Education, learning, standardized testing, testing

The Problem with NH’s PACE Program

The New Hampshire Department of Education (NH DOE) has been positively gleeful about its “first-in-the-nation” strategy for ensuring public school accountability. The Performance Assessment of Competency Education program, or “PACE” for short, will, its supporters claim, guarantee that public schools across the state be held accountable for making sure that students demonstrate “measurable progress” toward state competencies and so-called “Work-Study Practices” (WSPs) such as communication, collaboration, creativity, and self-direction.

The March 5 press release from NH Governor Maggie Hassan characterized the program, which is currently being piloted in four school districts within the state, as “innovative”– one that will “empower [students] and [teachers]” by offering meaningful, locally managed assessments while drastically decreasing the number of standardized tests that students will be administered throughout their public school lives.

While this last part is true–with the implementation of the PACE program, students who reside in districts that opt to commit to the program (and–this is no small aside–implement the program “with fidelity“) will take the Smarter Balanced Assessment only three times between grades 3-11, as opposed to the current seven–methinks Governor Hassan doth protest too little.

Setting aside (for now) any arguments about the current NH competencies/work-study practices as they are currently written–as well as my questions regarding who developed them and the rubrics that will be used to evaluate said competencies/practices–I would invite Governor Hassan, as well as her constituents across the state (including you, Gentle Reader), to consider my developing objections to the NH PACE program as organized by the following three problems:

1. The problem with common assessments in general

Ahh, common assessments, you little buggers. I remember spending hours upon hours working with fellow grade-level colleagues designing a bunch of these things in a cramped, hot conference room while our students were forced to experience the crap shoot that encapsulated that day’s substitute teacher assignment. I despised you then, and I despise you now. You see, despite our best efforts to create common assessments that would be sustainable from year to year and from student cohort to student cohort, the truth is, we never could–to my satisfaction, anyway. Each year, upon administration of a common assessment, I would find myself tweaking it to fit that year’s students, that year’s curriculum (which was supposed to stay the same from year to year, but never did because each year my students’ needs were different) and my improving understanding about what makes a quality assessment. So each year, what was supposed to be a common assessment ended up not being so, and I felt like a failure as both a classroom teacher and colleague.

While the idea of equalizing students’ educational experiences by developing common assessments (based on a common curriculum, developed from common standards) makes sense at first, anyone with a deep understanding of child development and about how people learn would know that the whole concept is a bunch of hooey. Common assessments not only require that what students are learning regardless of the classroom/school/district they are in is “common”–that is, the same– they also, by their very nature, reduce broader understandings and skills to much more granular understandings and skills. By doing so, they narrow the curriculum that students are taught and make it that much more difficult to provide students with voice, choice, and a say in what constitutes the curriculum itself.

2. The problem with the common assessments themselves

The concern that common assessments can narrow the curriculum becomes that much more intensified when one takes a gander at the range of common assessments within the NH Common Assessment Task Bank that have been reviewed and “approved” by the folks at the Center for Collaborative Education. (NOTE: schools may also opt to use common assessments from the Innovation Lab Network and/or create their own using a protocol and comprehensive review process; feel free to refer back to my own experience creating common assessments, as noted earlier.) The tasks, most of which offer some student voice & choice and what I call “fauxthenticity” (fake authenticity), can take anywhere from three days (for this “Whirligigs” task) up to eight weeks (for this one, which up front states that it takes one week…but download the teacher plan and you will be pleasantly surprised that the time needed to complete the task mysteriously expands). Essentially, the longer a task, the more likely the task itself becomes the curriculum due to the time and effort needed to complete the task.

And as far as student voice and choice goes–which someone who intends to submit a task is required to include in any performance task s/he has developed–it’s pretty minimal. Case in point: this task for students in grades K-2, during which students are asked to write a “fictional” snowman story that explains, somewhere within the story, how to build a snowman (can you picture the blank stares coming from a roomful of 5-8 year-olds? ‘Cause I can). That’s right: ALL STUDENTS MUST WRITE A STORY ABOUT A SNOWMAN THAT INCLUDES INSTRUCTION ABOUT HOW TO BUILD A SNOWMAN. So…student voice and choice is essentially relegated to the equivalent of, “You can eat whatever you want for dinner, kids, but it has to be some kind of macaroni and cheese. And it has to include cheddar.” Absurd–and no way to run a true writer’s workshop, IMHO.

3. The problem with the message the NH PACE program sends to students, parents, teachers, and the world at large about learning

When working with pre-conceived assessment tasks–which these common assessments are/will all be, regardless of who has developed them–we are in grave danger of sending our students a poor message about learning and assessment. As Alfie Kohn reminds us (via John G. Nicholls and Susan P. Hazzard) in his book Schooling Beyond Measure and Other Unorthodox Essays about Education (Heinemann, 2015), “when school is seen as a test*…rather than an adventure in ideas,” we are ultimately preparing our students “to pass other peoples’ tests**.” OK, so the NH PACE program will reduce the number of standardized tests the state will require schools to administer. But what, honestly, is so different about the message we are sending to a student who sits in front of a computer and is asked to perform on something in which he has had no say in developing and sitting in a classroom being asked to perform a “task”–one that will, in most instances, take far longer to complete than a computer-adaptive test–in which he has had no say in developing?

Sigh.

I sometimes feel like that Grumpy Old Man character that Dana Carvey created on Saturday Night Live back in the 1990s–or maybe more like Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna (for you more “mature” folks)–always being the one scowling, wagging her finger and saying, “Nice try, Education Folks, but HERE is where you’re wrong AGAIN….” But when the people in charge of our educational system continue to make big policy decisions without having a clue about child development, about learning, or about teaching–and neglect to meaningfully consult anyone who actually does–well, they’re just going to have to get used to Little Miss Debbie Downer over here. Because I’m not going to stop advocating for a public education system that honestly, truly, gets it. And the current one in which we are all mired just doesn’t.

*or performance task

**or performance tasks

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