The Gordon Commission: An Opportunity to Reflect
by Louis M. Gomez - 2014
This introduction is a brief reflection on the import of the Gordon Commission’s work to future considerations of assessment and learning.
It seems that the education landscape has become overrun with accountability almost overnight. Assessments serving high-stakes accountability are everywhere. As a society, we are keen to know which students, which teachers, which classrooms, and which schools are the best. Perhaps this is not surprising. Competition, and the race to designations of merit it engenders, is a powerful organizer of human activity. Perhaps accountability is the right way to organize and assess schooling. As the world we are creating makes new, and more complex, demands on citizens and work, the Gordon Commission asks us to consider how we should conduct assessment into the future.
This generation of assessments promised answers to simple but compelling questions. How am I doing? Do I meet the standard? Am I doing better than the next person? Is my child exceeding the standard? Is my childs teacher the best in the school? Is my school the best in the district? The list goes on and on. Seemingly simple questions. Yet, we are compelled to ask, Are they the right questions for this time and for our nations needs? Test-based policy and practices have, in a very short period of time, become a taken-for-granted infrastructure. The Gordon Commission and the papers in this special issue offer us a chance to pause and rethink our test-based policies and practices. The commissions work encourages us to ask the question, What should be the true north guiding assessment into the next generation?
True north points the way to an overarching shared goal. Accountabilityidentifying who is besthas become our de facto true north. The Gordon Commission asks us to consider whether accountability is the proper true north to guide action as we move toward the middle of the century. An identifiable true north has great import for understanding decisions and activities resulting from, or responding to, decisions. A north star places our activity in context. With a clear goal in sharp relief, activity makes sense. For example, if the goal is simple accountability, low-cost single-point-in-time assessments are sensible things to build. With clear goals, a true north, when faced with a new problem, like those that will surely be presented by the Next Generation Science Standards, we know what to do. If accountability is our North Star, the blueprint is clear. We would, in one way or another, know who is best. The papers in this issue encourage us to take a step back from our current thinking, policies, and activities, and to ask ourselves whether the assessments we are building today are the right ones for tomorrow. Is accountability the north star for the next generation of policy and practice?
The papers in this special issue, drawing on many perspectives and evidentiary bases, encourage readers to consider the proposition that the vast array of test scores we are collecting may not be the indicators of attainment we need as we head to the middle of the century. The commissions activities allow us to wonder aloud whether the modern assessments provide a useful window on opportunity and its enhancement. Witness, for example, that large numbers of students meet high school graduation standards, as judged by one test, but are deemed under-prepared for college by another test. Sensing failure, what do we do? One response might be to simply raise the high school accountability bar. In thoughtful ways, the papers in the issue consider broader options.
In school organizations around the country, accountability systems and high-stakes assessments guide practice in the schoolhouse and policy in the statehouse. Scores on these assessments tell us, we hope, that students are learning and that some school organizations, and even states, are up to snuff while others are not. Is this what progress should mean to us? Where do we go next? Should we change the question? Rather than asking, How am I doing? should we ask, How can we do better? What should assessments look like if the improvement of learning and teaching, rather than accountability, were the north star?
The papers contained in this special issue offer readers the chance to imagine assessment anew. The papers highlight the importance of reimagining the educated citizen, considering the importance of teaching and learning contexts to assessment, and reframing what information assessments can provide for us to help us understand skills, knowledge, and socialemotional perspectives that influence what and how people learn. Gordon and Pellegrinos papers ask us to imagine the educated citizen of the 21st century. This, they argue, should inform deliberations about, and designs of, assessments. At the core of these deliberations and findings of the commission is a call for researchers, practitioners, and policy makers to come to understand how assessment systems might help educators to incrementally help develop people toward that goal. The papers point out that, at the very least, new societal demands ought to give rise to conversations about the appropriate goals for assessment systems. If the field is to make progress, a clear sense of the goalthe true northis necessary.
If we are to move beyond accountability to improvement, Mislevys paper helps us to see that contexts of teaching and learning must be very important to assessment systems of the future. The assessment field might need new ways to capture evidence for assessments. Techniques capable of constructing understanding of various sources gathered from inside and outside of school might be critical to effectively move beyond accountability. These may, for example, allow students to express their growth in knowledge in multiple ways. Such techniques might reveal how contexts contribute to variability. Understanding in detail how variability contributes to opportunities to learn may be less important to accountability but are crucial to improvement.
The papers provided by Behrens and Dicerbo and Bennett continue an emphasis on a theme that sensitivity to contexts will be very important to the development of viable assessments in the future. If we are to understand how people learn and where they learn, these papers suggest that we will need technologies that are better integrated into the work of learning and schooling. According to these ideas, the work of teaching and learning itself should be better instrumented. In so doing, assessments can be informed by multiple streams of data that can come from the classroom, the home, and while students are on the go. In short, wherever people learn. This work encourages us to break with single-point-in-time notions of assessment.
Gordons paper in this issue suggests that assessments have to pay more attention to ways of knowing and understanding that extend beyond memory for facts and the reproduction of what is known. New technologies are going to be necessary if assessments FOR education are to attend to knowledge production, relational generativity, problem solving, and determining how to help learners develop a mastery of these capacities.
An overarching message in the issue is that we ought to be asking more of our assessments, and of students, than knowledge of facts. The authors in this issue offer many important ideas. They coalesce around the need for assessment that enables understanding of how students learn. Such understanding can provide information to students and teachers to help them do better as teaching and learning persons. Assessments, according to ideas in this issue, should be up to the challenge of informing practice in ways that fit the contexts where people learn. Assessments should be able to provide timely information at scales that matter to practice. Assessments should be sensitive to the fact that helping students improve is not only an intellective matter, but a social and emotional one as well. People are complex systems and we are actors in a complex system. The papers here underscore that assessments, in the next generation, must be mindful of their setting and what such settings might mean for the assessments to be useful.
The papers in this issue also underscore that it will take great scientific accomplishment to effectively craft a new generation of assessments. We dont know how to do it. The old blueprints to construct assessments need to be augmented with new knowledge. Hence, we have a need for a newly articulated north star. The way forward is uncertain. This special issue is as timely as were the deliberations of the Gordon Commission. Every now and again it is important to pause and ask ourselves, What is our true north? This issue offers us that opportunity.