In part 3 of this 5-part interview series on the professional development blog PLTogether, Edthena CEO Adam Geller interviews former classroom teacher and education expert, Nina Gilbert about potential ways to reorientate testing for students.

Here is the transcript of that interview:

– Welcome to another #PLtogether Lounge Talk. I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena, the video coaching platform for teacher professional learning. Today we’re talking with Nina Gilbert. She’s taught math, science, English language arts, history, maybe art, maybe PE, I don’t know, but she’s taught it all as a special educator in her past in the Metro Atlanta area. And now she’s the director of the Center for Excellence in Education at Morehouse College. Nina, thanks so much for joining us.

– It’s a pleasure to be here.

– So we’ve talked a little bit about supporting teachers. Let’s transition into talking about supporting students, which certainly is a job that teachers have. It’s also a job that school leaders have, and it feels like there’s a lot going on to thinking about that right now. Let’s maybe tackle it from the angle of student achievement, you know, from the perspective of thinking about how do we know if students are achieving. So, I mean, I guess in one respect, our kind of, I don’t know if it’s tried and true, but the way we had been understanding that was with state assessments, and those are kind of on pause. So, I mean, the first point, like how should we be processing that as educators, are we lost at sea or do we keep heading the same direction? Or, you know, like how should we be processing that change?

– So I’m sure somewhere out there someone is going to say they have the answer to that, right, and I would be very skeptical of that person. I do think, though, it requires conversation and possibly debate around like how important were the state assessments for individual students? And we know for schools, we often use a high stakes test to determine whether or not a school was a failing school or meeting adequate yearly progress at one point. But for a student, a student who has missed a lot of instruction, a lot of the interventions that are required when they’ve not mastered a concept or standard, what are we doing for those students? And so if we think about a student who misses a couple of days of school, you know, we’ve talked about the importance of attendance and not ever missing a day of school. So now we have students who have not missed a day, but they’ve missed a whole quarter or semester of face-to-face instruction. And we know that all remote and distance learning is not the same for every student because of the lack, or an uneven, at least, access to technology and Wi-Fi for many students. So how do we determine whether or not a student is making adequate progress? And so if we now say that that doesn’t matter, has it ever really mattered, right? So how important are we going to make this as a standard and a requirement that all students must score at a particular level to demonstrate mastery, or can we have some other type of evaluation and assessment model that aligns with a student’s access to instruction?

– Yeah, I mean, I’m thinking about, I can’t quite come up with a great analogy here, but I’m thinking about the fact that, well, let’s just compare it to another assessment that works differently, which is NAEP. I think a lot of educators would say that NAEP does a great job of helping understand in a broad-brush kind of way where a system is, or, and that system might be a whole country, it might be a whole state, I forget what the reporting levels are, but, you know, in the absence of a specific measurement tool given to us, maybe the question we should be asking is, you know, what tools are we going to lean on instead to understand are our students still headed in the right direction? Because in a certain way, and really my meandering here is to make sure I can come up with the right analogy, you know, if the students are the ones on the journey, just because the GPS goes out and the GPS was the one telling us where we thought we were, well, the car’s still moving. They still need to get to a destination. So what are we going to use in the absence of that GPS running to make sure that they get there, wherever there is?

– That’s right. That’s right. And knowing that everyone didn’t start from the same starting line, right? And so some students didn’t have a GPS. Some students used a map, and others used, back in the day, we printed out MapQuest on a printer. You just had your written instructions. So we’re now, you know, not only are we not using the GPS that went out, we’re using all sorts of tools to get to the destination. So I’m maybe looking at the sun or the stars to get there. Right, but the goal is to get to that destination. And we also have to define the destination. What is the destination? So if my destination is that I want to become a top chef, and so my destination is not necessarily a four-year research institution, should I have the same journey or assessment and evaluation tool as the person who says, “I want to go to law school at some point,” or, “I’m interested in becoming doctor,” or, “I just want to go to college and have a general studies or interdisciplinary studies major degree and just explore all of my options.” So not only do we have different ways to get to the final destination, but everyone may even have different destinations. They have different starting points as well. So there’s a lot to discuss about this. And the other thing I would say about assessments is maybe we should start with looking at more of the international assessments, like PISA, and see how the us is now comparing to other developed countries, or maybe even, you know, less developed countries who may be doing better than we are on some international standards or assessments, because other countries chose a different route during this pandemic, right? Some shut down, some continued to provide instruction in very unique and innovative ways. It’ll be interesting to see how the US compares to some of the other countries as it relates to achievement of our students.

– So we are driving, or we’re scooting around, trying not to get in that driving metaphor related to the students here. This is a different one here. But we are kind of, you know, arm’s length away from maybe an important question here. And I, you know, I do want to ask, which is, if I’m someone who doesn’t know anything about Nina Gilbert, should I be hearing from this answer, and I don’t think so, but I want you to have a chance to answer it, that don’t need accountability, you know, like, is the idea here that we don’t need any tests because, you know, the kind of simplest argument for the standards and accountability movement was that we, clearly a system without any measures of progress led us to a very inequitable system for so many students. So help us kind of reconcile a world without an end of year test with the need to make sure that the education is, you know, leading to something for those students.

– Right, right. So I’m definitely not saying that accountability is not important, but I do think that this focus on high-stakes testing as the only way to hold schools, teachers, students, districts accountable has been challenged, and maybe even upended by the pandemic. The one thing that COVID-19 has taught us or illuminated is that there are inequities, right? And so, I think maybe we kind of adjust our accountability system bit, because if our accountability system is focused on students being able to perform at a certain level on high stakes tests, and suddenly, their preparation for those tests, the remediation that’s provided, the interventions that are required, students who are differently abled who are not supported, we’re suddenly finding that everyone does not have equitable access that’s required to be able to perform well on any assessment. So what will those results tell us, like how accurate will that that be? And so students who are coming from well-resourced communities, well-resourced schools, students who have access to Kumon and other, you know, tutorial services, private tutors, they’re not even able to access that, right? And so the guard rails have been even removed from folks in that segment of the population. We’re seeing students who are AP students and have IB courses, suddenly they don’t even have to take the SAT or the ACT for college admission. So we’re removing something, that doesn’t mean we’re doing away with accountability, but it does mean that we’re making some concessions for students who’ve missed out on a lot of teaching and learning. My only question is, when we’ve made that so important, so critically important for so long, for promotion and retention, for college readiness, for whether or not a student is going to have access to a more rigorous courses and classes, now that we’ve removed that, you know, where’s the starting point, and where’s the finish line? I think this just requires a lot more discussion, and it kind of kills the argument that if a student does not score at a particular level they’re not ready for, you know, a certain opportunity, because now we have to keep moving. Students still want to go to college. Students still want to take certain classes and courses, but they’ve not had either prerequisite courses or they’ve not had the assessments and evaluations, and in some states, teachers are not even able, or pre-service teachers, not even able to take their certification tests. There are nurses who are being told that you don’t have to take your final boards or your final tests. We need nurses right now, you know enough, we need you in hospitals right now. And so I think we’re just at that inflection point where we have to decide what is it important for students to know, be able to do, and demonstrate mastery of, and how do we hold schools and our practitioners accountable for making sure that happens?

– It’s funny, you came back at the end there to something I was thinking about as you were talking, which is, I kind of heard you kind of creating the dividing line between yes, absolutely, system-level accountability, while also rethinking the kind of individual ways that an individual student experiences progressing through their learning continuum. And that maybe in the past, we’ve been, you know, using one test to do two objectives. And certainly there may be a place for standardized testing, but maybe it doesn’t need to look or be the same to achieve that system-level accountability. And in some ways, as you’re saying, free ourselves up to be thinking about each student and their journeys more individually and more contextual to what’s been possible for them to access, because right now, suddenly, everybody’s been having a hard time accessing a lot of different things. That’s right, that’s right.

– Well, Nina, we need to take a break. We will be back to continue this conversation. If you’re just joining us and wondering what we talked about before this segment or wondering what we’re going to talk about next, head to for the rest of this conversation, as well as others. Nina, thanks so much for joining us.

– Thank you.