Testimony from Matthew Mohs, Jan. 22, 2013

Testimony on Assessment to House Education Policy Committee, by Matthew Mohs, Interim Chief Academic Officer, St. Paul Public Schools, Jan. 22, 2013

Mister Chairman, Members of the Committee,

Good morning.  I am Matthew Mohs, the Interim Chief Academic Officer for the Saint Paul Public Schools.  I served as co-chair of the Commissioner’s Working Group on Assessment and Accountability and have been involved in discussions regarding assessment and accountability for fifteen years.  I know you will have more opportunity to discuss the recommendations from the Working Group later this session, so I will not go discuss those specifics today.  Rather I will keep my remarks more focused on issues regarding the role of assessment in our public schools.  While I will reference other types of assessments, especially classroom based assessments, I will do my best to stay focused on the types of assessments you influence and authorize.

In preparing for this morning, I could not help but reflect on my personal journey in understanding assessment, both standardized and classroom based, and its role in education.  As a first year classroom teacher, I used tests to help me determine if students had learned the material and to assign grades.  I quickly learned that this use, while necessary, was the least helpful, both to me and to the students.  If my goal was to gauge the skills of individual students and to provide feedback for improvement, then I needed to evolve as a teacher.  As a result, my perspective on assessment and its role in education had to evolve.  I began to view assessments as a vehicle for feedback, as an opportunity to promote growth and improvement, rather than render judgment.

To borrow a simple metaphor used in this building often, it might be helpful to consider assessment as one leg of a three-legged stool.  In tandem with strong curriculum and great instruction, assessments provide the foundation for a world-class education.  If any of the legs become too weak or too strong, the whole stool will tip over.  Assessment of all kinds – from the simplest checks for understanding used by teachers frequently – to the large scale, high stakes assessments that often spring to mind when we speak about assessment – have not always been viewed as equally important in this triad.  I maintain that a well-designed, well-balanced assessment system is essential for a quality education.  But BALANCE is key.  And, from my perspective, we are out of balance.

Assessments alone cannot create, cajole, or catalyze the conditions for excellence.  Assessments are tools that must be carefully crafted for the task primarily intended.  Their use is influenced by the context in which they are situated.  Their impact depends largely upon those who wield the tool and those who experience it.  Like any tool, if you use it the wrong way, you can do real damage.  I could have filled this testimony with anecdotes of individual students who I, and my colleagues in Saint Paul, have worked with over the years who have been deeply impacted by the results of our state assessment system.  But I also recognize that others could produce equally compelling anecdotes often a different perspective.  Both offer us insights about assessments and how they help or hinder our mission in public education.

For too long, assessments, whether they are state administered standardized assessments or teacher created tests, have been used primarily to rank and sort.  This approach served a purpose in its time but many believe that this time has come and gone.  The challenge we face in Saint Paul, and across Minnesota, is ensuring all of our students leave our schools ready for meaningful work and future studies.  Assessments, at the state and local level, will be vital in moving us to accomplishing this task.  But they won’t ensure it, and they easily could hinder us.

If we want to maximize the potential power of assessments, we need to consider a new paradigm – one that supports learning and emphasizes timely feedback for students, families and teachers.  The results are seductive, providing a seemingly objective measure of big concepts like literacy or proficiency.  Students need specific feedback about how to improve and what strengths they can build upon.  They do not need labels applied to results from months ago.  Certainly, online assessments offer some promise to help us make the shift, but it is no magic solution given the issues of capacity in my district and across the state.  Starting last week, it is not an exaggeration to say that Saint Paul will be using the majority of its computers to assess students until the end of the year.  There are very few days where testing will not be part of the instructional day for some students.  Granted, some of these assessments are by choice, but they are forced choices due to limitations in the state assessments.

As we look forward, it is essential that assessments are anchored in the intended outcomes for students and focused.  The more things you ask any single assessment to do, it is very likely that it won’t do any of them well.  So, if we are truly committed to the aspirational goal of college and career readiness for all, then our assessment system needs to be designed to support attainment of that goal.  And that means our assessment system might not be able to support other goals deemed less important.

The Working Group offered the Commissioner broad recommendations for state assessment.  We believe that these recommendations will strike a new balance in regards to assessment.  We started with the end in mind – the goal of college and career readiness for all – and worked back from there, always keeping students and teachers in the forefront.

Thank you.