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Notes from Nebraska

Comments from Annie: In his blog entry, George Wood documents the human emotion of Commissioner of Education Doug Christensen, an educational leader who has earned the respect of his community by standing his ground on teacher- and student-based assessment policy.

Notes from Nebraska
Posted by George Wood at 10/24/06

In most states when teachers and administrators gather to talk about assessment you can count on four things: The talk will be about pass rates and cut scores; nothing much will be said about student learning; plenty of time will be devoted to how to get teachers to teach to the test; and no one will go home happy.

Not so in Nebraska, a state that, in spite of pressure from the U.S. Department of Education, has refused to go down the road of standardizing their schools through a on-size-fits-all testing program. Instead, for Nebraska, assessment is a tool to help teachers teach and students learn rather than a club to beat schools and communities into line.

In September I went to Nebraska to see how their system (known as STARS for School-based Assessment and Reporting System) worked and what could be learned from it. Clearly being the last state in the union to adopt state standards and assessments to go with them was a good idea.

Nebraska’s unique system has developed under the leadership of Commissioner of Education Doug Christensen. For Christensen, assessment is a means to an end, not an end in itself. As he put it to me over lunch, “Too many people have put the assessment cart in front of the learning horse.” With this in mind, Nebraska’s system of state standards and assessment was designed not to rate and compare schools but to help teachers understand the effects of their teaching.

Nebraska does not rely, as do most states, on a single statewide standardized test or tests to rate students and rank schools. Rather, as Pat Roschewski, Nebraska’s Director of Statewide Assessment, explains the system, “Each Nebraska school district is responsible for adopting … standards, building local classroom assessment to measure those standards, and using the data from the assessment to inform decisions about instruction.

Each local assessment system is reviewed and rated for quality by external assessment experts, and the ratings for both assessment quality and student performance on standards are published annually on Nebraska's State of the Schools Report.

In addition to the local assessment of standards, all districts participate in a statewide writing assessment scored both in the state and out, and a norm-referenced test. STARS brings together the best of both worlds: school improvement and public accountability.”

To simplify, each local district begins by either adopting the Nebraska State standards (which are unusually clear and holistic compared to the volumes put out by many states) or by choosing to establish their own local standards.

Then the district, not the state, develops assessments that provide feedback to teachers on how well students are mastering the standards.

The statewide writing assessment is a holistic process, with reading and scoring done by 400 Nebraska teachers (there is a waiting list of participants).

And guess what, the scores on writing exams sent out of state come back higher than those given by Nebraska’s teachers.

While there is still a way to go in the process, Nebraska’s standards reclaim the democratic nature of decision-making in our schools.

Rather than respond to the demands of faceless and nameless bureaucrats, Nebraska’s teachers have developed extensive assessment skills that they employ in their classrooms.

Rather than sit for batteries of tests whose scores mean little more than a ticket to promotion, Nebraska students are engaged in multiple tasks that they use to track their performance and assess their own learning.

And rather than simply adopt state education standards over which they have no local say, Nebraska’s communities have debated and discussed the things they want their children to know and be able to do.

Attending the Nebraska STARS conference last month was a shot-in-the-arm for anyone who believes that democracy can work.

Listening to state school board members and teachers talk about how to move to more performance assessment; sharing coffee with district superintendents who wanted to talk about student writing; hearing students speak about learning not how to work harder but change the way they work, made one thing clear – when you trust people to do good work and give them the support they need they will usually come through.

As I mentioned, the head cheerleader, thinker, and motivator behind this effort is Nebraska’s Commissioner of Education Doug Christensen. His unfailing commitment to local assessments, teacher development, and student engagement springs from his belief that our public schools are the hallmark of our democracy.

This has extended into not only seeing schools as a place that engenders in the young the habits of heart and mind that make democracy possible, but also seeing that the governance of schools is a place of democratic renewal for educators, parents, and community members.

Christensen’s commitment has earned him the respect and admiration of educators and politicians alike.

Recently he won the battle with the U.S. D.O.E. over the Nebraska system, a fight that Nebraska did not go looking for, but one Christensen would not back down from.

Perhaps it was not only in appreciation of his opening address at the STARS conference, but this recent victory as well that earned him an extended standing ovation when he finished his remarks.

It was an ovation that left him speechless and a bit choked up. It was unlike anything you are likely to see when state leaders talk about assessment, and that is a shame.

— George Wood
Forum for Education


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