In the year 1989, I was just a kid, and Batman was practically a god. This was largely due to the fact that the movie directed by Tim Burton—starring Michael Keaton as the Caped-Crusader and Jack Nicholson as the menacing Joker—was in the theater of our smallish Texas town for nearly four months. At the time, this was practically unheard of, even for a superhero blockbuster. If my thirty-something memory still serves me, Burton’s action-packed flick debuted in the summer time, but was still around in the theater at Halloween. Batman hats, shirts, and anything else with the Dark Knight’s logo could be seen everywhere, not to mention the fact that every kid on my block seemed to be dressed up that October like Batman or the Joker as we went door to door, ritually begging for our annual allotment of free candy.
The success of that Batman movie over twenty years ago put a spotlight on geek culture. You see, up until that point, Batman, Robin, Superman, and other comic heroes were for nerds. But in 1989, they became an integral part of mainstream America. It seemed that for the first time, my friends and everyone else in Junior High agreed on something—we all knew…really knew…that Batman was cooler than Madonna, Depeche Mode, and all 5 of the New Kids on the Block combined. At the time, I thought that a new page had been turned in the comic book world and that the future of superheroes was bright, even for a character as ‘dark’ as Batman. I was certain that Batman was only the beginning…and that a new generation of awesome and innumerable superhero movies was soon to follow.
That’s why what happened next was so sad. Despite 1989’s promise of an updated, cooler Caped-Crusader, in subsequent years, the image and fame of Batman devolved. Personally, I blame a series of lackluster movies with predictable plots in which Batman, Robin, and Catwoman squared off with unimpressive villains such as Mister Freeze, the Penguin, and Poison Ivy. The next generation of Batman failed to impress the masses…leaving the public bored and us hopeful nerds no better off than we were before.
Perhaps it is the ‘Batman trauma’ of my youth that has left me feeling so tentative about the emerging hype that beginning to surround the next generation of assessments that are the focus of much of the educational conversation across the nation. When I got in to education over a decade ago, it seemed that assessment was already enjoying its moment of stardom under The No Child Left Behind Act (2001). At the time, policy seemed to be aimed at supporting standards-based education reform by establishing measurable goals, and of course…by seeking to improve student achievement on the assessments used to evaluate them. In other words, our nation hoped to improve education in the form of annual testing, academic progress, report cards, teacher qualifications, and funding changes.
But over the years that followed, the country’s initial sense of urgency seem to fizzle out, much like America’s obsession with Batman did back in the eighties. Education reformists and assessment nerds ended up no better off than any of us comic book geeks. Despite our country’s initial fervor and effort to improve education, after a few years, all that was left seemed to be sub-par annual tests sprinkled and a few lingering conversations about transparency and accountability. While all of these are necessary components of education, so far they have failed to spur any significant and lasting improvements. But in the next few years, that is likely to change.
Initially, conversations around the Common Core standards overshadowed the other elephant in the room—assessment. Specifically, how can we ensure that each state isn’t just testing students, but rather is measuring learning in ways that are deeper, higher, and clearer than what we have done in the past? Across the U.S., educators and policy makers have acknowledged that the state-developed assessments we have relied upon just aren’t suited for the task. As a result, they have gone ‘shopping’ and many schools and state departments of education are now moving as quickly as they can to adapt Smarter Balanced tests that claim to be the “next-generation assessments to more accurately measure student progress toward college and career readiness” ( SBAC, 2013). While both the assessments and each state’s work to implement them both seem to be largely under construction, Smarter Balanced practice tests are already available to anyone with internet access for practice and training purposes, professional development activities, and for discussions with parents, policymakers, and other interested stakeholders—like you and I.
While everyone I have talked to lately seems to have something to say about what the new tests should look like, it has been difficult to find someone who actually knows…and who was willing to give me an official statement for the record. After several phone calls, I did, however, find two individuals at my own state’s Deparment of Education who seemed open, even excited about the assessments that they are working on. In the continuing spirit of Batman (and just because I think it is fun to hide the identity of people from time to time), I will refer to two individuals that I interviewed as Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent.
Commissioner Gordon explained that unlike what we have used in the past, “these new tests aren’t static, but rather are designed to better engage students in the assessment process. They are created to be a better reflection of the learning that is actually taking place in the classroom. Our hope is that over the next few years the test will be better, adaptive, and more accurately gauge the achievement of our students.”
The Commissioner also explained that we could think of the the old assessments “like a large V-8 engine that required a whole lot of oil, tended to lose compression, and while it had a lot of power, was really not as efficient as we would like. The new assessments that we are moving towards, however, will be a totally different kind of machine—more efficient, better gas mileage, and have a much smaller carbon footprint than the old ones.”
Harvey Dent, another state representative added that, “We are hoping to use technology and good assessment practices to find ways for students to create a product, rather than just answer questions. We want them to think and to apply knowledge rather than just regurgitate it. The old assessments were easy to score because they often only tested content knowledge. But the next generation of tests will no longer focus on checking to see if we have good students. Instead, we want to ensure that we are creating learners who know how to think.”
Both Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent were quick to point out that new assessments are ‘in flux,’ and that it will take a few years (at least) to make all this happen. But, they also insisted that this year is a step in the right direction. Immediately, schools will see that the tests will be enhanced by interactive technology and include more varied question types. And while no performance items will likely be used in this first round of assessments, they are just around the corner.
In all honesty, hearing these big-wigs talk about the next generation of assessments got me all excited and hopeful…almost like I was back in 1989 when superhero action movies seemed to be on the verge of greatness. Everyone might finally be on the same page this time when it comes to improving how we test kids. So let’s just say that I am cautiously optimistic. I took a day or two going through the available practice tests and also spent some time working with state and national assessment groups to begin reviewing what the assessment items look like. While the new tests are not perfect, like Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent said, they are definitely better. Much, much better. Are these next generation of assessments smarter than the old tests? Is this the start of something really, really big? Let’s hope so. This nerd is counting on it…and so are our classrooms.