12 June 2010

Balancing Act

I have been thinking a lot about balance recently---not so much in a life sense (work vs. personal life), but the types of decisions made at a state or federal level about assessment.

The Common Core Standards were released last week. Washington did not display the teenager-like enthusiasm of a few others who jumped on the document before it was even complete. Our restraint lasted until the day of release. Ahem. One assumes that others are taking a more, um, stately approach toward this event.

It isn't that I don't understand the appeal of a single set of standards. What's good for kids to know and be able to do in Washington would seem to have much in common with other states. If we carry that thought a step further and consider assessment, it also makes sense that each state not be spending millions of dollars with their own little wheels to invent. State-level assessment is not going away, no matter how much we debate its usefulness---why not make the development process as efficient as possible?

My fear is that in the spirit of all the compromises which have to be made in order for a single set of standards or assessments to serve their many masters, things become average. Sure, lesser quality areas get a boost---but those which were excellent lose their edge. A diversity of options is a good thing. We are moving away from Survival of the Fittest when it comes to ideas and exchanging them for mediocrity. This is not a trade which should ever be made.

I heard this week that there is pressure to make our state assessments "cookie cutter." If we don't use exactly the same type of rubric with the same number of points on it---well, that's apparently a bad thing. Ditto for other ways we package assessment materials. I was told that if we aren't uniform, schools will complain that things are too confusing. Where's the balance---make things identical (i.e. dumb things down for perceived complainants) or make things meaningful for the content? If I need three levels of performance for educational technology and you need four for math, then the balance for me is what best communicates to the student about their learning---not some magic number in a rubric column. I find these sorts of conversations a ridiculous waste of time...and yet, we are apparently being forced to have them with the edu-teabaggers.

Draft assessments for educational technology will be posted in a few days. What I hope is that people see that we've tipped the balance in favour of the student. This is not to say that there haven't been compromises along the way in terms of the pieces included, formatting, word choice, and other features. There will no doubt be calls over the next year to revise things to suit different stakeholders. We will accommodate what we can, but when it comes to what is best for content and kids, there will be no negotiating with the cookie cutter wannabes. They're far too off-balance to ever be satisfied.

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