Finding solutions for student assessments: Part two of a conversation about the complicated issue of assessments in our schools


SELWYN Contributed photo/Trish Crapo


For the Recorder

Published: 05-17-2024 12:29 PM

This is part two of an interview with University of Massachusetts Amherst Professor Jack Schneider, who heads two organizations focused on helping educators develop assessment approaches that serve the goals and values of their classrooms, schools and districts. Part one of the interview appeared March 30 in the Recorder.

Jack Schneider: We have two organizations that both live at the UMass Amherst Center for Education Policy. The Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA) is an eight-district consortium where teacher union presidents and district superintendents make decisions by consensus and the goal is to develop a model for assessing school quality and student learning. The Consortium recognizes that machine-scored standardized tests don’t actually or don’t accurately reflect what students know and can do. We are trying to build out our presence in the western half of the state.

The work has been largely organized into two areas which we call School Quality Measures and Performance Assessment. The school quality measures approach begins by actually talking to families, community members, educators, school and district leaders, and to students themselves about what they think matters in education, what they think schools do, and what they think the purpose of school is. And low and behold, there’s a lot of agreement there. People do not think that school is all about standardized test scores in two subject areas or attendance rates or graduation rates. They think things that matter much more include: student engagement, student-sensitive belonging, students getting a broad and diverse and rigorous curriculum that includes art and music education, and that students have opportunities to be creative and to play, especially in cases of younger students, and not because it will raise their test scores, but because we love them. They think that it matters that young people are developing and practicing skills as members of a democratic society. All of these kinds of things matter and are not included in our present assessment and accountability system; as a result they often get squeezed out.

On the student learning side we have been building out a system of using educator-created classroom-embedded performance assessments of what students know and can do rather than standardized tests. They provide a clear picture of student learning and it directly counters the problem of being encouraged to teach to the test by using the assessments that educators are already using in their classrooms.

Doug Selwyn: How do you develop something that you can trust to be good assessment?

J: I would much rather look at a student essay as an indicator of that student’s ability to write than to look at the results of a multiple choice test if what we’re talking about is a skill like writing. We are going to have to rely on human judgment, and I don’t think we should be afraid of that. There are ways to ensure that that judgment is not biased, that it aligns with our shared sense of standards with regard to particular skills or bodies of knowledge. There are approaches we can take if we’re really serious about fostering a learning environment where the products of student work matter, not just to our spreadsheets, but to students themselves. For me, at the end of the day, if the work doesn’t matter to the students, then I have a hard time believing that it’s worth any of our time.

The second organization [that lives at the UMass Amherst Center for Education Policy] is the Education Commonwealth Project. We think that the tools that we develop through our work should belong to all of us, that they should be held in common. All of the tools and practices that we develop through MCIEA, our Consortium, we then make free and open source through the Education Commonwealth Project, and because we have funding from the state legislature we can actually provide support and training and additional resources through the Education Commonwealth Project. We have worked with more than a dozen districts at the moment and we are looking to expand that number, especially in western Massachusetts.

D: Does it have to be district level? If a school wanted to make use of the Commonwealth Project, could they?

J: It does not have to be on a district level. It could even be a single teacher in a single school who says, “Hey, I like some of your performance assessments. Can I use them and can I get a little bit of training? Can you connect me with other educators who are doing this work?” It could be community members who want to take this to their school committee and who say “hey, help us build a school quality framework that aligns with our values.”

D: What changes do you notice in the communities you’ve worked with, and what kinds of questions are coming up?

J: One of the common outcomes we see is that people start paying attention to more things. If we can become more aware of our goals and what we’re trying to do, that’s a big win. I think that having a broader set of data and evidence about their schools, where they can say, all right, we’re sitting down and setting goals and it’s not just all going to be about MCAS because we see, for instance, that our students are disengaged. Let’s make that a goal and take action on that. Let’s take action on what we want to address. I think that that’s the kind of outcome that is most inspiring on the school quality measures side.

On the performance assessment side, we’re often seeing educators saying, “Oh, this is why I got into this in the first place. This is an assignment that is worth my students’ time.” I think that we’re seeing educators get excited about working with other educators and being treated like professionals. I think that we’re seeing educators who are excited about continuing to build their own professional skills, because like most other professionals, educators get into the work because they like it and they think it matters and they therefore want to be good at it.

D: So if districts, or schools, or individuals want to learn more about your work and to get involved, how would they do that?

J: I think the best next step is to go to the Education Commonwealth website,, or to the UMass Amherst Center for Education Policy website,

Doug Selwyn taught at K-12 public schools from 1985 until 2000 and then at university as a professor of education until he retired in 2017. He is the chair of the Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution education task force. You can reach him at