Wyoming Signs Innovative Test Contract With Harcourt Assessment

By Lynn Olson — October 12, 2004 4 min read
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Wyoming officials have approved an unusual testing contract focused on improving instruction in classrooms at the same time that it yields data for accountability purposes.

The new assessment system hews to the guidelines of the Commission on Instructionally Supportive Assessment, released by that national panel in 2001, which called on states to dramatically revamp their testing programs to make them more helpful for classroom teachers. (“State Tests Don’t Support Good Instruction, Panel Says,” Oct. 31, 2001.)

“Wyoming’s educational leaders have embarked on a remarkably bold attempt to devise No Child Left Behind tests that provide accurate accountability evidence, yet at the same time nurture improved classroom instruction,” said W. James Popham, a professor emeritus of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, who chaired the independent commission.

The state’s four-year contract with the San Antonio-based Harcourt Assessment Inc. calls for the development of tests in reading, writing, and mathematics for grades 3-8 and 11, as well as science tests for grades 4, 8, and 11, in accordance with federal law.

But Wyoming’s endeavor is unusual in several respects.

Working with teachers, the state will identify the most important skills and ideas included in its academic-content standards and measure them on its assessments.

Test Strategy

Wyoming’s testing contract with Harcourt includes several unusual features:

•The new tests in reading, writing, mathematics, and science will measure only the most important knowledge and skills from state content standards.

•The state is working with teachers to describe those focus areas with greater clarity and how they will be assessed.

•Results will be reported by standard and topic or focus area, so that they are more useful for instruction.

•Districts can opt to administer end-of-year tests or more frequent semester tests that cover the same subjects.

•Districts also will have access, free of charge, to optional tests that teachers can give students anytime, by paper or online, and receive results almost immediately. Those “formative” tests can be used to guide instruction year-round.

“As is true with any state’s standards, not all standards or benchmarks are meant to be measured,” said Annette R. Bohling, a deputy superintendent of public instruction in Wyoming. “So what we’re doing is really pulling out those big ideas and skills that we want students to walk away with, and that’s what we will emphasize in our assessment system.”

“We will decide, rather than letting a test company decide, exactly what those skills that we want to emphasize and measure are,” she said.

For each of those big ideas, Harcourt is working with the state and a group of Wyoming teachers to create descriptions of the desired skills, such as reading for a purpose. “We want to truly let our teachers and our students know what is the target,” said Ms. Bohling. “We will provide our teachers with assessment descriptions that really explain what the skill is about and how it would look on an assessment, with sample assessment items.”

Although the details have yet to be worked out, the state plans to report results in a way that describes what students know and don’t know by standard and, within each standard, by skill or focus area, she said.

“So we will totally link the reporting to what we say are the important pieces because if we don’t do that,” Ms. Bohling said, “the teachers won’t get the appropriate feedback in order to adjust instruction.”

Useful Options

The state also plans to give districts two options: either end-of-year tests, or semester tests that students would take in January and in April.

While both sets of assessments would emphasize the same topics, the semester tests could probe students’ learning in more depth and provide more frequent feedback. The results would then be aggregated to determine whether a student was proficient in a given subject. Harcourt is custom-developing both the end-of-year and semester tests for Wyoming.

But perhaps the most useful instructional tools will be paper and online tests aligned to state standards that teachers can give any time in their classrooms and receive results almost immediately.

Harcourt is rolling out the benchmark assessments, known as Stanford Learning First, state by state. Previews of the first such tests are available now in Arizona, Florida, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia. Wyoming will provide the system to its districts free of charge, as part of the state assessment system, so that teachers can modify their instruction as the school year progresses.

“There should be no surprises . . . when it’s time to take the actual statewide assessment that counts for adequate yearly progress,” said Ms. Bohling. “You should know how Johnny would perform because you would have these other assessments available to give you feedback along the way.”

“It is more expensive,” she added. “But we think that if we set the system up right as adults, we will give children a much better chance of reaching the 100 percent proficiency mark by 2014, which is the requirement in No Child Left Behind.”

By law, the state cannot divulge the price tag for the testing contract until it’s reviewed by the state attorney general’s office later this month. But Ms. Bohling estimated that the end-of-year and semester tests alone would add about $3.5 million to the state’s existing $2 million testing program, which now test students in reading, writing, and math in grades 4, 8, and 11.

The new tests will be piloted in spring 2005 and be given in reading, writing, and math starting in 2006, to comply with federal law.

The expanded testing system is in line with Wyoming’s commitment, since 1997, to measure proficiency using multiple measures, not just a single test.

Wyoming is one of the few states, for example, that plan to determine whether students have met high school graduation standards based on a body of evidence from multiple sources, such as student papers, projects, and grades in courses aligned with content standards. Local districts have a lot of flexibility in determining the actual components of that system.

“We are breaking some new ground here,” said John R. Dilworth, the chairman of Harcourt Assessment. “We are all in favor of the instructional side; using good assessments for instruction is where we all need to be right now.”

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