Special Report
School & District Management

Assessment Authority for Chief Academic Officers Varies by District

By Catherine Gewertz — March 16, 2015 5 min read
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In the District of Columbia public schools, the officials who oversee testing report directly to the chancellor of schools. In the Albuquerque, N.M., school system, they report to the chief academic officer.

Two districts, two different ways of channeling authority for assessment. Each has its own distinct rationale and mode of operating. But each can work, as long as interdepartmental communication is strong, according to district leaders.

For many years in the 90,000-student Albuquerque district, supervision of assessment was treated like many other district functions, such as transportation: It was assigned to one of the district’s regional superintendents. But a restructuring of the district’s organizational chart about a decade ago moved it into the realm of a newly created post: chief academic officer.

Now, responsibility for the distinct functions that have the strongest links to student learning flow through Albuquerque’s top academic officer, a position currently held by Shelly Green. She oversees the departments that govern instructional accountability, research on how district programs are working, and all student data—from attendance and grades to the results of formative, interim, and summative tests. She also oversees the departments that design curriculum and manage teacher professional development and those that manage Title I money and diversity.

“By having all those departments report to me, it facilitates communication and helps in planning how we are going to support the needs of students and teachers,” Ms. Green said.

On Albuquerque’s organizational chart, instructional accountability—which includes testing—is parallel to curriculum and instruction, and both report to Ms. Green. She likes the message the arrangement conveys: “That assessment and curriculum are viewed as partners, with the same weight” in the district, she said.

Graphic: Chief Academic Officers: A Comparison of District Oversight

Knitting assessment thoughtfully into any work on curriculum is crucial, so it’s important to have oversight that ensures that it happens, Ms. Green said. Two years ago, for instance, a big push to write curricular units for the Common Core State Standards depended on input from both. As teachers wrote the new units, “We had assessment folks in the room, so everyone could look at each standard and talk about how to assess it,” Ms. Green recalled. “With that information, teachers could frame instruction; they had a better idea of the expectations.”

Assessment data inform the teams that go out to help schools, too. Teams of three to four people, drawn from the curriculum and assessment departments, work directly with teachers and principals, dissecting test data by grade, subject, or standard, and helping them shape plans to refocus instruction.

Staying in the Loop

If Albuquerque’s testing director reported directly to the superintendent, it would have the added value of conveying the importance of testing, but it might also run the risk of putting the CAO out of the loop if communication wasn’t strong, Ms. Green said. The collaboration of leaders in any organization depends on personality dynamics, but Ms. Green said that poor communication has never been a problem in her job.

“All the people I’ve worked with have been very professional. The focus is on student achievement, on moving ahead on that,” she said.

Across the country in Washington, leaders from different departments collaborate in similar ways around assessment, even though it has a different place on the organizational chart. Two departments oversee two types of testing, and both report directly to the chancellor of schools.

Shifting Responsibilities

Responsibility for assessment has shifted on districts’ organizational charts during the past 15 years or so.

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 66 of the biggest urban school systems, said that more districts began to give superintendents direct supervision of testing as the accountability movement increased pressure to deliver results. Those pressures also led many districts to consolidate key aspects of K-12 learning under the chief academic officer, such as responsibility for special populations. In some districts, the top academic officer retains oversight of testing, and in others, it has shifted to the superintendent.

When superintendents oversee assessment, it can add a burden to an already overburdened job, but it also makes sense because it’s “the function that is at the heart of the organization’s business,” Mr. Casserly said.

There is the risk, however, that a chief academic officer might find it hard to access data to inform decisions if he or she isn’t tasked with overseeing assessment, especially if personnel conflicts hinder strong communication, he noted.

“The data people and the academic people have to ensure that there’s a clear line of communication and that the data are used to inform how well the academic program is actually working,” Mr. Casserly said.

In most cases, all that’s required is for the superintendent or chief executive officer of a district to set the right expectations, he said.

“When the CEO expects collaboration and holds people accountable for working together on a joint mission,” he said, “that typically gets the job done.”

In the 47,000-student district, Brian Pick holds the title of chief of teaching and learning—equivalent to a chief academic officer—and he supervises formative and unit tests that help teachers shape instruction as it happens. Parallel to him on the chart is Pete Weber, who is the chief of data and strategy, and, together with Deputy Chief for Assessment Morgan Hall, oversees the district’s summative exams.

The simplest way to think about the arrangement is that Mr. Pick and his team “take [test] data toward the student, and we do the opposite,” said Mr. Weber.

The data and strategy department analyzes the results of all district assessments to see what’s working and what isn’t and to set districtwide goals. It also pushes test data out to schools so principals and teachers can use it day to day, and it handles the administrative side of assessment, such as choosing vendors and online-testing platforms. The teaching and learning department, meanwhile, uses testing results to inform school-based coaches as they work with teachers in shaping instruction.

Mr. Pick, Mr. Weber, and Ms. Hall share their respective stores of data in frequent meetings with other department heads, instructional superintendents, and Chancellor Kaya Henderson, planning everything from school schedules to curriculum changes. Collaboration between the teaching and learning department and the data and strategy department was pivotal, their leaders said, in designing new 9th grade academies aimed at improving student achievement and engagement.

When the leaders who oversee two types of testing both report to the district’s top official, the key is forging a working relationship that revolves around frequent, deep conversations about the information that assessment yields, Mr. Weber said. He appreciates the division of labor, with each realm’s focus complementary to the other’s, he said.

“Brian’s had success with curriculum in part because he’s not burdened by test administration like, ‘Are there enough computers to give [the] PARCC [assessment]?’ ”

“Or, ‘Have we renewed our College Board contract?’ ” Ms. Hall added.

“It’s nice, because Brian’s team isn’t summative-assessment-focused. They have a wealth of information, but they’re not obsessed with just the [year-end summative test],” Mr. Weber said.

“On the flip side, if we’re not providing quality information to Brian [about summative-test results], we’d see tension between the formative and the summative [tests]. We wouldn’t see a seamless approach to principals getting the information, either.”

Coverage of personalized learning and systems leadership in Education Week and its special reports is supported in part by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as The Chain of Command Varies for Assessment


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