Are the Opt Outs Pushing the State to Competency-Based Testing?

Half-jokingly I told a friend, “One of these days they’ll staple computer chips into everyone’s earlobe.” Without missing a beat he responded, “Oh, they haven’t done you yet?”

Education Week and ASCD publications are filled with ads for types computer applications that are going to revolutionize education. Every few days I get an invite to a webinar promising to teach me some new application, all sponsored by for-profit enterprises.

Will 3PCO and R2D2 be in front of a classroom in a few years?

The “21st century education” folk argue that technology can enhance and not replace the role and effectiveness of the classroom teacher. Teachers and parents rightfully fear that the actual agenda is to dramatically reduce the teaching force with some iteration of technology-based instruction, absent a teacher in the classroom.

Dr. Ulrik Juul Christensen, M.D., McGraw-Hill Education Senior Fellow, Digital Learning, made a presentation to the Board of Regents in October, 2014,  Christensen argues that  adaptive learning/adaptive technology “… can help enable individualization of the education system in two ways: First, directly through breakthroughs in personalizing and adapting the learning experience for the individual. And second, by helping teachers to be able to spend more of their time on the aspects of learning that truly requires adaptive behavior …”  (Watch a 50-minute U-Tube presentation here).

In the demonstration Christensen envisioned computer software that based upon the answer of a student could generate additional questions geared to the level of the student, the software could measure and affirm levels of competency and inform the teacher of next steps.

In many school districts teachers are measured by the Danielson Framework. The Frameworks see the teacher as the conductor and the classroom as the orchestra: the classroom, led by the teacher-conductor, leading a discussion among the class members, guided by the teacher. Perhaps a Socratic Dialogue, a debate, a pair-share, the interaction involving the entire class of a complex idea.  Danielson, in her discussion of the Instruction Domain,

In the classrooms of accomplished teachers, all students are highly engaged in learning. They make significant contributions to the success of the class through participation in high-level discussions and active involvement in their learning and the learning of others.

The technology crowd seems to be at odds with the Danielson Frameworks.

I am not a Luddite, technology has an important role; however, the lure of R2D2 in front of a classroom, an android who does not belong to a union or need health benefits or a union, is powerful.

On January 8th, Jhone Ebert, the brand new Senior Deputy Commissioner wrote a ten page memo summarizing a number of options to increase graduate rates that had been part of a press release from the commissioner. BTW, these ideas or concepts had not been discussed by the regents.

The memo went well past the press release by the commissioner in describing the concept of performance tasks replacing the regents examination for students who had failed the exam.

In a list of bullets Ebert wrote,

* Administration of performance -based assessment (PBA) in a computerized and supervised testing situation.

And goes on to expound the idea of a project replacing a regents exam (Read the entire document here).

By its very nature, a project-based assessment is composed of a number of interrelated performance tasks, and this format leads itself to being delivered to students through a secure online portal rather than paper and pencil methods. Through an online portal the student will be able to experience innovative performance tasks, and, will be able to constantly interact with their teacher/tutor for support and guidance. The use of the technology portal would also aid in expedited scoring and the return of instructionally relevant information to the student and the student/s teacher/tutor.

Is the commissioner considering a kid sitting at a computer terminal for hours knocking out a report with a teacher/tutor offering online advice?   Is this the equivalent of passing a regents exam?  Is the teacher the tutor or is a tutor a non-educator expert? And many, many others questions

The author of the report, Jhone Ebert, now the # 2 person in the State Education Department comes to New York from Las Vegas, read her Linked-In bio,

 As a former high school mathematics teacher, I traveled a non-traditional path to the position of Chief Technology Officer for the fifth largest school district in the nation, the Clark County School District, in Las Vegas, NV. In addition to serving as founding principal of an online virtual high school.

 I understand the need to move student learning beyond the 8 am to 3 pm classroom environment. My close touch with the realities of the classroom make me especially sensitive to the impact technology has at the place where it matters most, namely the intersection of student learning and teacher instruction. In order to have technology make a difference it must improve the interaction between and among students, teachers, and content … We have restructured the [Clark County – Las Vegas]Technology Division and we are working with the school and business community to reach the Superintendent’s vision of 100,000 students in blended and online learning by 2015.

In her prior position Ms. Ebert espoused positions that may or may not be the positions of the educational leadership in New York State.

Again, I am not anti-technology; I favor using technology to enhance the classroom experience. When a piece of my technology fumbles I go to Google and hope that the U-Tube is providing me with the right solution. I attended a lecture by Timothy Snyder, a historian with a controversial view of the Holocaust , the next day, again, U-Tube; I listened to a couple of his lectures on the same and similar topics. Google, U-Tube and Siri are part of our lives and the lives of our students.

Sitting in front of a computer terminal for hours punching keys and eventually achieving competency, or, so say the computer software folks, to me, is not education.

Eric Rohy, an executive at Questar, the new testing company in New York State has a different view (Read entire essay here),

… 21st century teaching needs … individualized and personalized instruction, personalized learning, competency-based grouping and progression, seamless blending of instruction and assessment, and timely impact of assessment results to affect instruction.

Students can’t receive personalized instruction and personalized learning when a teacher has to teach to the most common denominator. We can solve this problem with technology by giving every student a tablet device that wirelessly connects to adaptive software in the cloud — and treat them as the students’ own, personal whiteboards, with lesson plans that target their level of mastery; instruction tailored to their individual learning styles and capability levels; and learning modules presented just to them. A single assessment when students first enter the school, regardless of their age, would easily determine at what level of instruction these on-the-tablet lessons would begin.

Rohy goes on to describe a personalized learning system of ungraded schools in which students would progress as they gain competencies regardless of their age.

I have doubts, I would like to see research findings, and, if a school district wants to move forward with a pilot, with parents and teachers in agreement, let’s take a look.

Education Week reported that student who took the PARCC tests online received lower grades than the pen and pencil test takers. Perhaps after a year or so the types of test will no longer matter, or, conversely, it will matter a great deal. We do know that the MOOCs (Massive Online Open Classes) have hundreds of thousands of course takers, also with massive dropout rates, only 10% complete the courses.

The largest movement to competency-based education with significant use of technology is in New Hampshire, eight school districts, four in year one , four in year two are fully engaged in what is envisioned as a K-20 movement to competency-based education. The 2 Revolutions consultancy is leading the effort, “New Hampshire Goes First: A Blueprint to Scale a Competency-Based Education across a preK-20” (Read very detailed description here)

In the race to move away from federally required state tests is the move to competency-based education the right direction?  Are the required tests with the concomitant test prep and computer-based competency based testing the Scylla and Charybdis of our time?

With new leadership on the Board of Regents and three new members I would expect a full discussion of the direction of the highest education policy-making body in the state.

3 responses to “Are the Opt Outs Pushing the State to Competency-Based Testing?

  1. Research in brain theory and processing overwhelmingly reveal that learning and memory are strongly associated with social and emotional experiences. Along these lines, human responses, interaction and validation reinforce conceptual connectivity and clinch learning related to knowledge and performance. Does this compute?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am appauled that the PBAt concept– so similar to what wouuld at the graduate level be called ‘oral exams’ , is being mashed and pablumized into a computer based “project”. The entire value of the PBAt process, which has proved an excellent indicator of future college success, rest upon its intellectual integrity. The whole point is that the student, after several months of directed study arrives at a comprehensive project– and presentation which is seen and marked by teachers and a outside [state] observer. That is a PBAt process– not a computer ap..


  3. You are on the right track. I hope you’ll consider connecting with Emily in Maine. We need to get more people to understand that opting out of the end of the year tests is only the beginning. There’s a much harder fight ahead of us and it’s all been planned out for a long time. We’re just starting to realize the extent of what we are up against.


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