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Race to the Top

After being out of the States for 4 months, I have returned to find that Race to the Top is one of the Obama administration’s catalysts for significant education reform. During the past week I attended 3 Race to the Top Assessment hearings, all held in DC.  Here are comments I submitted:

January 19, 2009

Office of Elementary and Secondary Education Attention: Race to the Top Assessment Program U.S. Department of Education 400 Maryland Avenue SW Room 3E108 Washington, DC 20202

To Whom it May Concern:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the proposed Race to the Top Assessment Program. We applaud the Department for taking the initiative to establish an ambitious and competitive process to revise the standardized assessments. This is long overdue. For far too long children and teachers have suffered as states have systematically implemented a wealth of procedures that have dramatically revised the school calendar as schools, districts, and states have scrambled to show that students are scoring higher scores on outdated and antiquated tests. We are looking forward to an era with a renewed emphasis on TEACHING and INSTRUCTION.

In preparing this response, we have reviewed testimony by others and attended three of the public RTT Assessment meetings. We have also reflected on research regarding learning and achievement. As the Department proceeds with synthesizing all of the input it has received, we urge you to consider these factors:

1. Technology is available to present exciting options for student demonstration of problem solving, teaming, and application of skills. We hope the Department will encourage applicants to push the envelope in the use of these innovative technologies so that higher order thinking skills can be demonstrated in creative ways that reflect our everyday use of technology. Tests can be interactive and include diagrams, videoclips, and interesting visuals.

2. Research on human learning clearly demonstrates that when individuals are able to set their own goals for learning on topics of interest to the individual that more learning occurs. Knowing this, is it essential that each and every child be held to the same standards across a multitude of subjects? Or rather would better overall results be obtained if students were to identify perhaps 2-3 areas/subjects for intensive investigation and be tested at a higher level in these areas, with a more general test administered for other subjects? Let self-determination and student-driven instruction be the lynch-pins for this new program of assessments.

We believe, and considerable research on student-centered instruction supports, that when students are more engaged that they learn more, more quickly. Recent research in the area of universal design for learning (UDL) and related brain research clearly shows that motivation and affective centers of the brain are ‘lit up’ when individuals are pursuing subjects of interest to them. CAST and others have described this in relation to Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’ ‘“the optimal zone for learning where individuals are duly challenged but also encouraged by their rate of learning.

3. UDL also provides a way to facilitate test accommodations through building accommodations into tests, rather than adding accommodations after the test has been designed. Such an approach to test design would allow for the greatest consideration of the diversity of learners and their needs and strengths and would facilitate testing for individuals with disabilities as well as students with limited English proficiency (or English as a Second Language).

4. Those on the front line using the assessments and instructing students need to be involved in designing the assessments and reviewing templates for data summary and feedback to teachers. We recommend that input be obtained both from panels of teachers representing diverse perspectives and also from teachers who have received awards for their teaching excellence.

5. International exam and accreditation systems incorporate teamwork into their measurement of student skills — teamwork is critical to our workforce and should be part of what is measured.

6. Formative assessment and authentic, curriculum-based assessments are key for measuring student learning. Rather than designing one test, flexibility is needed so that teachers and schools could choose to target the topics/subjects they are emphasizing. This would mean that in addition to a common platform of topics, that schools that specialize in the arts, in technology, in math, etc. would have options for showcasing their strengths.

7. The assessment design process with the consortia of states, state requirements for procurement, and the other Department of Education requirements should not impede our ability to create the very best tests. Sometimes the best designs come not from a group process with all the compromises that are often made, but rather from the genius of a single person or a small group of people. However, consensus will be needed at some point. Knowing this, we urge the Department not to burden the creative process or dilute the final product through rigid adherence to lock step efforts of a cross-state consortia. Instead, here are some alternatives:

a. The Department might be able to implement a 2 or 3 step process, perhaps by supporting a selected group of researchers, test designers, and educational experts to come together for 2-3 day meetings (or perhaps a series of meetings) to consider options and barriers and come to conclusions regarding the creative aspects PRIOR to the state consortia process. Perhaps then the results of these meetings could serve as a springboard for the state consortia. b. A vehicle like the SBIR (Small Business Innovations Research) process might be used to fund small scale pilots prior to widescale design and implementation. c. Could other ways be found to phase-in the implementation so that adequate feedback and consensus is found prior to final development? d. States should not be required to stick with the assessment vendors they team with. That would be the equivalent of telling consumers to buy a Ford simply because it was made in the US rather than allowing performance to be the yardstick for marketplace endorsements.

e. Some states may want to sign on to 2-3 consortia as part of different approaches to being involved and designing tests. While initially they may be able to sign on to more than one team, the number of sign-ons should be limited ‘“ this would require states to use some discretion in their endorsement process. Perhaps the competition could include a pre-ap phase where up to 3 sign-ons are allowed for individual states. At the point of the invitation for the final application, states should be allowed to only sign on to only one plan. f. At least three national projects should be funded.

In closing, thanks again for the opportunity to overhaul our archaic assessment systems. We are looking forward to this next era of educational assessment and educational innovations. Please contact me if I can be of assistance in considering these important next steps.


Christine Y. Mason, Ph.D. Executive Director


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