State board hears about PACE from Concord school leader Donna Palley: We can see the impact already

PACE Evaluations at Spaulding High School

Here is the great ground level description Concord School District Assistant Superintendent Donna Palley gave the New Hampshire state board of education yesterday about New Hampshire’s innovative three year old Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) initiative.  (View Donna’s presentation here)

I’m here to speak to the state board today about PACE.

Not quite 2 years ago we decided to make application to be a Tier 1 district with the PACE project. We knew it would be a lot of work, but we also knew it was going to be the right work, the work we wanted to do. That is, we wanted to be a system that understood clearly what our targets were–what we wanted all of our students to know, understand and do to make them career and college ready, we wanted meaningful assessments, embedded in the teaching and learning process, and we want all students to bring their voices to just right and just in time instruction. We thought 2 years ago that being part of the PACE project would help our district move in this direction, and we were right.

National attention

The state board probably knows that this project has gained national attention. I saw it firsthand at meetings last year in Maryland, in Los Angeles and in Chicago, where state and local education leaders, higher education partners and renowned educational researchers and writers were seeking information about our work. I saw it firsthand when visitors from around the country came to our school district to hear from our teachers and most important, directly from our students on their experiences.

You may also know that this work has gained interest from around the state. I’ve seen it firsthand when folks from other districts have called and come to visit us in Concord to see what the work looks like on the ground. They wonder about what it will mean to involve their own school districts, and they’re making careful and thoughtful decisions based on the research they are doing, just as we did.


But despite all the wonderful opportunities for sharing, know that this is not a situation where people are just sitting and patting themselves on the back, resting on their laurels, or being patted on the back. The PACE leads, the DOE leaders, and the technical advisors all spend hours wondering, poring over data and questioning the work. The work is constantly evolving. In fact, I’ve never been involved with an endeavor that is quite so reflective, quite so bent on getting it right, and quite so nimble.

When we think about state accountability, the word ‘nimble’ might in fact not be likely to occur to you. I have seen, in just 18 months, the ability of this work to respond and evolve to achieve the project’s goals, and do it in a collaborative and thoughtful way.

Early results

We recently participated in a formative evaluation of our work and it was extensive and thorough, providing each district and the project as a whole with clear and unbiased feedback. When evaluators from HUMRRO came to Concord, I had a chance to provide specific information, feedback and reflection, and they also met with our students, teachers and parents, who were provided with opportunities to answer questions completely and candidly about the work. The surveys that staff were asked to complete were well crafted and thorough and, just like with any good formative assessment, the results will help drive our next series of decisions and refinements.  The results are strongly positive, with plenty of room to continue the growth we’ve seen in a very short time.

What is it about this work that’s so different from other approaches and what’s the reason it is so responsive? Because it’s a bottoms up approach; it’s been taken up and run by educators, who have their eyes on their targets—what you call standards and competencies—and they especially have their eyes on their students.

They want to know what all teachers want to know: (1) Have I been successful in helping all my students develop the targeted knowledge, skills and understandings and can they actually apply what they learned in really authentic and engaging ways? And (2): Can I actually use the information to continue to move all my students forward? The answer to these questions for teachers who are working with PACE is ‘yes’ and ‘yes’. They are dogged about doing it right and they appreciate that they have timely expert advice from people like Scott Marion and Susan Lyons and Jeri Thompson at the Center for Assessment to guide them on what for many is a very new endeavor.

Alternative to top-down assessment

I can try to explain to teachers why taking a summative assessment like NECAP, or Smarter Balanced or any large-scale published assessment is a good idea. Some teachers agree, others are skeptical, but it’s a whole different matter for teachers to show their colleagues why PACE work makes sense. You only have to look at the student work to get it. Watch a group of teachers sitting around a table looking at one after the other of their students’ work together with their colleagues, and you’ll see some very satisfied teachers. Listen to students talk about their learning and you’ll hear some impressive student voices.

Is it easier to walk your students down to the computer lab or sharpen up their pencils and give them a packet of test pages and have them spend some hours with summative tests? Yes, for sure.

The state board should know: This is hard work for teachers, but it’s the right work

Is PACE hard work? Is it time consuming? Yes to both, but the vast majority are saying it’s worth it, and in this day and age, vast majorities agreeing on anything seems pretty miraculous. Teaching is both hard work and time consuming whether you’re doing PACE or not. With PACE we’re getting real results that make a difference.  And remember that this is after just 18 months.

Is it worth it? Yes, I am convinced it is because I’ve seen it, and in this second year, and especially in the last months–the work is moving quicker, we’re learning all the time from what we’re doing and the improvements in instruction are happening.

We can see the impact already

It’s very early on to talk about impact, but I can see it already in ways that I think the state board can appreciate. I see it when parents tell me that their students are still talking, a year later, about the solar cooker they had to engineer.  I see it when groups of teachers are sitting around a table engaged in in-depth conversations about their students’ work and bringing it back to the classroom. I see it when I look into a classroom where really quality performance assessments are going on and I know that a percentage of students in that class have some learning issues, and a few have some behavioral issues, or motivation issues or haven’t yet achieved fluency in English, but you wouldn’t know it by watching because they are all engaged and working hard. I see that about 40 of our educators have already stepped up to be part of task groups and have done lots of heavy lifting for their colleagues in the first years, work that is already getting easier. They bring the work to their schools, to their grade levels, and departments, and they say this is some of the most profound professional development they’ve ever experienced.

In Concord we’re looking forward to continuing this work, taking a careful and planful approach as we go forward.  We will keep the state board informed.