Margaret McNeely

MARGARET MCNEELY

I’m Margaret McNeely. M A R G A R E T, McNeely M C N E E L Y. I am the team leader for the review of final state assessment systems under Title One, which is in the office of elementary and secondary education and the US Department of Education.

Well one of the really interesting pieces of ah education reform of uh the last fifteen, twenty years has really been the switch from from earlier reform movements. Um if you look back to the mid 80’s and the nation at risk report that everybody still refers to as being sort of the first time everyone looked at education from the President on down instead of facing the fact that schools were not doing as well as we had expected. The National Governor’s Association, they issued a report called Time For Results where the governors stood up and said education needs to be the number one agenda item. The language over, since 1984 has switched from the holding schools accountable, let’s have ah higher graduation requirements, ah kids taking more high level courses, to the language of standards based reform and I’m sure many teachers are still concerned about the whole idea of standards based reform. What it means, is it an idea that’s just come from the state house or from Washington. The interesting piece of that that I believe we keep losing track of is that it is a way of characterizing all students being held to high standards. And that schools have to show that they are getting kids to high standards and it’s that results driven piece that’s so very new and appears to be so radical at many times and is driving a lot of the current push towards assessments. Um from sense of results has come about the time when we’ve learned much more about tests and assessments and one of the things that we’ve lost track of in the debate about assessments is that the theory of an assessment is that it’s really talking about the system and how the system is doing. How is the school performing, how’s the ah district performing, how’s the state performing? You don’t have an assessment system to find individual results, you have tests that deal with individual results. And while this may seem like a symantic thing it is a very important message to remember because it’s that system meeting it’s responsibilities to get all kids to high standards that we talk about in terms of standards based reform and the rolls of assessment. Um this roles you into the accountability system and the system wide approach to school wide results, attendance, drop out and all those other pieces of it. But it’s that assessment picture looking at the school, looking at the district, that is a message that we need to be much better at getting parents and teachers and kids to understand that while you’re taking a test that’s asking specific questions, what we’re measuring is how well the much larger educational system is doing.

When you think about assessments and the impact that they have on teaching and learning in the classroom, the reaction is one of of fear of what am I being held accountable for, or what does this have to do with what I’m doing with my students on a daily basis and that’s why it’s important to think about assessments is a way of looking at how the how the school how the district is doing in raising it above that individual child. One of the interesting um ways we thought about schools and teaching for so long and the role of tests in schools and teaching is it’s a way to figure out what’s wrong with the kid and we’re gonna fix the kid. Good assessment systems don’t look at it as a student problem. It is an issue for the school. It’s looking broadly, much more broadly at what’s the curriculum, what’s the supports that are given within the classroom, what kind of opportunity to learn the material has each child had. So from the negative reaction and the fear is very normal and when I was a teacher and we would get those state exams you would you would open up the test booklet and you would go oh my goodness I didn’t even teach any of this material. My poor students aren’t going to know this, I’ve been teaching them something very different all year long. So we have a responsibility, and I’m saying we as a community, we to ask very specific questions about what are we testing, how are those results going to be used, and how can we make sure that the system is supporting all kids and all teachers so that they can help the kids meet the standards.

One of the um real key parts of standard based reform which came became the the the language of school reform in the early 90’s was the all students message and you would go out and and I would go out and and talk to different groups around the country and you’d get just so far and you kept saying all students, all students and a hand would go up in the back of the room and say yeah but my neighbor’s son I know he’s he’s having problems in school and you don’t really mean him do you? And the answer is yes we mean all kids. And it doesn’t mean that they’re, it’s a one size fits all, but all kids have got to included in that assessment system which is why we talk about assessments as a larger piece and it’s not just testing one kid by the same test but it’s looking what all your goals for that student. What are the standards? And we’ve learned so much about including kids in assessments. Kids with disabilities, kids with limited English proficiency. Over the last 10 years as we’ve looked at the research, what many people said oh you simply can’t do that, with a little bit of effort and with a little bit of research and with a little bit of will, we have been able to look many accommodations, extra time, large print, having um kids take a tests in another setting, off by themselves or in a study, how um that has been a tremendous improvement in seeing how well those those children do, how much those students really have benefited from the instructions. And I’m sure many instructors wonder whether or not they are reaching some kids in their classroom, good assessment systems that are targeted broadly show just how much those students are getting out of the instruction. We know a lot more we just have to do it.

If you look at the field of education over the last 20 or 30 years um for awhile everyone was talking about reform dejour or you know wait a couple of years and another reform movement is going to come through, we can wait this one out, it’s going to be somebody else changing the names, doing that. I have been, as a student of education reform, and as somebody who comes to this with training as a historian, trying to look at it in a larger context. I’ve been very struck with the changes within the last 10 years as the the term results and results for what prior to that when we asked how good is the school we were really looking at uh what were called the inputs, they were looking at uh the number of ah books in the library, who modern was the school facility, um what kind of children came to that school. A message that is I think now with our eyes on 2000 we should be ashamed of, but the students were considered part of the input of the school on um what kind of textbooks and you could probably go down through through teacher salaries. A results driven system says of course those things are all important but it’s what you do with those inputs, it’s how you use what you have to add value for that student, for that community. And what kids know and are able to do as a result of their school careers. I don’t care how many books you have in your library if the student is not using those books to learn about their world to learn about what their future might be, then it doesn’t matter.

Currently most states of the leaders of school reform at this point, we’ve seen a rise, again in the last 10 to 12 years, as governors really being the leaders of the school reform movement. Um it’s something that again that as look back it began with a group of of Southern governors in the 80’s um, those names are probably familiar to many people now. Names like Clinton, LeMar Alexander, Dick Riley, lead a reform movement based on the economics of their particular district, ah their particular states. Those Southern governors had to have some results. They looked at their state budgets and they said oh ah this is very interesting. Out state budget is going almost 60%, 70% in some of these states to public education. And I can’t tell how well I’m meeting the goals of this state. I look at national results, we’re doing terribly, we’re always at the bottom, what is it that I need to do to get these results in the individual schools. I say that to make the point that this is a state driven system. There are some Federal pieces of it that certainly play a role to support it, but most states have established their own assessment system and it was driven by a governor by state legislature saying I need to know what my investment is, what the investment of my taxpayers has been, what would have been the results. So as you look at that assessment situation there are key questions that that need to be raised as as your superintendent, and I don’t want to foster revolution, or principal comes in and saying ok we have a new state test. Teachers have a responsibility to ask what well excuse me but what’s on that test? What is it that um you want my students at the third grade to know and to be able to do and in most states they’ve got one test for the elementary level, one test at middle and one test at high school. If I were a fourth grade teacher right now I’d want to know what the third grade, what the second grade, and what the third grade teacher were also doing to make sure that that student passes in the fourth grade or does well or cans show what they’re able to do. So the first question has to be, what’s on the test? And that’s a legitimate question that I’m sure may not be treated as legitimately as it should be within the school context. The next question would be how will those results be used? Will the state be looking at the school district, will the state be looking at the school, are they going to be publicizing those results, are they going to be looking um at the school as a whole system, are their other factors that should be playing in or are they just going to be looking at the results of this one assessment? Are they going to be looking at the attendance rates? Interestingly enough today USA Today had a whole thing about the increase in ah results in what kids know and are able to do as a result of coming to school, now most of us would think that would be a fairly obvious, and it was a wonderful research study. They went back and forth and coded it for all the variables and a kid has to be in school before they are going to know something. So attendance needs to be looked at. Mobility. But all these are questions that teachers, parents, even students should be asking of their principal, of their superintendent, of their school board, so that they know if the rules of the game have changed, what are they now. I have a right to know them, I need to know how my world plays into that. And that could be one of the biggest challenges right now, is to have that understanding at a level that teachers can them plan their instruction, put in their own assessments or their own tests so that you’re always building to meeting the state’s standards and that you are doing well on the state assessment.

One of the questions that is frequently asked when you look at assessments systems is why why do we why do we do it this way? Why is America a country that relies so much on on testing? Is there a lot of testing? What is the testing system compared to other countries? What’s the testing system in um Louisiana compared to Mississippi? Why is it that every state um has to look a little bit different? The the there’s a good news and bad news ah answer to that. The good news answer is a 200 year history of of ah education being a responsibility of of of the state’s. For somebody that works at the federal level we ah we rejoice at the diversity of these 50 state’s systems. Um and believe that um there needs to be some consistency and that math really is the same whether you’re in Peoria, Illinois or Peoria, California. That there are some basics. But that every state does have different funding profiles, has a different way of organizing their schools, has some ah I’ve been in school districts in um Delaware which is a relatively small state, granted has 24 school districts that they all have anywhere from um 20 to 30 schools in them, they are very large. A state like Illinois has I believe something like 6-700 school districts with a couple of schools in each one of them and that’s everybody’s right to organize their schools the way that they um the way that they want to and we have a system that’s built on that. But the question keeps coming up um particularly among governors is I want my own system, I want to have an assessment system, but I also want to know how I’m doing compared to the state next door. And that’s one of the places that the Federal Government comes in. We have a a number of a large scale assessment systems that we have a capital L on those large scale, one of them is called the National Assessment of Educational Progress which is done at the national level um we do it every four years for content areas but we have made results every two years if you can understand the the math of that. We released ah reading in 1998 um this in 2000 probably in the middle of the spring we’ll be doing mathematics, NAPE will come up NAPE reading in 2002 and so we’ll we will roll that way. It’s part of NAPE that gives us a national measure so we know how um fourth graders, how eighth graders, and twelfth graders are doing. It has a trend line so you can see how they do over a 20 year period and within NAPE there is there’s also something called State NAPE, which approximately 40 states participate in so they so governors can have that kind of comparison so students, parents, teachers, can also see what is it that um I’m I’m in Mississippi a very similar state might be Alabama, but Alabama may be in a 20th in the country and I may be 38th. What is it that’s different on a policy level on those 2 states. We also have some international testing over the last um few years. There’s something called the Third International Math and Science Study that looked obviously at math and science and in ah December in ah this year we will have the results from the repeat in the 8th grade level. And we’ve also just done a test called PIRL which is Performance Indicators for Reading and Literacy for 15 year olds. So we we have to look at it individually within our state context but we also work very hard at having national, international measures so that we can benchmark what it is we’re doing as a country, as a whole.

One of the interesting parts of the current education policy making scene has particularly in the area of assessment has ah has been that assessment is no longer a technical issue. 20-30 years ago assessment decisions were made by psychomatricians um staticians who ah sat in in dark rooms with the shades drawn and the green eye shades on. It was this myth that this test and the statistics around it was a ah was a was a closed box and only if you have a combination would you would you know wh what was really happening, what kids were being tested. I to this day can still remember getting these little strips of paper that I was suppose to take home to tell mom and dad how I did on some test that was taken and collected, and all the little bubble sheets. That is no longer the case. We have a a level of sophistication among not only policy makers, governors and state legislatures, but among the general public about education issues that as as educators we need to take very seriously the level of questions and their right to not only ask those questions, but also be given a full reasonable answer to the issues that they raise. Um again education is typically one of the largest budget items at the state level, at the local level, with probably public safety as the as the other thing that states are spending their hard earned tax payer dollars for. And because of that we are public officials and we are given, have been given a license by the public to educate their children and educate them well and by the same token explain exactly what it is we’re doing. I don’t expect a governor to understand the ins and outs of the assessment system and what standard deviations might be and why the the sampling frame had to be at ah 92% not the 87%. By the same token, most governors expect the assessment world to be able to answer the question of how well are my schools doing, how do I know that and will you give me the same answer next week when I ask the question? And that’s why we have a responsibility to look broadly at our assessment systems, ask the right questions, know why it is we’re doing it, and then make sure that everyone understands why we’re doing it.

One of the um questions that I continually get asked by by parents and and teachers is that um we’re doing so much, our kids are so busy, they’re so committed to ah to soccer to hockey to ah um boy scouts, girl scouts, um we’re bring home 3 or 4 hours worth of homework every night and then they’re spending a week being tested and what is it that’s helping my kid, what’s helping my students by taking these tests that ah and frankly the next sentence is usually and I don’t even know what they’re testing. About the only answer you you can make to that question is that um those of us in education and classroom teachers in particular work harder than almost any people in this country. I was a classroom teacher, it was the hardest work I have ever done. It is entirely beyond the capacity of most people to understand, what it is, what it takes to get there. Good assessment systems show the value of public schools in this country. Good assessment systems that are understood and can communicate to the public just how well public schools are doing only strengthen those schools. And only make them better for the next generation of kids.