School Climate & Safety Opinion

How Can Schools Develop Assessments That Matter?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 22, 2016 5 min read
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How do we know that assessments built by the educators in our schools measure what is intended? For the most part, tests are designed to measure information acquisition. There are schools that have engaged in ongoing professional development for their teachers to learn how to develop more robust assessments demanding the use of information, the drawing of connections among ideas, justification of a position, and the production of original work that draws on the information acquired. These tasks cannot be accomplished without the knowledge. By default a good assessment demonstrates that the knowledge taught was acquired.

Ongoing Assessment Support
With diminishing resources, it is unlikely that an ongoing review of assessment development is in the budget. However it is essential. As curriculum changes, as the way students learn evolves, as the demands on educators increase, so must the assessments we use advance. Little, if any, instruction in teacher and leader programs are devoted to assessment building. It is unlikely, after assuming teacher or leader positions that assessment building attracts our attention amidst the myriad of urgent demands. We give the tests in the form we were given them. We are familiar with them and testing for knowledge is not that difficult.

But, increasing numbers of schools have either put their toe in the water or have jumped all the way into the integrated use of technology, project based learning, STEM, active partnerships outside of the school, student internships in business and healthcare, and so on. All of these efforts are impacting the way students learn. The movement away from grades to the use of feedback is growing and its effectiveness is beginning to be noted clearly. But that leap isn’t without a question about accountability and equity.

Where Do Assessments Belong?
Standards must be held within a school, district, county, state, and we think, country. There must be measures along the way that inform the teachers, students, parents, administration and sometimes the state, of the progress toward those standards. We hope for eliminating the bell curve and that with support and encouragement each student can aim for and achieve success. The assessments can be both a learning experience and a marker along that road. Assessments have a place in the educational system. The question is “What place?”

The types of assessments needed for these new learning experiences cannot be created easily and they do require localization. So, just as students can grow and develop through teacher feedback, educators can grow and develop through assessment feedback.

Standardized tests* cannot accomplish what we are talking about here. We have neither the time, the funding, nor the skill to develop standardized tests for our students. And we don’t need to. Standardized tests have always had some place in our systems and, for purposes of public accountability, always will. Our assertion is that assessment conversations should be taking place in schools, that they should address new ways to measure progress and that leaders and teachers both need to be engaged in the conversation. Why? Because both will be providers of feedback and users of the resulting data and because both will be explaining new methods to students and to parents alike.

Leadership Matters
Assessment belongs in the leader’s wheelhouse. A systemic look at the assessments across a school or district can reveal a lot about the teaching and learning that takes place. Questions about frequency, types, and use of testing results, all open the doors for conversations about methodology, expectations, frustrations, and values. It is a system-wide process because it follows the students through a K -12 experience as they go from one classroom to another or progress year by year. A purposeful, developmentally responsive set of expectations about the rigor, the placement in the learning process, and the purpose of the assessments is an essential part of the school’s academic infrastructure.

Standardized tests rely on a bell curve. Somehow fairness, aspiration and hope get lost in that idea. The bell curve promotes the premise that some will never “make it” while others will excel. Expecting an assessment will capture excellence, mediocrity, and failure as an educational measure, reinforces a mindset that some students will always fail. That mindset has no place in our schools. Teachers and leaders work against that daily.

So it is in the hands of the teachers and leaders to grab hold of the assessments developed within the school and have them be more reflective of the school’s values about student success, using feedback, coaching, and encouragement along the learning path. We need to develop assessments that are challenging, purposeful in their demand for the use of information, the drawing of connections among ideas, justification of a position, and the production of original work that draws on the information acquired.

How each leader, teacher, school, and district does this depends upon the usual list of questions when opening minds for change.

  1. What are our values about assessment?
  2. How do we use assessment?
  3. Are our values about and uses of assessment shared and known by all leaders, teachers, students, and parents?
  4. What do we know about assessment development?
  5. What changes to assessment and grading have been addressed already?
  6. How can we learn more about assessment as we move forward? From whom?
  7. Who must be at the table during these talks?
  8. How will information be communicated? How will we monitor progress?

These questions can open the discussion. You may have others. Leaders guarantee follow-up and follow-through and support the movement toward reviewing, revising and/or developing assessments and their use. Then, a renewed system-wide value can be placed on the measures used to capture progress and achievement, without a focus on failure and success; with a renewed expectation about students’ progress and success.

*Standardized tests, including reliability, validity and fairness are defined as:

The Glossary of Education Reform: any form of test that (1) requires all test takers to answer the same questions, or a selection of questions from common bank of questions, in the same way, and that (2) is scored in a “standard” or consistent manner, which makes it possible to compare the relative performance of individual students or groups of students.

The Center for Public Education: All standardized tests must meet psychometric (test study, design, and administration) standards for reliability, validity, and lack of bias (Zucker, 2003; Bracey, 2002; Joint Committee on Testing Practices, 2004). Reliability means that the test is so internally consistent that a student could take it repeatedly and get approximately the same score; validity means that the test measures accurately what it is intended to measure. Tests of course must be unbiased, that is, students must not be at a disadvantage no matter what ethnic or social group they belong to.

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Illustration by iquoncept courtesy of 123rf

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.