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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.

Assessment Opinion

It’s Time We Begin Using Assessments to Look Forward, Instead of Back

By Seth Feldman — June 20, 2021 5 min read
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When California waived the requirement for state assessments this year, one superintendent was ready to support both struggling and excelling students by gathering and acting on “forward-looking data.” Seth Feldman shares what his school is doing below.

While the pandemic presented no shortage of challenges, at Bay Area Technology School (Bay Tech), we’ve also seen it as an opportunity to embrace a more student-centered and future-oriented approach to education. And it seems to be working. Throughout the last year, as public school enrollment dropped across California, Bay Tech’s enrollment grew 20 percent and is now full. The keys to our success are assessing students with forward-looking data and having some fun community building. Here’s how we’re doing it.

The Drawbacks of Backward-Looking Data

This spring, California has allowed schools to use standards-aligned assessments rather than the usual state assessments to gauge and report on student learning. This switch is perfectly in line with our philosophy at Bay Tech, because we don’t see much educational value in those standardized state tests, anyway.

The English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC), for example, look at the past. They ask if what we taught kids worked. The answer to that is either “yes” or “no,” which is not particularly informative for future instruction. Worse, it’s completely backward-looking in that it comes at the end of the year before students go on a long summer break during which they may experience learning loss. By the time we get them back into school, any useful data that may have been collected from those assessments is outdated.

It doesn’t give us anything to build forward progress on, to make midyear adjustments, change curriculum, personalize learning, or identify other services to offer our students based on their needs. At Bay Tech, the problem is compounded because we are a charter school, and as such, receive a large influx of students who are totally new to us each year. Even if their Smarter Balanced assessment data from the previous year was useful to us, we rarely have it.

Gathering Forward-Looking Data

To obtain data that can actually help us look to the future and focus on individual students’ needs, we gather what we call forward-looking data three times a year. We use two tools, Lexplore and i-Ready, to gather that data. i-Ready is an adaptive assessment that takes 30-90 minutes each for math and reading to administer. Lexplore uses eye-tracking and artificial intelligence to assess reading skills in less than five minutes—crucial in avoiding assessment fatigue when you gather data multiple times a year. Lexplore also provides information that a more traditional assessment simply can’t, such as fluency during silent reading and audio and video recordings of eye-tracking sessions.

Using two tools gives us an incredibly rich set of data to understand where a student is, exactly what they might be struggling with, and how we might better support them right now and throughout the school year. It might raise a red flag if a student excels on one assessment and doesn’t do so great on the other, but more importantly, comparing and contrasting the two different assessments helps us find the right personalization for each student. These two sets of data also allow us to have rich, meaningful conversations with students whereby they own their growth and set personalized goals for the next part of the school year.

Putting Forward-Looking Data to Work

This year, in our first round of assessment, we noticed that our middle school boys, by and large, were on track in math, but our girls were struggling a bit. So, I went and visited a few math classes to see what was happening. I found that often, the girls were largely silent while boys were asking all the questions. To better support our girls, we bought access to a service called Yup, which provides anytime live virtual tutoring through an app. Now the girls could ask their questions and get the attention they needed in a setting that they felt more comfortable in. By the second assessment, our girls were performing much better on math because we were able to see that forward-looking data and find a solution. Had we waited until the end of the year, we could have lost a whole group of girls in math, and that is unacceptable.

Sometimes the solutions are incredibly simple. For example, we had three or four students who, for whatever reason, couldn’t focus on the text they were reading. In their Lexplore data, we saw that their eyes were jumping all over the page; we dubbed it “pinball reading.” So now when they practice reading, we use Microsoft’s Immersive Reader and a Chrome extension called Visor, both of which are free. Together, they block off portions of the screen to help students focus on what they are reading. These applications have allowed our pinball readers to home in their reading, focusing, and resiliency skills.

Looking Forward to the Summer

Giving students opportunities for personalized learning isn’t just great for supporting those who are struggling a bit. It’s a great way to accelerate students who are already excelling. Last year, for example, we expanded our summer school beyond credit recovery or remediation. We offered rising seniors the opportunity to take senior-year courses during the summer, graduate early, and get a jump-start on college. It was such a success last year—about half of our seniors took advantage of it and graduated early—that we’re doing it again this year, despite the fact that it’s not great for Bay Tech financially.

This year, we’re also doing something else new: a two-week-long event for new students that we’re calling Camp Bay Tech. This event is mostly about building culture, which is important when we have so many students new to our campus bringing with them the expectations of whatever school they previously attended. We’re going to have high-rope and low-rope courses, some problem-solving activities from the University of California, Berkeley, Leadership Center and other fun activities. We are also going to assess our students to gather the first round of forward-looking data and then assign students classes based on the data. Using assessments this way allows us to challenge every student and ensures that all students are advancing.

For all the chaos and uncertainty of the last year, there is a new model of education that must come out of COVID-19. This new model is using technology and integrating it for personalized learning so that kids can accelerate their learning and move on to be college- and career-ready.

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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.

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