CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.
Liberation Through Assessment
It all started in the usual way, a diverse group of 50 or so educators from every corner of the United States gathered in a conference room that, while nondescript, was full of anticipation and potential. The participants eagerly chatted amongst themselves, waiting to conclude the afternoon with a session led by CCE Senior Associates Brittney Sampson and Julianna Charlie Brown on Liberation as a Tool for Assessment, but not entirely sure what they were getting themselves into. After all, what do assessments as they stand in today’s public education system have to do with liberation?
To get the room in the right frame of mind, they first needed to define liberation. Liberation is the joy of freedom from the dehumanization of injustice. Liberation has been desperately sought and fought for throughout history, from Civil Rights, to Women’s Suffrage, to the Black Lives Matter movement. Society is continuously striving for liberation from oppression. When liberated, historically marginalized groups within society experience freedom from injustice and are able to become more fully human.
Brittney and Charlie asked participants to think about what assessments most influence the systems and structures of our schools. There’s NAEP and there are your statewide summative tests such as Smarter Balanced, PARCC, MCAS, NY Regents, and CAASPP. We have college prep and entrance exams including PSAT, AP tests, SAT, and ACT. These assessments have several things in common: Students are required to take them, often by law. Students take them on their own, in isolation. External (often for profit) companies create them and score them, often secretly. They are standardized.
Standardized tests score all students by a single set of restrictive measures. Every student does not succeed in these assessments, and historically oppressed students-, Black and Latinx students, English language learners, and low-income students--perform persistently lower than their white, affluent peers. Twenty years of education reform have done little to “close the achievement gap.” Instead, they are actively working to produce an achievement gap, rather than to measure for one. This was further confirmed by unpacking the history of the modern standardized testing movement in the work of noted eugenicists like Sir Francis Galton and Lewis Turman.
Pushing the discussion forward, Brittney and Charlie prompted participants with the question: How do standardized tests still act to oppress our communities? A popcorn-style conversation began, with each person building off the other, as they filled three chart papers full of answers.
Standardized tests oppress communities as a whole, as well as teachers and students. Because these tests are more closely aligned to the class and level of education of a students’ parents than the instruction they receive in the classroom, communities with generational wealth that have not been excluded from higher education for centuries in this country will appear to have better schools, teachers, and smarter students. The tests inflate some communities’ awareness of school quality and student growth. At the same time, tests usually reflect the dominant culture, so students who lack wealth and aren't white must overcome extra barriers to "achieve" the same scores. Those scores are then used to prop up this same cycle, rewarding or closing schools based on factors beyond the students and their capacity.
So how do we move forward? How do we liberate our students from a standardized testing system explicitly designed to oppress? CCE believes the answer lies in performance assessments, high-quality tasks that ask teachers to design rigorous learning experiences for students. Students, in turn, will cultivate the skills necessary to be leaders as a result. Performance assessments are powerful, and they take many shapes:
Graphics, charts, and other visual analyses
Speeches, debates, and exhibitions
Artistic works and performances
Career Technical Education (CTE) skills: Car repair, hair-styling, carpentry
Performance assessments provide an opportunity for collaboration and communication among peers. They empower students to have a say in the direction of their learning, ensuring assessments are meaningful and relevant to each student’s culture and context. They provide students and parents with clear rubrics that make room for self-assessment and move towards improvement. They authentically engage students and instill a sense of accomplishment. Where standardized tests oppress, performance assessments liberate, working with the intention to close achievement gaps and transform classrooms into culturally-responsive spaces where all students are set up for success.
When we design tools--like performance assessments--that help our most oppressed communities, we liberate everyone. Education justice advocate Chris Emdin wrote in his landmark book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood... and the Rest of Y'all Too:
“The time will always come when teachers must ask themselves if they will follow the mold or blaze a new trail. There are serious risks that come with this decision. It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student.”
To that end, Brittney and Charlie left the group with a charge. Every movement for liberation requires sacrifice and risk. Do we as educators go with the status quo or do we put ourselves on the line and become agents of change?