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Beyond the Scantron: Former Louisiana School Chief John White — The Next Monumental Task in Education Is to Create Tests That Build Knowledge

By Anne Wicks and William McKenzie | September 22, 2020

(Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

This piece is part of “Beyond the Scantron: Tests and Equity in Today’s Schools,” a three-week series produced in collaboration with the George W. Bush Institute to examine key elements of high-quality exams and illuminate why using them well and consistently matters to equitably serve all students. Read all the pieces in this series as they are published here. Read our previous accountability series here.

John White served as the state superintendent of schools in Louisiana from 2012 to 2020, which made the former English teacher America’s longest-serving state chief at the close of his service. During his tenure, he focused on such reforms as improving teacher training programs and strengthening curriculum. His Louisiana leadership began when the University of Virginia graduate led the post-Katrina Recovery School District in New Orleans. He previously served as deputy chancellor of schools in New York City under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Courtesy of John White

White spoke with us about the role high-quality testing plays in improving teaching and learning. He offered advice to educators, policymakers, and parents about the start of another school year impacted by the coronavirus. And he shared his thoughts about innovations in testing and how building knowledge is the next monumental task for our education system.

What role do you think assessment plays in teaching and learning? And how do you think about assessment when it comes to accountability policy?

Assessment gives teachers direction as to students’ needs while it shapes their behaviors and pedagogy. Of course, under the federal laws and most state laws, assessment is also part of the foundation for how states evaluate schools and evaluate educators. The more that stakes are attached to the assessment, the more sway it is going to have over the instructional approaches of teachers.

As a result, we have to think of high-quality tests in the context of the broad missions of schools and be very clear as to what precisely our tests measure and whether our reliance on tests should be broadened to include other measures.

Schools clearly have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. What advice would you offer policymakers, educators, and parents as they think about assessment in the 2020-21 school year?

Several states petitioned the federal government to relax a couple of years of the federal requirements to test students. On its face that seems understandable. They’re acknowledging that may not be a comparable situation from one community to the next in a year in which schooling is so atypical.

At the same time, I’m troubled by the call for waivers without any vision for what should be in its place. In the absence of state testing, it may well be that we have no way of verifying how much learning was lost during a time when it’s particularly critical that we measure that loss. It’s unlikely that we’re going to be able to rate schools comparably in every state. The situation is too volatile. But that doesn’t diminish the need for validating whether or not kids actually learned. In fact, it accentuates the need for validating student learning.

What test, if any, should districts or states give to determine what students may or may not have lost since March?

Every state is in a different circumstance. At the minimum, states should be assuring that districts have strong formative assessments or strong periodic assessments, especially in math. They should be looking at students’ skills and knowledge and baselining those skills.

I am more skeptical of diagnostic reading tests for older students that promote the thinking that reading is no different from math, in that it’s a sequence of skills that you build on top of one another. That is not true and has led to some unfortunate practices in teaching reading.

In mathematics and in early reading, states should provide districts tools to make sure that we quantify where students are in the continuum. There is a lot of evidence that students are losing math skills in particular.

Is there a way to make high-stakes assessments more actionable?

The assessments that teachers, schools, districts, and publishers make — I’m talking about tests that are administered over the school year — very often create different incentives from those that the end-of-the-year test creates. This creates an unfocused system, which is a lot of our problem now.

That lack of focus exists because we have not implemented standards-based reform in the way that we started talking about standards-based reform 30 years ago. We’ve implemented the measurement and evaluation dimensions it, and, to a degree, interventions. Because of No Child Left Behind, there is a quantifiable way in every state of validating whether or not kids have learned. There’s a way of rating schools based upon that, and there’s some plan to intervene in schools that are not up to par.

But standards-based reform was supposed to drive up the quality of the daily student experience, from the knowledge students were learning to the skills they were building. The standards were supposed to embody that. But we have not, until recently, really focused on, say, the quality of curriculum in the classroom or the extent to which a teacher is prepared to teach a specific curriculum.

Thepillars of standards-based reform have thus not really been realized. If you were to realize them, the standards would drive school systems to adopt a much stronger curriculum and to spend time equipping teachers with the expertise to teach that curriculum in every way it’s intended to be taught. Curriculum is where learning starts at scale, and it’s where assessment could start at scale. You want assessments to embody the curriculum.

The problem is that states and often districts are reticent to put a thumb on the scale of measuring what’s in the curriculum. They want to measure everything under the sun and to be agnostic as to what the curriculum contains. That’s particularly been detrimental to reading and knowledge-building subjects like literature, science, and social studies.

Your team in Louisiana focused on delivering strong curriculum tied to standards and assessment to drive student learning. What surprised you about what parents and educators understood — or didn’t understand — about this process?

We spend a lot of time in America talking about the structures and politics of education. To be sure, there are some good reasons for that. In a country that has so marginalized historically disadvantaged people, it’s an understandable thing that the federal government would step in to assure, through measurement, that students are taught to those standards.

But we talk a lot less about what those standards imply, which is knowledge. We have raised a generation of teachers, and in a way the expectation of communities, that can talk about tests, growth, and learning without talking about knowledge — what students actually know.

There are no well-educated people who lack a strong basis of knowledge. People don’t pull ideas out of nowhere simply because they are creative. It just doesn’t happen. The Elon Musks of the world are able to invent things partially, and essentially, because they have deep, deep knowledge of the material that they’re talking about.

If there is something that has surprised me, it is how uncommon that thinking is within the education industry and how much of a course correction we need to get back to it. When we talk about people as being well-educated, as being able to get by in a dynamic world, we’re referring in large part to the fact that they know a lot of things that matter.

We are shy to say that it matters that you know stuff. We devalue it, and we’re afraid of the politics of it. If you look at our current civic condition in America, whatever your politics, that’s coming back to bite us.

There is a lot behind our nation’s inability to overcome the more troubling aspects of its past. My view is that the basic lack of knowledge within our citizenry is a serious part of it. Where has our country been? What has happened to our fellow Americans? What have we done right, and what have we done wrong? And what are the opportunities for change? If you don’t educate people in those facts of the past and how they’ve been interpreted, for better and for worse, how do you expect them to be progressive and empathetic when it comes to civil rights issues in the future?

What would you recommend to the people preparing and supporting teachers?

Like anyone else, teachers want clarity — on curriculum and what’s expected of their students. That is not anathema to creativity in the classroom. It is the foundation of creativity in the classroom. Just giving teachers Google and Pinterest and saying, “Have at it,” which is true in many school systems, is at best time consuming and at worst deeply detrimental to students. It means that students are learning one thing one day and another thing the next day, one thing one year and another thing the next year. No person who has ever pursued a good education in the sciences or liberal arts would see that as being the path to becoming well-educated.

We first need to encourage leaders to choose a high-quality curriculum, stick with it over time, and train teachers to use that specific curriculum and support them. Second, we need to create the incentives for teachers to work with that idea, not against it. You can’t give them a high-quality curriculum, say you will support them in using it, and none of it shows up on the tests at the end of year.

What innovations in testing excite you as you look ahead?

We need to do more to understand what works in the early grades. State tests don’t account for learning in the most foundational years of a child’s elementary experience, which occurs in grades K-2. I would like to see much more of a national dialogue about how we both reliably measure and validate students’ learning in those grades. How do we reward schools that do it well? The federal framework has no rewards for schools that teach their kids to read early on, for example other than some distant promise that, come third grade, they’ll test well.

Second, as I said, I’d like to see assessments embody the curriculum and to incent the foundation of being well-educated, which is knowledge. If kids read an assigned text and understand that text deeply, the students should have the chance to demonstrate their knowledge on the test.

Finally, I do think that a finer measurement of work-ready skills, validated through strong assessments free of bias, holds great promise for more efficiently matching skilled people with job opportunities. I think that could be a real move toward a much more equitable system of hiring, job access, and upward mobility, if at the same time we are cognizant of the assessment’s potential for reinforcing bias.

Is there anything else important to note about assessments that we didn’t get to yet?

The ACT/SAT suspension by the University of California system is a seismic moment in education policy. That would have gotten more attention had it not been for the racial uprisings and for the pandemic.

Higher education has a signaling power to the K-12 system as to what it values. I am sympathetic to those who have concerns that standard assessment, and especially admissions testing, is part of a structure that has had the effect of – and some would say the intent of – further stratifying and segregating our society.

It will be interesting to see if a middle ground around assessment and credentialing emerges from this complicated political moment. That path would be principled in its commitment to both disrupting racist systems and using measurement to actually improve the education system. In other words, a middle ground might acknowledge both the flaws in assessment’s role as an arbiter of advantage and disadvantage, as well as its necessity as a means of assuring a quality education for all Americans, irrespective of background. That is going to be difficult politically and a difficult place for a leader to inhabit. But I do see it as an opportunity.

It’s almost inevitable that whenever the next education secretary comes in, under whatever President, he or she will inherit a very complicated world on both the higher education front and the K-12 front vis-a-vis assessment. It will be necessary to advance a vision. I anxiously await it.

Anne Wicks is the Ann Kimball Johnson Director of the George W. Bush Institute’s Education Reform Initiative.

William McKenzie is senior editorial advisor at the George W. Bush Institute.

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