Smarter Balanced Cut Points – What’s With That?

The lead article in the December 3 Education Week announces that the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) — the organization that will provide high stakes assessments for English / language Arts (ELA) and mathematics in Maine and 21 other states — has set the “cut points” for proficiency at a level that is likely to ensure that most students will be judged as “not proficient.” Specifically, they expect that only 41% of 11th graders will be judged as proficient in ELA; for mathematics only a third of 11th graders are likely to be proficient.

Huh? Why would they do that? 

Here is the explanation that one member of the Smarter Balanced executive committee provides to Education Week:  “We have an opportunity to change what assessment means inside our classrooms, an opportunity to make it really about improving teaching and learning.”

Ok … but I am still trying to understand how scaring the bejesus out of everyone working in schools is going to improve teaching and learning.

I do understand that it appears that SBAC really will be testing different kinds of know-how. All indications to this point are that the new tests will focus much more on assessing student understanding of a subject and much less on recall.  I can see how that change in assessment could improve the context for teaching and learning.

But SBAC is just one part of the context, and to the extent that it becomes yet another threat that schools must quickly respond to, it could make actually undermine capacity for improvement.

In 1996 Richard Elmore of the Harvard Graduate School of Education noted that the only way to actually improve student learning is to make changes at “the core of instructional practice” which he described as “how teachers understand the nature of knowledge and the student’s role in learning, and how these ideas about knowledge and learning are manifested in teaching and classwork.”  That’s still true.

Elmore goes on to say that it is not at all accurate to say that schools resist change. In fact, they are constantly changing and adapting to new regulations, demands, and constraints, The problem is that most of these changes in the institutional arrangements of schooling do not actually improve what happens in the classroom between a teachers, knowledge, and students. From what I see in schools, I would argue that ramping up external demands on schools can have the effect of taking away from time that is spent on the core of instructional practice.

My concern is that by setting the cut points where they have, SBAC will trigger yet another political impulse to blame schools, blame teachers, and call for yet more measurement and accountability.

What I would like to see instead is more focus on providing teachers with time and support for professional learning — more time for teachers to observe each others’ work and to learn from each other, and more opportunities for useful feedback that helps teachers improve their instructional practice.

I am afraid that the blowback from SBAC this spring could take us in the other direction.

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