ESSA: Are the “Innovative Assessment Zones” a Giant Trojan Horse?

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) recommends that we push our states to become one of the seven “innovative assessment” pilot zones now allowed by the ESSA reauthorization.

But should we?

For those of us who are trying desperately to protest the corporate takeover of our public education system, it appears that we are being ushered into yet another trap.

It turns out that these innovative assessment zones are a creation of Gates-funded organizations who been busy restructuring our public school system into one that is highly profitable for investors but of questionable value for our children.

Prior to the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, KnowledgeWorks, iNACOL, the Council for Chief State School Officers, and America Forward – which together have received will over 100 million dollars in grants from the Gates Foundation – worked closely with the Senate HELP committee to “design a workable program that would enable states to produce the next generation of high quality assessments.”

The goal is to enable states to design assessment systems that will align with the corporate-drive toward the experimental “personalized,” competency-based systems into which investors like Reed Hastings of Netflix and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook have recently been pouring millions.

In a letter dated January 21st, 2016, the organizations listed above offered Congress a“clarification of intent” on the new assessment law.

“Competency-based education systems employ a variety of assessments, including formative and summative, designed to support and evaluate student learning of key competencies and to evaluate how well students have synthesized their learning over a school year or other unit of time,” they write.

“ Performance-based assessments must be a key component of competency-based assessment systems, because they can be used to support instructional decisions to determine students’ areas of strengths and needs, but can also be used summatively to certify student mastery of competencies.”

The letter, signed by Susan Patrick of iNACOL, also recommends that the assessment zone peer review panel include a “competency education expert” – even though there is still no research showing the effectiveness of such a model, and so “experts” in the field are only those who have proclaimed themselves as such.

For those following the push toward competency-based education, it should be no surprise that former Gates executive and Learn Capital Partner, Tom Vander Ark, is a strong proponent of these assessment systems.

“With so much protest, it may go without saying but the problem with week long summative tests is that they take too much time to administer; they don’t provide rapid and useful feedback for learning and progress management; and test preparation rather than preparation for college, careers, and citizenship has become the mission of school. And, with no student benefit many young people don’t try very hard and increasingly opt out,” Vander Ark writes. “But it is no longer necessary or wise to ask one test to do so many jobs when better, faster, cheaper data is available from other sources.”

But is FairTest’s vision of a revamped assessment system fundamentally different from the one being advocated by KnowledgeWorks, iNACOL, and the rest of the privatizers – and is it possible to be part of one of these “zones” without signing up to be part of the corporate model?

It’s hard to tell.

One of FairTest’s prominent board members, Deborah Meier, sits on a handful of boards with David Ruff and Dan French, both of whom lead Gates-funded groups that are busy moving states toward the unproven competency-based model of education. The Coalition of Essential Schools, of which Meier is Vice Chair, even shares a mailing address with the Great Schools Partnership, which is now reworking Maine schools from the inside-out into proficiency (competency)-based models.

One thing I do know: when it comes to education reform, Trojan horses abound.





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.

4 thoughts on “ESSA: Are the “Innovative Assessment Zones” a Giant Trojan Horse?”

  1. In their link, KnowledgeWorks touts their collaboration with Senators Angus King (I-ME), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Susan Collins (R-ME), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) to craft the policy.

    This may provide clues to why Bernie is not touting this policy on the campaign trail – he proclaims on his website opposition to bubble tests, and has spoken about his desire for kids to be assessed based on classwork and creative projects, but utlimately, he may not be 100% happy with the final package because it’s a witches brew that iNACOL and other reformsters had a hand in….

    Very interesting post, thanks!


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