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Every system is perfectly designed to achieve the outcomes it gets.

by John Maycock

I was on the phone with a district superintendent last week who was bemoaning a challenge in his district. He asked me, “How many times have you heard a conversation around assessment data begin with something like: ‘Which schools/teachers/students are highest, which are lowest? Let’s rank them.’

I knew exactly what problem he wanted to solve. For assessments that serve an accountability purpose, these kinds of questions may be appropriate. But many assessments, including ANet’s interims, are designed for an entirely different purpose—not for rankings, but rather to provide teachers with information for their instructional practice. For teachers to truly improve teaching and learning, they need time and space to engage in open, honest, vulnerable conversations about assessment results, free from evaluation and accountability. This superintendent was facing the same challenge as many other districts—all his assessments were getting lumped into the accountability world.

In talking, we discovered a likely cause that seems obvious enough, but isn’t often talked about in our field. His district was organized so that the Assessment Department sat under Research, Evaluation, and Accountability, instead of Academics. This means that the very people charged with teaching and learning were not setting the vision for how any assessments should relate to instruction.

I’ve seen this before. Five years ago, ANet partnered with the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) to offer instructional assessments designed to help teachers understand which students were struggling, with what, and why, so they could support teaching. This work, however, was managed by the Data and Accountability Office at DCPS. In a matter of weeks, people across the department began to ask questions about how our assessments could be used to rank schools. It made perfect sense why people were asking: the Accountability Department of any system is trained to ask questions that are evaluative.

But as people in other departments began to think and talk about our assessments in the same way, there was a subtle but pronounced ripple effect on school culture. Leaders and teachers began to defend their results, rather than engage in learning from them. These assessments were supposed to support day-to-day planning and instruction, but the questions asked of schools did not match this purpose; nobody should have been surprised by the outcome. Neither ANet nor DCPS intended for this to happen, but the system was set up to achieve this outcome from the start.

When DCPS recognized this dynamic, they made a smart move by shifting our assessments, and all others designed for instruction, to the Department of Teaching and Learning. That structural change was a critical step. District leaders in Teaching and Learning were now able to coherently connect these assessments to curriculum and teaching their support to schools. This didn’t guarantee people would immediately break the old norms, but it created the necessary conditions to align purpose and intent with messages and actions.

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Many other districts have made this much-needed move, but many more need to take action. Every district needs to directly address how their system design determines the results it achieves. Instructional assessments should live in the teaching, rather than accountability department. When they do, teachers will be allowed and encouraged to realize the resources in the way they were intended.

John Maycock is ANet’s cofounder and president.

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