Review: Reclaiming Assessment: A Better Alternative to the Accountability Agenda

Reclaiming Assessment: A Better Alternative to the Accountability Agenda by Chris W. Gallagher (Heniemann, 160 pages, $18.50)

Reclaiming Assessment: A Better Alternative to the Accountability Agenda argues that centralized accountability mandates have stifled local schools from designing context-appropriate assessments for their own students. The “Nebraska Story,” the centerpiece of Chris Gallagher’s provocative book, offers a portrait of one state’s decision to decentralize its assessment system and place decision-making power in the hands of teachers and districts.

Gallagher contends that systems need to approach accountability through engagement, a term that hinges on relationships between teachers and students as much as on the evaluation of student work tasks, rather than assessment, which implies impersonal, standardized measurement of student performance. In Nebraska, the School-based, Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System (STARS) frames the state’s commitment to crafting fundamentally different approaches to accountability: “…meaningful, sustainable school improvement is possible only by empowering schools to build their capacity,” through setting appropriate standards and developing multiple ways to evaluate student progress toward those standards and “not by attempting to control them from the outside.”

As an evaluator of the STARS program, Gallagher shows how Nebraska’s grass-roots approach has actually produced enthusiasm among participating teachers. Especially interesting are chapters on professional development, which describe how STARS motivates teachers to approach their work by fostering collegial environments where “they feel free to support and critique each other’s and their own practice,” and community engagement, in which Gallagher claims that STARS has provided an opportunity to re-engage parents who have been excluded from meaningful investment in schools for decades. Indeed, STARS has worked best in schools where professional conversations allow teachers to focus on developing contextually appropriate ways for students’ learning demonstrations—a process that necessitates engagement with the community. In this sense, STARS has required Nebraska’s teachers to see themselves as activists on behalf of their students: when teachers are empowered to make policy decisions at the local level, they are also obligated to make sure their accountability systems work on behalf of, rather than against, students.

For teachers who continue to work in “high stakes” testing environments, Reclaiming Assessment provides a glimpse of how things might be different if only their states would follow Nebraska’s lead in developing an “engagement” approach to student assessment. Yet this book implicitly calls on teachers to mobilize against unfair testing practices and advocate for different approaches to assessing students. When teachers outside Nebraska begin to take up that charge, Reclaiming Assessment will provide them an example of how their states might approach assessment in a more student-focused, engagement-driven manner.

Formerly on staff at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School, Frank Honts is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.