Judith Johnson

JUDITH JOHNSON

My name is Judith Johnson, I am presently serving as a deputy assistant secretary for the office of elementary and secondary education in the U.S. Department of Education.

I would like to start by describing the role of assessment in its current education reform movement. It may turn out to be the defining factor in the translation of what’s basic principle that all students can learn to high standards. We as teachers have not traditionally used data in useful ways, and in fact, they often end up in large sheets on top of file cabinets. What assessment, and the element of assessment in the standards base reform movement, offers us: offers us objective ways of determining what it is our students know and are able to do, and how well are they able to do it. Very simple statement, very complex in its understanding and in its use. But it does provide a guidepost for teachers, parents, and students when it is used well.

To talk about using assessment well is to probably get in the midst of the political policy debates that are currently under way. So why don’t I start by describing from an educators perspective what it means to use assessment well, and then kind of bring the political debates into the---into the discussion. To use assessment well means that we have available to us, lots of intimation that tells us whether or not students have learned what we’ve taught. And whether we have been affective in getting our teaching methodologies and our teaching goals across to students. To use it well gives us an opportunity to determine whether or not students have met the standards that allow them to move on to the next grade with success. To use it well is to view assessment as part of instruction, and not separate from instruction. Assessment, if you think about it, is another way of providing instruction for students, but it gives us a snapshot of what it is students are able to do. Now, as a classroom teacher, I would use my own informal assessments to stop and rethink my lesson. It’s a really good way to determine whether or not: have they got it, did they catch it, do I need to do this differently. And because we know that students learn in different ways, we need to have different assessment tools for determining how they are learning. So, one of the things we want to be concerned about when teachers use assessment, is---is that they not use one assessment tool to make decisions about how well students are learning, but that they have available to them many assessment tools. Now, I also know that assessment’s being used well outside of the classroom by those who want to declare public education either successful or unsuccessful. To some degree we need to insulate ourselves from that, but there’s a part of me that says we need not to, that we need to stand tall and explain to the world the usefulness of assessment, and set up the -----hazmats, or warning signs, about the misuses of assessment. And when we take a single score and make a decision about a class, a school, or a teacher, we’re very---we’re really moving to the verge of misusing assessments. But used well, they are instruction. They’re another form of instruction.

Well, I know that parents have a great deal of concern about how well their children are doing. And parents in this country are very used to non-referenced, standardized tests that allow them to compare their children against a national norm, and most test companies send those scores home to families. And without a real education on how to use those scores, parents make overly simplistic decisions. Their child is either performing better than most of the students in the nation, or worse than most of the students in the nation. That does not tell a parent what it is a students able to do, and how well they have mastered the content area. So, while I know that norm reference tests are still the most popular form of testing, and we need to help parents understand it is one way of testing, parents need to ask very specific question. What did my child have difficulty with? What kinds of items does this test measure? What kinds of skills does this test measure? Were the skills that are measured in the test taught in the classroom? How can I help my child at home to continue to develop and refine these skills? That we need to almost write a parents guide to testing, which I strongly suggest every school district do, and they tailor it to their own parent continuity, they create it in all the languages that are appropriate to create it in, and give parents a set of very simple questions that they can bring back to the classroom teacher and use as a framework for a conversation. A parent should walk away from an assessment of his our her child’s performance on a test, better understanding what they’ve mastered, what lies ahead, how well they’re prepared for the next grade, what their talents and successes were, and what areas need ash---additional help.

Well, I think people might be wondering: why are there so many different assessment policies across the country, and what’s the role of the federal government in guiding all of this. So why don’t I start by first declaring: the federal government does not set local policy, but the federal government contributes seven percent to the national education budget. And that money has a historical bent, and a historical intent. That money is to be focused on the needs of children who’ve been underserved: poor children, minority children, children with special needs. Now, as stewards of public funds, federal officials need to know how well are these dollars being spent. Are they meeting the intended outcomes and intended purposes? So what we have established, what we established in 1994, was essentially a revolution of a sorts, now that we look back on it, and simply said, although it’s not a simple statement, that if all children can learn to high standards (cough), Title 1 children are economically disadvantaged children, must be taught to the same high standards, and you must have some way of demonstrating that they’re being taught to the same standards. So we ask that every system, what basically states: accepting Title 1 money put in place a standards base perform agenda. You have a set of state standards that focus on content knowledge, a set of assessment measures for determining how well students are acquiring that knowledge. That was the quote “simple but yet complex” framework. Each state is free to set its own content standards, which makes us unique on this planet, by the way, ah---and often when I am visited by people from other countries, they simply don’t understand why we don’t have national standards. I am not declaring national standards to be a goal of the federal government, but it does make it very complex. So we have fifty states, each state has set its own standards. Now, because they’ve owned---we’ve always set their own standards, and now need to come with their own assessment systems for determining how well those students. And so what you will find in every state are a set of assessment measures, test measures. For Title 1 purposes, they must administer those tests at least three times in a child’s career, elementary school, middle school, and high school. It’s important for me to state at this point that we never required a graduation or exit exam. That is happening at the state level, it is not a federal requirement. But what we know now is that about twenty-six states are also declaring exit exams to be part of their assessment system. And what most states have done, and wisely so, is to decide that three times in a child’s career is probably insufficient timing to determine whether or not children are successful. So what most states have done, they’ve established additional tes---test timelines, so in many states tests are administered almost every year from the third grade on. That’s a states decision, not a federal decision. Now the state makes a decision: what tests will we use to measure student achievement? And here comes the complexity: we have required in federal law that there be multiple ways of determining students’ success, we call it multiple measures. I also know, as an educator, that’s a very expensive venture. It’s costly, it requires a lot of teacher training, but done well, it’s the most effective way to determine whether students are being successful or not. So most states have gone out and attempted to contract with major test publishers to develop a series of test items that are both rigorous as well as based on basic skills, and that have some addendums to them that look at different ways to measure and monitor student achievement. Some states are really moving along and creating portfolio assessment, or giving local school districts the option for adding additional assessments to the state assessment system. That probably is the most successful strategy we’ve seen yet, where school districts are free to develop additional assessments. And there you’ll find they’re using portfolios and they’re using lots of innovative ways to determine whether or not students are being successful. But to recap this: federal government policy, if you accept Title 1 funds, you must have a way of assessing Title 1 students. If you have an assessment system in place for all students, you cannot have a separate system for Title 1 students. So you have, in this country now, all students in all states being assessed with the same accountability system. If you had two systems of accountability the danger would be that you might dumb down the assessments for Title 1 students and keep the level and rigor high for all students, which in essence, would violate the basic principle of all students learning to high standards. So I would suggest to teachers: let’s not fight the assessment movement, it’s here to stay, let’s figure out how to use it in ways that make instruction useful, that help frame teaching, and that really give us good gauges. It’s whether or not students are acquiring the skills of knowledge they need to compete on the planet, because that’s what they’re doing now, competing on the planet.

Um, the role in policy development, the role of classroom teachers, has never been clear. Because teachers are not the implementer’s policy, they’re not the developers of policy. But let me suggest something to the teachers who may be looking at this video. And this will be somewhat controversial. I think teachers need to take a more active role in helping to think about policy development. I think that often, and I’ve served as a district administrator, that when I work with union officials around the table, we don’t often get into policy issues, and I really do think we should. I mean, if we’re going to be the implementers of policy developed at the board, state, and federal level, we ought to have some voice in at least commenting on the policy. However, traditionally policy has been developed at the board level, at the state level, and teachers and educators have been the implementers of policy. We need to insure that we can understand it; we need to insure we have the resources available to implement the policy, and that’s where teachers can play a really important role. Once the policy comes your way you need to be real clear about whether or not you have the resources you need to implement the policy effectively. Policies are always meant to provide good standards for people. Now I know that doesn’t always work out that way, but let me just reassure people that the policies around standards based reform had a noble intent. And that was to ensure that we were really educating our children to world-class standards. Now there’s been a lot of discussion on what represents world-class standards. So I’m not gonna get into that discussion today, you set that at the district and state level. Whatever you define to world-class standards, students should be taught to those standards. Policy defines what it is we want to accomplish, and why we want to accomplish it. And then educators go about acquiring the resources they need to put that policy in place. Um---great debates over policy often, in this country, great debates. And teachers need to think about whether or not they’re playing an active role at the policy debate table.

Why have we set about establishing policies that focus on high standards for all children, and why 1994? Well I’m gonna suggest that; in your classroom work someone look back for a report called ‘A Scans Report’, which came out, I think, in the late 1980s, and then go back and compare that Scans Report against ‘The Nation at Risk’ that was administered---that was released in 1983 or ’84. And we need to go back further and look at the reform eras that have taken place, I would say from the 1950s up to the present. And you’ll notice that up through, and until 1994, we made some implicit decisions about educating some children to high standards, but not all. We didn’t really examine the notion of tracking; we didn’t really examine the notion of preparing all students for post-secondary education. But in 1994 we suddenly recognized, Scans report and others, that this was a different economic market, additions---different social market, different cultural workplace, and that if we were going to continue to be successful, and an economic competitor in the world marketplace, we have to think differently about the ways in which we educated our children. The hundred and eighty day school year, which is really obsolete, had a lot to do with farm work, now our children are not working on farms. So the question became; how do we really provide all of them with the skills they need to compete in the workplace. The one reason f---and there are many, for high standards is the, my firm belief, that a high school diploma is simply an entry to the rest of your educational life. That no one will be successful today if they end their formal education with a high school diploma. That doesn’t mean everyone goes on to a four-year college, but it does mean that everyone engages in life-long learning. Whether it’s a four-year college, or two-year college, a technical school, the armed services, you need to have a set of skills in order to proceed with that adult learning. And those skills s---simply need to be imbedded in the K-12 educational structure, and that structure needs to be so finally tuned that we’re not continuing to provide remediation courses at the college level, which has become far to commonplace in this country. This is really about economic competition and really about maintaining our stature on this planet as a democracy that can practice very much what we espouse. And you only do that if you’ve got an educated ki---citizensury able to demonstrate that indeed it works in this country. And it can’t work for some and not all, but then it doesn’t represent what we stand for. And so with this as a revolution that I now see, and we said in 1994, ‘you know what, we can educate all students to high standards.’ This is not easy work. I know the students come into the classroom with different levels of achievement. I know that they come into the classroom with different strokes and strikes for them or against them. I know some come in with a very limited literacy background, some come in with very limited economic backgrounds. But here’s the, the belief system. You’re not limited by that, school systems can’t use that as an excuse to fail to educate children. What it does mean is; you’ve gotta figure out what resources you need to compensate for any deficits that children have. But effort, it has been proven by research, effort is the biggest addition to the standards based reform movement. And effort plays a role in how well I will succeed. Now, if you set the expectations high for me, regardless of who I am, it’s gonna raise my level of effort. If I raise my level of effort, I’m gonna be successful. For some children it will take longer, and that’s OK, this notion of summer school, one day will be replaced by continuous schooling. Because they were led to believe that some children will need more than twelve years to be successful, if they keep with the hundred and eight days school year. And so it’s OK to send some children on to additional school in July, an additional school day, or an additional week, that’s a gift of time, because they need the additional time to demonstrate that with effort they can be successful. We’ve gotta dispel this notion that we’ve got different levels of expectations for children, and just set them high. Now this does not mean that there aren’t gifted children out there, and we need to identify and accelerate their pace of learning. And I think that’s real important, because people often feel that what we’ve done with this movement is to deny the belief that there are children with special gifts and talents, I would never say that. They need to be identified and supported. The problem is that we’ve not set expectations high for al children, and higher for those who demonstrate they’ve got special gifts and talents. So that’s an important part of it. Now, children who come with disabilities, we still set the dem---we set the limitation much to low for them. Given the right resources and the right accommodations, it is amazing what they can accomplish. So why don’t we open the doors and see how far they can go. Set no expectations and allow them to flow and fly as high as possible.

What does it mean to translate cla---standards into classroom practice on a daily basis? I would suggest that this is an era that we’re still struggling with. That um, our professional development efforts need to be more closely aligned with helping teachers make sense of standards. Standards, as they’re constructed at the state level, are not curriculum guidelines. Standards define where it is you need to go and what it is students should know and be able to do. Translating that into curriculum and instructional plans really becomes the responsibility of both the state, the district, and the classroom teacher. So you take a standard and you ask yourself; what would a lesson plan look like fo---if I attempted to introduce this standard into a classroom. And there’ve been some wonderful examples of lesson plans over a period of time that demonstrate that students are able to meet a standard. But I think what teachers need to recognize is when you’re given a set of standards, it’s your job to sit down and determine how you translate that into instructional activities for students. That’s where the creativity, that comes in, that’s where your teaching expertise comes in. But what the standard does is to set up a kind of an evaluation for you. Your lesson plan should end with; have the students accomplished: and then put the standard in. And come up with some informal ways of determining whether or not you’ve decided they’ve accomplished it. Now, the assessments will often measure more than the standard, so one of the assessment strategies you need to have in place is: to examine what assessment tools is my district using? What are the tools attempting to measure? Now, there is this real dilemma out there though I want to caution people on, and that is; that in analyzing a test does not mean teaching to the test or cheating by giving kids test items. Analyzing the tests means determining content, concept, and skills, and you build it into your lesson plans. And then your children should have no problem acing an exam, because what you’ve done is to help them understand the environment in which the test is being administered without ever having to give them the test items themselves.

Well, I’m always asked; so, why are you focused so much on children and what do you really believe this assessment system is going to accomplish. I grew up in the New York City public schools. They were severely tracked. Um---someone tapped me on the shoulder and put me in the highest track, that was total luck. You should not go through an educational system based on luck. I believe that when we do this well, when you look at a array of test scores in any building in this country, you will not be able to determine ones gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic status. You will see children achieving at different levels and understanding how much effort has gone into their work. Then we will be successful.