by Gary Kaplan, JFYNetWorks Executive Director
The new federal education law, the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” reverses 15 years of movement toward national standards and assessments with a Jeffersonian devolution of power to the states. The federal retreat had already been well underway as state after state abandoned the two national testing consortia and some repudiated the Common Core curriculum standards. Now that the federal government has finalized the return to state control over educational standards—the status quo ante No Child Left Behind– perhaps attention can be focused on the underlying issue: how to close the persistent gaps in international rankings, college readiness and minority achievement that still blemish the nation’s report card.
National assessments wouldn’t have closed those gaps any more than state tests did or will. A test is only a measuring instrument. It shows where improvement is needed, but it doesn’t provide instructional strategies and tools to achieve that improvement. In theory, assessment data should be used to craft instruction that is individualized to the student. But here’s the catch: data-driven, individualized instruction can only be created online. Teachers can’t cut and paste textbooks—they need software they can customize with a keystroke. And students need computers to run the software. This is where theory collides with reality: American public schools have only one computer for every five students.
ESSA authorizes funds for technology purchases, but the amount averages out to $2.55 for each of the 50 million students in our public elementary and secondary schools. This level of investment will not close the digital access gap.
The federal government has spent $330,000,000 developing the crumbling PARCC and SBAC assessment consortia. Foundation grants bring the total investment into the billions. Millions more will now be spent on new state tests. But tests alone won’t raise student achievement unless assessment data is converted into effective instruction. For that, teachers need software, training in online methods, a working computer for every student and the bandwidth to run it. If we really want every student to succeed, that should be our next round of serious education investment.
Gary Kaplan is the executive director of JFYNetWorks, a Boston-based nonprofit provider of supported standards-based blended learning programs to schools, colleges, and community agencies.