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Are we Simply Tinkering with Equity?


State Superintendent Tony Thurmond opening up a discussion on high school assessments

I was invited to participate on an expert panel discussion at the California Department of Education on Monday, May 6, 2019 about the use of high school assessments to predict academic success in post-secondary education. This is a practice that dates back to 1899 when the College Entrance Examination Board (later the College Board) was founded at Columbia University by 12 universities and three high school preparatory academies. The purpose was to establish a course of study in high schools and a test that could be used to determine admissions in post secondary-education.


119 years later, we are still using nearly the same criteria. The question becomes, is this an acceptable practice today? On one hand, researchers say that college entrance exams do a good job of predicting college success when combined with high school grades. On the other hand researchers say this is an antiquated system of selecting and sorting students with a bias towards family income and many other demographic characteristics.


The panel included:

• Michal Kurlaender, Professor of Education Policy at UC Davis School of Education

• Young Whan Choi, Manager of Performance Assessments at Oakland Unified School District

• Claude Steele, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University's Department of Psychology

• James Popham, Emeritus Professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies

• Michael McCormick, Superintendent at Val Verde Unified School District


I was proud to be part of such an amazing group of panelists with expertise on this topic and passionate about their perspectives, all backed by research. After opening remarks from each panelist, I began to ponder whether the we were responding to the right question. We were asked to respond to the following prompt: what are the quality measures of predicting college success and the equity implications for accurately assessing students’ knowledge and skills? Well, it depends if we are operating in our current system or envisioning an entirely new system.


In the current system, I submit that my district and many others are doing better than ever in preparing first-generation, college-going students by creating a culture of success through new opportunities. These opportunities include: rigorous course of study, access to many more Advanced Placement classes, programs like Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), college visits, ensuring access to free or nearly free exams like ACT, PSAT, SAT and AP, punctuated with a focus on Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion.


In opposition are those who feel we should move toward a more performance-based assessment system where students maintain a portfolio of products they've developed culminating with a capstone experience in several subject-matter areas. Ideally, the capstone experience would reveal a student's ability to solve a real-world problem where they demonstrate subject matter competence as well as proficiency in the 4Cs; critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. Under perfect conditions, students would exhibit their learning to an authentic audience consisting of parents, community members, and business professionals.


The opposing forces in these two systems are complex. It seems to me that there may be no single, technical solution for creating a more equitable system of determining students' success in post-secondary education. Instead, this can be characterized as an adaptive challenge. In order solve adaptive challenges, we must think about operating in an entirely new way. Are we ready for that? Here's a blog post from my friend David Culberhouse that highlights the type of thinking and the leadership required: https://dculberh.wordpress.com/2017/10/15/at-the-intersection-of-adaptive-leadership-design-and-systems-thinking/ What are your thoughts?

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