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Professional Development Opinion

Teachers Should Design Student Assessments. But First They Need to Learn How

By Brandon Lewis — July 18, 2019 3 min read
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Having teachers create their own tests is one way to counter the backlash to “overtesting” and give teachers better data to improve instruction. Commercially prepared tests often fail to provide teachers with timely, useful, or actionable data to drive student improvement. In contrast, assessments designed by classroom teachers can better reflect what is taught in class and allow teachers the flexibility to choose the best format—such as presentation, essay, multiple choice, or oral examination—to assess students’ mastery. But as education leaders consider using teacher-designed tests to measure school quality and performance, states and districts have missed a critical step: actually making sure teachers are prepared to design and understand assessments.

In 2013, as a first-year classroom teacher in Texas, I was tasked with creating my own assessments, including a separate version of each assessment for gifted students and another version for students with special learning needs. Though the results weren’t connected to any formal state or federal accountability system, my students and I depended on them to measure student growth and progress throughout the year. I became increasingly frustrated with the lack of guidance or support I received while trying to design those assessments. During my Teach For America summer teacher-induction program and my first semester in the classroom, I had been trained on the fundamentals of how and what to teach, but I’d learned nothing about how to write good tests.

We cannot realize the potential of teacher-led assessments if a sizable portion of teachers aren't assessment literate."

When the day came to administer the first test I had designed—an end-of-unit assessment to determine how well my students had mastered the social studies standards—my heart sank. Deep inside, I knew I had no idea what I was doing and was afraid that I ultimately wouldn’t be able to get meaningful information about my students.

National teacher polling data suggest that I was not alone. A 2016 Gallup poll found that roughly 30 percent of teachers do not feel prepared to develop assessments. Less than 50 percent of teachers in low-income schools reported feeling “very prepared” to interpret assessment results, and less than 50 percent of teachers said they’d received training on how to talk with parents, fellow teachers, and students about assessment results. More alarming is that no state requires teachers to be certified in the basics of assessment development, so it’s likely that many teachers have never had any formal assessment training.

We cannot realize the potential of teacher-led assessments if a sizable portion of teachers aren’t assessment literate. According to the National Task Force on Assessment Education, assessment literacy in the classroom could include giving students meaningful commentary on assessments or developing a personalized learning plan for each student based on assessment results. I didn’t do this in my classroom because I didn’t know how.

As my Bellwether colleague Bonnie O’Keefe and I wrote in our new brief on assessments, a few states are recognizing the need for assessment literacy. Michigan leads the way with its one-of-a-kind Assessment Literacy project, a training program for educators to learn how to develop high-quality assessments. The training program is divided into three modules, upon the completion of which educators have the option to earn credentials as assessment specialists. In New Hampshire, where teacher developed performance-based assessments are now used in many districts for state and federal accountability purposes, the state first made significant investments in professional development over a three-year period to ensure that teachers were prepared with the tools and strategies to develop assessments.

My students, primarily low-income and first-generation Americans, deserved a teacher who could design classroom assessments and use the results to support the growth and success of every student. To support current teachers and students, districts should ensure that all schools have access to a data coach, and that all teachers have access to professional development on assessment design, interpretation, and communication. If states and districts want to make critical decisions about students, educators, and educational systems based on data collected from teacher-designed assessments, assessment literacy is essential and must be a priority.

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