Here is my response to the recent release of MEAP tests in the state of Michigan.
Continuous improvement is the business of our business. Every day, our teachers use data to inform their decision making. Part of this ongoing process are MEAP test results, which the state provides in February (students in grades 3-9 takes these tests in October) . Just as we do every day, our administrators and teachers examine multiple assessments (e.g., observations, grades, tests, performances, homework, discussions, quizzes). We continuously review our curricula and instruction in comparison to these data. We make adjustments according to our ongoing needs. This is a process that occurs every day in every one of our schools and not just in February when we receive MEAP results. These are the processes of highly effective schools.
As the community is aware, Michigan, along with 46 other states, will soon discontinue the use of the MEAP (or whatever standardized test each state uses) and begin instead using the Smarter Balanced Assessment, which is based upon the Common Core Curriculum. These assessments will ask our students to demonstrate higher order thinking skills (examples at http://sampleitems.
smarterbalanced.org/ itempreview/sbac/index.htm). The reason for the change in assessment is that we, as an educational community and based upon research, know that knowledge (as demonstrated on the MEAP or other multiple-choice/one-right- answer assessments) is only one essential skill necessary for success in our world. Other, equally important skills include: critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, and curiosity and imagination (Wagner, 2010). These skills are not measured by the MEAP, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment will attempt to measure them.
Hence, the Clarkston Community Schools is focused upon preparing our students for the future, including success on the higher-order-thinking assessments. We are not focused on the past or on the MEAP.
Many educational experts and politicians in our world suggest that the achievement of our students is measured solely by standardized tests (such as the MEAP) and that educators should use these results to drive all decisions (including teacher evaluation, merit pay, school effectiveness, state funding, and principal effectiveness). Some people suggest that school districts should carefully scrutinize MEAP test results, identify students within each achievement category, and work diligently to move students from one category to another. Of course, we could do this, but why would we? Why would we focus solely on improving our students' test taking skills? Why would we give our students a test once each year, await the results for four to five months, and only then make adjustments to our teaching and curricula? Why would we focus on the past and not the present or the future? Why would we focus on a test that only measures knowledge and only at one point in time? These types of practices are a disservice to our students, teachers, staff, and community.
The essence of education and achievement is what kids can do with what they know. Achievement, among other things, is a result of what happens every day with every child in every classroom in every school. As Richard Elmore says, "From pre-K to high school, the make-or-break factor is the 'instructional core' — the skills of the teacher, the engagement of the students and the rigor of the curriculum. To succeed, students must become thinkers, not just test-takers." Certainly, we as educators would be negligent if we did not engage our students as thinkers every day and not just in response to annual test results from the state of Michigan.
So, the results that we've received from the state are the results. We will use these results--along with other measures--to examine our curriculum, adjust our instruction, and engage our students more deeply as thinkers and not just test takers. We won't use the results as a single picture of the ability of our students, our teachers, our principals, or our schools. We won't compare ourselves to other schools. We won't compare one student to another. We won't compare ourselves to the rest of the state. We will continue instead to use research to inform our practices, to support our students' learning every day, and to continuously enhance our students as thinkers, learners, and positive contributors to a global society.
If I, as the superintendent of schools, were to focus my attention on MEAP scores, I would be contradicting the messages I send to teachers and students each day about learning. I would be saying to them that, 'despite what we know and believe about teaching and learning, I want you to make sure that our students do better on the MEAP test.' I would be saying that, 'because these tests get lots of attention from the press and because the state might evaluate my effectiveness as a superintendent on these test results, it is important that our students do well and that our teachers focus on these tests.' In the process, our teachers would wonder why I constantly talk about thinking and learning and the development of the entire mind. They'd wonder why I am inconsistent and reactionary. Certainly, these are not the kind of messages I would want to send and not the kind of learning environment that I wish to foster and promote.
Instead, I want to focus on the culture of the classroom. The engagement of students. The capacity of our students to use what they know, and not just know it.
If we are going to become the best school district we can become; if we are going to ensure that our school district fully cultivates each student as a thinker, learner, and positive contributor to a global society, then we are going to have to stay the course of coherence. We are going to have to focus. We are going to have to overcome the pressures that come at us from outside entities. We are going to have to critically think and problem solve; collaborate across grade levels and buildings; with agility and adaptability manage assessment and instruction; practice initiative and entrepreneurialism; effectively communicate (both orally and in writing); access and analyze a variety of information; and curiously and imaginatively learn, teach, and lead. We can't say one thing and do something else. We must stay the course of coherence.
This is exactly what we will do.