Nebraska Swims Hard Against Testing’s Tides

By Rhea R. Borja — February 20, 2007 8 min read
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As the sky outside darkened in the face of a winter snowstorm, 3rd graders at Westridge Elementary School bent their heads over a paper-and-pencil test on electricity and magnetism. Then they walked into the hallway to take the test’s last part: connecting wires on an electromagnetic circuit board.

If students connected the wires correctly, a small motor on the board would turn on and a buzzer would sound. Their teacher watched from a few feet away as students, one by one, confidently took their places before the circuit board, their hands busily rearranging the wires. Every few minutes, the afternoon quiet was broken by a low but distinct buzz.

That kind of home-grown test of student performance—developed by educators here within the 4,200-student Elkhorn school district—is par for the course for Nebraska public schools. Not only do such assessments tell teachers what their students know, but they’re also integral to a learning-measurement system unique to the Cornhusker State.

Instead of relying on statewide standardized tests to comply with the accountability requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act—as is the case in the other 49 states—districts in Nebraska use their own academic standards and assessment systems. That’s about 264 systems, give or take a few.

“We’re a local-control state. It’s about local leadership,” said Doug Christensen, Nebraska’s plainspoken commissioner of education. “We’ve tried to preserve the integrity of what we have in this age of NCLB.”

See Also

Read the accompanying story,

Nebraska Tangles With U.S. Over Testing

The state’s localized assessment system is not universally admired. The state has struggled to get its system accepted by the U.S. Department of Education, for starters.

And late last month, the education committee chairman in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature introduced a bill that would replace the assessment system with statewide tests, mirroring what other states have done. A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for March 5.

Yet as more states experience battle fatigue amid struggles over accountability, some say Nebraska’s system—although challenging for educators to develop and implement—holds lessons for those looking for new options to measure K-12 performance.

The Elkhorn district was on the itinerary, for example, of a group of educators and leaders from education nonprofit groups from California, Hawaii, Minnesota, and Vermont who visited several Nebraska districts last month to pick up ideas for changing their own schools’ assessment systems. The Jan. 10-12 “study tour” was sponsored by the Forum for Education and Democracy, an Athens, Ohio-based nonprofit organization.

Another sign of such interest: Testing experts and some state education leaders met this month in New Orleans at a conference of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers to discuss how federal policy could make it easier for states to create their own localized assessment systems. The Forum for Education and Democracy, which is opposed to relying on one set of tests for making such high-stakes decisions as students’ grade promotion and graduation or schools’ performance status under NCLB, was part of that Feb. 3 meeting.

“Any state can do this,” said George Wood, the director of the forum and the principal of Federal Hocking High School, in Stewart, Ohio. “It’s just a matter of whether they have the courage.”

Not that building a system of local assessments was easy. The learning curve was steep: Local educators practically had to become de facto psychometricians—experts in creating assessments and analyzing the resulting data.

“What we embarked upon was a massive mind-set change,” said Pat Roschewski, the director of assessment for the Nebraska education department.

Nebraska lawmakers set the wheels in motion in 2000, when they passed legislation requiring school districts to adopt academic standards in reading, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies. The standards had to be as hard as or harder than those the state had already adopted as a model.

Districts then had to create student assessments based on the local standards and report the results to the state. An exception exists for one subject: There is a statewide test for grades 4, 8, and 11 in writing, which state educators consider a cornerstone of learning.

At first, many teachers and administrators pushed back against the new system, called the School-based Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System, or STARS. Some even wanted Nebraska to give a standardized test like those in other states, Ms. Roschewski recalled.

Teacher-developed assessments taken by students such as 4th grader Jacob Moyer are the linchpin of Nebraska's one-of-a-kind accountability system.

“We spent more time trust-building than anything else to convince teachers that this is important,” she said. “It was messy. Chaotic.”

Teachers felt overwhelmed, agreed Cherie Larson, the director of instructional services for the 1,800-student Plattsmouth community school system. But gradually, with lots of summer, in-school, and weekend training, teachers got on board. “Creating your own assessments is a big responsibility,” Ms. Larson said. “But you can do it, and do it well.”

Seven years later, state education leaders say, teachers have been trained to analyze assessment data. Now they can do a more effective job at adjusting instruction to challenge students and collaborating to fine-tune their district assessments and standards.

“It’s not a test piled on top of your curriculum,” said Renee Jacobson, Plattsmouth’s superintendent of schools. “[The system] is woven into your curriculum. It’s part of your culture.”

One major challenge, though, has been finding ways to give local educators the time and tools they need to build reliable assessments. Nebraska’s 18 educational service units, or regional education agencies, provide the bulk of the training. ESU 4, for example, based in Auburn, some 68 miles southeast of Lincoln, trains 100 to 140 teachers at a time, said Mitzi Hoback, a co-director of the agency. Teachers gather in small groups for the weeklong summer sessions.

“What does a good multiple-choice question look like? If you write an open-ended question, what does the rubric look like to [ensure] consistency in scoring?” asked Ms. Hoback, describing the training.

Teachers are assigned different academic standards, and they collaborate to craft assessments measuring students’ mastery of them. Then they pilot the assessments in their classrooms, and meet again during the school year to talk about which ones worked and why.

At Papillion-La Vista South High School, for example, biology instructor Philip McBride pairs up students and gives each team note cards lettered A to D for pop quizzes that are part of the assessment system of the 9,000-student Papillion-La Vista district, outside Omaha. The teacher then asks questions on key biology concepts, and team members figure out the answers together and hold up the right card. After that, Mr. McBride calls on a team that answered correctly to explain its answer.

Federal Officials Lay Out Assessment To-Do List

After initially rejecting Nebraska’s assessment system as out of compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act, the U.S. Department of Education is now requiring the state to take certain steps by this school year to pass muster with the federal law. To win full approval, the department says the state must:

• Conduct peer reviews of each district’s standards and assessment system and determine which districts have not met NCLB requirements, in such areas as academic content and achievement standards, technical quality, and assessment and curricula alignment;

• Describe the range of sanctions that the state will impose on districts that fail to meet standards for NCLB compliance; and

• Give evidence of peer review and approval that the assessments for English-language learners meet NCLB requirements

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

“It helps when you hear [the answer] from your peers instead of your teacher,” said 15-year-old Miles Kellett, one of Mr. McBride’s students.

Sometimes, assessments that work in theory fall apart in reality. In the Elkhorn district just northwest of Omaha, for example, 4th grade teachers Julie Sorensen and Troy Sidders taught their students the basic physics of sailing and then had them build a sail using six straws and a piece of paper to test their understanding of such concepts as velocity and lift. If built correctly, the sails would move forward at least one meter when students blew on them.

The problem, the teachers said, was that some students watched one classmate who quickly understood how to build an efficient sail. Then they just copied him.

“It would have been great if each kid was in a room with a closed door,” said Mr. Sidders. Now he and Ms. Sorensen are reconsidering their use of the performance test and are devising other tests.

That kind of teacher teamwork and time can be hard to come by in an already crammed school day. Still, neither teachers nor districts are entirely on their own.

The state gives districts $3.5 million a year in STARS grants for staff development in assessment.

Nebraska's Top Six 'Quality Criteria' for Assessment

1: The assessments reflect the state or local standards.

2: Students have an opportunity to learn the content.

3: The assessments are free from bias or offensive language or situations.

4: The level is appropriate for students.

5: There is consistency in scoring.

6: Mastery levels are appropriate.

SOURCE: Nebraska Department of Education

In Plattsmouth, for example, the district has shaved five minutes off the end of the school day so that teachers have at least 30 minutes to meet at the end of every sixth day. Educators in the 1,360-student Nebraska City district, 48 miles east of Lincoln, meet in teams to review assessments, curriculum, and data throughout the year.

The state also sets guidelines for local assessment systems through criteria developed by the Buros Center for Testing, an independent test-evaluation, -research, and -consulting group at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Districts must annually report to the state assessment data in reading and mathematics. Over the past six years, Nebraska’s annual report card shows gradual improvement in district-reported test data in reading, writing, and mathematics. Districts will begin reporting science data to the state in 2008, and social studies results in 2009. In addition, districts administer commercial nationally normed tests, such as the Stanford-10 achievement test and CTB/McGraw-Hill’s Terra Nova tests, as well as the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Mr. Christensen, the Nebraska schools chief, said that while many states’ school systems are like pyramids, with teachers at the bottom and a few state administrators at the top, Nebraska’s is a series of concentric circles, with teachers in the center as “instructional leaders.”

“Our system is classroom-centered,” he said. “It’s got to come from the classroom up, not the capital down.” That way, he added with a laugh, “when you have a leadership role at the local level, you don’t have to have as much leadership at the state level.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as Nebraska Swims Hard Against Testing’s Tides


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