Cashing In on Opt Out?

Despite the fact that Maine dropped out of the Smarter Balanced Consortium this spring, McGraw-Hill Education, maker of the SBAC Assessment, has managed to stay a step ahead of us.

The same corporation that designed a test for fourth graders full of ninth-grade level reading passages and left more than handful of my kids in tears after they spent hours navigating its confusing, glitchy online interface, has sold its “summative assessment” assets to Data Recognition Corporation so that it can focus on the burgeoning “personalized,” “adaptive” learning market that is driving big pieces of the ESEA reauthorization. 

Scott Marion, associate director of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, said in Education Week  that companies are always trying to gauge “where the market goes next,” and that “non-summative work is the next frontier.”

(Funny, that’s what I called it too.)

“Summative,” of course, means the big end-of-year test, which at least a handful of those at the top are encouraging us to move away from… but not for the reasons we would hope.

While most of us who teach and/or have children in public schools view the Opt-Out Movement as a way to protest corporate and profit-driven education reform, others – like Tom Vander Ark – see the movement away from the big-end-of-year test as a way to usher in a new era of all-encompassing, “competency-based” digital-ed reform that has the potential to make companies like McGraw-Hill Education bigger bucks than ever before.

Competency-based systems, which are rapidly and, in many cases, quietly, sweeping our nation by way of legislation crafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, essentially take the big test and spread it out over the course of the entire year, while restructuring our schools into grade-less systems where promotion and graduation is based on successful demonstration of certain outcomes.  (Whose outcomes is a question for another day.)

Vander Ark, who previously served as Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and now has a resume that includes, among other powerful positions, serving as treasurer for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), Board Chair of Charter Board Partners, director of Bloomboard, Digital Learning Institute, and Imagination Foundation and advisor to the National Association for Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) and New Classrooms explains the shift toward this “new frontier” like this:

What’s new? There have been six important assessment developments since NCLB was enacted in 2002:

  • Student internet access has improved sufficiently to support an expectation of frequent online learning and assessment.
  • Performance assessment tools make it easier to construct, manage, and assess projects and standards-aligned prompts (see features on LDC CoreTools, and Buck Institute).
  • Embedded assessments are incorporated into many forms of digital content.
  • Formative assessment systems have improved dramatically. Platforms like MasteryConnect, Acuity, Edmodo, OpenEd, and Schoology make it easy to build, administer, and share standards-aligned assessments.
  • Adaptive assessment, such as MAPS from NWEA, is widely used. Adaptive learning, which combines adaptive assessment and targeted tutoring, is gaining widespread use in blended learning models. Providers include DreamBox (K-8 math) i-Ready from Curriculum Associates (k-8 math and reading), ALEKS from McGraw Hill (mostly secondary use).
  • Broader aims of student success, including self management and relational skills, are widely recognized as important and are being incorporated into state and district goals. The hard to measure skills and dispositions require broader feedback systems than traditional standardized testing.

A few months ago, many of us were perplexed when Education Commission of the States, which partners with Pearson (maker of the PARCC) produced this document offering information on Opt-Out. But, given that its funders include Lumina, which has been busy “leading the discussion ” on competency-based education, and the Gates Foundation, which has been instrumental in bringing competency (also known as proficiency) based policies to our states – oh! and also partners with BloomBoard and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (see Vander Arks’s resume above) – does it make anyone else wonder if perhaps at least some of these folks were hoping we’d be up in arms over the new tests?

If the final ESEA reauthorization promotes “innovative” testing systems for competency-based systems, as the Senate version does now, while awarding grants for experiments in digital, adaptive learning, as an amendment in House version currently does, will these guys be laughing all the way to the bank?


Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

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