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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Do We All Need a Dose of Assessment Literacy?

By Peter DeWitt — January 16, 2015 4 min read
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We need to stop thinking of assessment merely as an accountability tool and start using it as a teaching tool.” Rick Stiggins

A natural part of teaching and learning includes assessment. Over the years we have heard many debates regarding assessment of student learning. There are a few different “camps.” One camp wants assessment to be state tests, which they believe will show which teachers are effective or not. These assessments are more about accountability and less about learning.

There is another camp that would like state tests and locally-developed measures to be a part of the accountability process in a balanced approach. They hope that these assessments will provide them with the information they need, and they also understand we live in a carrot - stick” mentality in education where we need to follow rules...or suffer the consequences.

And then there is the camp that believes state tests provide schools with little information that is of instructional value. They can and do reveal important achievement gaps. But they can do little to help close them. The only assessments that can do that are locally developed and provide immediately actionable feedback. They also believe that students should be part of the classroom assessment process while they are learning.

Rick Stiggins, a world renowned expert in assessment believes that the assessments with the greatest school improvement potential are locally developed, because teachers and leaders can continuously assess their own students and help them grow. But to do this well, he contends, we need to help them develop the assessment literacy needed to do that job well.

It’s sort of the Russ Quaglia philosophy. Quaglia, who I work with on student voice, suggests that the best person to engage students in effective ways are the people that students can best identify with, which means those within their own community who are successful. The same can be said for assessment. Teachers within the school community are the best ones to assess student learning when the purpose of the assessment is to advance that learning.

Stiggins believes, as do many others, that students should be heavily involved in their own assessment. John Hattie calls it “Assessment capable learning” and it requires a strong focus on formative assessment. Unfortunately too many people focus on summative assessment, which is what state testing would be considered.

Houston We Have a Problem

At a recent presentation at the Corwin Press Retreat in Westlake Village, California, Rick Stiggins said, quite passionately, that “We need to stop thinking of assessment merely as an accountability tool and start using it as a teaching tool.” The issue is that many states around the country believe just the opposite. Assessment, especially at the state level, is being used as an ever more high stakes accountability tool--as a part of the formal summative evaluation process for teachers and school leaders, some states assigning it great weight in the evaluation process.

In NY State Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch want to change teacher and administrator evaluation. They would like to make state assessments 40% of the teacher evaluation instead of the 20% that it has been over the passed few years. This, of course, flies in the face of what Stiggins (an expert) has suggested. He contends that “this is is a patently indefensible application of these test scores for a wide variety of technical and practical reasons. It cannot be justified. We have far better ways to use assessment to improve schools than this to be sure. We can use assessment FOR learning.”

Perhaps Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch need some assessment literacy?

In the End

In his 2007 article in Educational Leadership, Stiggins wrote that he is not opposed to annual state tests. However, they must be just one part of local systems that balance classroom, interim and annual testing. And it is in the classroom where teachers can use assessment FOR learning;

Assessment for learning provides both students and teachers with understandable information in a form they can use immediately to improve performance. In this context, students become both self-assessors and consumers of assessment information. As they experience and understand their own improvement over time, learners begin to sense that success is within reach if they keep trying. This process can put them on a winning streak and keep them there."

Stiggins strongly recommends assessment actions for local school district leadership teams:

1. Build your local balanced assessment systems--systems that promise to meet the information needs of all assessment users.

2. Continue to refine your local vision of academic success--that is, develop learning progressions that depict the order in which learning is to unfold within and across grade levels over time as students grow in each academic subject. These define the learning targets the will for the foundation of what is to be assessed. Only then can each student and teacher team keep track of where they are now, what comes next and how to keep growing.

3. Put in place across your district in teachers and leaders a universal foundation of assessment literacy. Only then can you assure the dependability of the evidence of student achievement that is gathered and used.

4. Develop systems for the effective communication of assessment results to intended sers. Theses systems must be capable of communicating effectively when the purpose is to support learning and when it is to certify it. Both purposes are important but the keys to successful communication are different in each context.

5. Engage students in a self assessment, record keeping and communication process process while they are learning so they can monitor and feel in control of their own success. Evidence from around the world reveals profound achievement gains when we use assessment FOR learning.

He says, “The bottom line is that this is not work that can be done by state departments of education or the US DOE. They don’t have teachers, classrooms or students. Only local school districts do the assessment for school improvement job. This is where the instructional decisions are made that drive school quality...”

Now what we do about those in control at the top?

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.