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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

State Assessments: The Only Data That Matters

By Peter DeWitt — September 11, 2011 4 min read
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Schools are working very hard on establishing data points for students to follow their progress during their school years. We research formative and summative assessments and look into what tools other school districts are using so we can try get a better understanding of our students. However, it seems as though searching for good data is a fruitless effort because high stakes testing is the only data that matters.

When the state education departments in the U.S. announce that high stakes testing results are out, local newspapers and media all focus on the results. Newspapers compare schools from across their region, instead of comparing like schools which would be much more valid. Local news stations wait until primetime and use it as one of their leading stories. Both the newspapers and television media provide links to the scores on their websites.

Some national “education” websites add links for parents that say, “See how your kids are doing.” Clicking on the link will bring parents to the school’s score on high stakes testing. Those links do not announce the percentage of students who receive free/reduced lunch or the amount of per pupil expenditure. That information is most likely ignored for obvious reasons, such as the fact that there is such a discrepancy in the amount schools can afford to spend on their students which is probably tied to the increasing number of students receiving free/reduced lunch.

The hidden message behind this sad reality is that all the other things educators do throughout their day seem not to matter to the public at large. When we progress monitor our students and see that their Lexile score increased by 10 or 20%, newspapers do not print that information. News anchors do not use that as one of their top stories. Yes, I understand that I am being a bit unrealistic when I say that.

Hidden Message
When the only links provided focus on state assessments it adds to the misperception that tests are the only thing that matter. We know there are many others important aspects to a school day that have a much larger impact on our students. Unfortunately, state assessments are categorized under the large umbrella of data, which is giving data a bad name.

Although the state assessments seem to be the most popular for of data (for a number of reasons) there are other forms of data that educators prefer to use. We progress monitor our students with standardized assessments (ex. AIMSWeb) at least three times a year. Some students are assessed more than that to see if they are making progress.

In addition, teachers use formative and summative assessments. Many school districts have been creating curriculum maps over the past few years so that teachers at the same grade level are teaching the same curriculum. Many teachers and administrators have worked collaboratively to create summative and formative assessments that are valid and reliable.

Parent Reaction
What state education departments need to understand is that we hear from many parents over the summer and into the fall. When the results are not in, those of us in the public school system sometimes get accused of hiding the results, when the true reality is that we do not have them.

When we do get the results, our state education departments tell us that they are encumbered, so we really are not allowed to tell parents the score. The encumbered dates used to be about two weeks, which gave schools time to come up with plans for those children who scored a two, when they normally had a better academic performance in the classroom.

However, now the encumbered dates are less than five days, which does not allow time to accurately prepare for drastic changes in the number of students who receive a 2. Considering the state assessments seem to have become more difficult over the past two years, and the cut scores that differentiate a 2 and a 3 got higher, we have seen an increase in the number of students who received a 2.

There are parents who tell us that the state assessments do not accurately measure what their children know and they don’t want their children labeled as a 1, 2 or 3. Most parents enjoy having their child labeled as a 4. We know that our progress monitoring tools are much more accurate than state assessments. Perhaps it’s the fact that they are not as stress-inducing or the idea that we do not have to wait months for the results.

The Whole Child
Fortunately, there are organizations like the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) which focus on the whole child. The whole child initiative looks at the social and emotional well-being of children. ASCD also focuses on how teachers creatively instruct their students. They make strong connections with their students and connect their students to the outside world. However, not enough organizations push for focusing on the whole child.

As we talk about education and hear about it on the news or in the papers, the state assessments are the only data points that we hear about. It’s not that educators do not want to share their information about progress monitoring and other forms of data; it just seems that the state assessments are the only data that really matter to everyone other than educators.

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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.