill, daring to put everything on the line to build innovative assessment and accountability systems, there is a Prof. Harold Hill selling the “think system” of assessment. And behind them are a baker’s dozen of opportunists eager to repackage their current schlock and slap a label on it proclaiming it to be “Formative,” “CCSS-Aligned,” “Diagnostic,” or whatever the trendy anti-racist, DEI label will read.
Distinguishing between the visionary and the villain and policing the field through its next metamorphosis will be even more challenging because for all intents and purposes our North Star, the Standards, have been rendered null and void.
Don’t look shocked. You can’t spit on your cake and eat it, too. (Yes, I self-censored there.)
The fact is that it is impossible for the field to accept with little or no challenge (and in some quarters embrace wholeheartedly) the claim that the Standards are racist and then continue to point to those Standards as an arbiter of assessment quality or testing appropriateness. I’m sorry, but the racist label doesn’t work that way. And that is not a byproduct of our current polarized society. It never has.
If I can follow the linear pattern correctly (i.e., 1984, 1999, 2014), under normal circumstances we should have expected to see the next edition of the Standards around 2029. Given the current state of affairs and the increased sense of urgency to get it right this time, my educated guess is that we might be looking at 2032 or 2033.
So, we are stepping off of the bus in the big city to face a decade of unprecedented change in society, education, assessment, and accountability with nothing but the shirt on our back, a slightly used performance task in our pocket, and a commitment to DEI in our hearts.
Let’s be careful out there. But don’t ever be afraid to dream.