Testing Action Plan: State and District Profiles

Photo Credit: US Department of Education.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education.

One essential part of educating students successfully is assessing their progress in learning to high standards. Done well and thoughtfully, assessments are tools for learning and promoting equity. They provide necessary information for educators, families, the public, and students themselves to measure progress and improve outcomes for all learners. Done poorly, in excess, or without clear purpose, they take valuable time away from teaching and learning, draining creativity from our classrooms.  In the vital effort to ensure that all students in America are achieving at high levels, it is essential to ensure that tests are fair, are of high quality, take up the minimum necessary time, and reflect the expectation that students will be prepared for success in college and careers.

In too many schools today, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students. In October, 2015, the Department released a set of principles to help correct the balance, protecting the vital role that good assessment plays in informing progress for students and evaluating schools and educators, while providing help in unwinding practices that have burdened classroom time or not served students or educators well (read more about the Testing Action Plan).

States and districts across the country are taking steps to reduce unnecessary testing and to ensure tests that are administered are high quality and worth taking. Below are a set of examples, the first of a series that will be highlighted on PROGRESS.

TULSA, OKLAHOMA

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the district cut the overall time spent on district-mandated testing by half by reducing the frequency of some tests, eliminating one test entirely, and removing district requirements to implement others, beginning in the 2015-2016 school year. The reductions varied for each grade, but some of the biggest reductions were in third grade and fifth grade. Previously, third graders spent 1,240 minutes on district-required tests and now will spend only 660 minutes on such tests, thereby reclaiming 580 minutes of instructional time.  Likewise, fifth graders were spending 1,270 minutes on district-level tests and now will spend 690 minutes, reclaiming 580 minutes of instructional time.

The changes in district testing were based on recommendations by teachers who participated in the district’s Assessment Study Group, which was established to review the use of assessments in the district and make recommendations for how district-mandated testing should be used moving forward.  The Assessment Study Group was organized following a small number of teacher concerns regarding overtesting that were brought to the teachers’ union. Based on conversations with the union and the district superintendent, it was recommended that a committee be formed, representing teachers from across the district and all grade levels. Teacher representatives were selected to serve on the study group based on recommendations by the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association and principals.

“Assessments are an extremely important tool for teaching and learning, yet we must make sure that the way in which we monitor progress through assessments is as focused and streamlined as possible,” said Tulsa Superintendent, Dr. Deborah Gist. “We need to have our teachers, along with their school leaders, actively involved in these decisions.” Dr. Gist added that “parents and teachers have been clear in their feedback that our district overstepped in the number of tests that were required by the district.”

In addition, using Title I and Title II funds, the district is making professional development opportunities available to teachers on the meaning, use, and availability of assessment data. “We need to do a better job of supporting our teachers and principals on the use of assessment data to guide their decision-making,” said Dr. Gist. “We will continue to offer literacy and numeracy summits each summer, as well as professional learning opportunities throughout the year. We’ll be sure these include a focus on using reading and math assessment data to inform instruction.” The district also provides instructional coaches to help teachers and principals use data effectively and is currently developing a plan to coordinate efforts across the district and focus on using data as a strategic asset.

For additional information, visit: http://www.tulsaschools.org/2_News/01_PUBLIC_INFO/news_item.asp?ID=15238

TENNESSEE

The Tennessee Task Force on Student Testing and Assessment was established in Spring 2015 to study and identify best practices in student assessment, ensure local school districts and the state are appropriately using assessments to improve student achievement, and better inform stakeholders about the state assessment program.

The Task force conducted an environmental scan of assessment usage and practices across the state; established principles addressing the purposes and goals of state assessments relative to locally chosen/designed assessments (i.e., formative assessments); and defined appropriate practices associated with these principles that best support decision making at the state, district, school, and teacher levels. In addition, The Task Force gained insight on ways to best communicate with stakeholders about TNReady, the state’s new Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) test for English language arts and math in grades 3-11, starting in the 2015-16 school year.

Commissioner Candice McQueen said. “Proper assessment tools are vital in making sure we are supporting our schools, teachers, parents, and students with clear information about what students are learning and mastering.”

The principles developed by the Task Force to inform assessment decisions at the state, district, and local levels, focused specifically on summative (annual) standardized assessments, formative (interim, benchmark) assessments, and test preparation and logistics. Consistent with the principles established in the Administration’s Testing Action Plan, Tennessee’s principles address the benefits of assessments and maintain that assessments must, for example, be properly aligned with state standards, provide disaggregated test information that helps educators know if they are serving all students and maintaining universally high expectations, and have associated reports that are clear and readily understood by parents, students, and educators.

The Task Force’s final report was released in September 2015 and contains 16 tangible recommendations with specific actions to be taken to address concerns about too much testing and to ensure the meaningful use of assessments across the state. The Tennessee Department of Education is currently working to implement the Task Force recommendations, which include eliminating several tests mandated by the State (and not used for federal accountability purposes). The Task Force recommended eliminating the kindergarten and first-grade annual standardized test option (currently paid for by the state and supported by the Tennessee Department of Education), as well as an 8th grade and 10th grade test, used to provide information on student preparedness for postsecondary success.

The state has already provided more flexibility to districts in scheduling assessments and convened an advisory group to provide guidance and support in minimizing disruptions to school and classroom schedules. The state also is currently seeking nominations for members of a parent advisory group that will give feedback on concerns related to over-testing and test preparation practices, as well as on information desired for annual student test reports.

Based on the Task Force recommendations to improve communication around testing and accountability to create clarity, transparency and trust, Tennessee has:

  • Released standardized test blueprints, test specifications, and the methodology for calculating all score reports, and beginning with the 2016-17 school year, will annually release as many summative test items as possible without compromising test security and development;
  • Clearly communicated to the public the purpose of large-scale assessments by posting information on state annual assessments on their website (including a Parent Guide, and an Educator & School Guide); and
  • Released analyses of test items for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years that allow educators to compare school, district, and state performance on specific test items.

(See:  https://www.tn.gov/education/topic/tnready)

Tennessee students spend only 11-12 hours or one percent of the school year taking state-required assessments each year, but the Task Force concluded that many districts are utilizing and requiring a variety of additional benchmarks or formative assessments throughout the year to measure student progress. The Task Force recommended that districts reduce the number of formative assessments that do not guide decision making and next steps in instruction. To help guide districts in this effort, the Task Force provided information on how students benefit from formative assessments and best practices for the use of formative assessments.

The Task Force was comprised of 18 educators and education leaders from across the state, including a parent and a student representative. Virginia Babb, Chair of the Knoxville Parent Teacher Student Organization said, “I have appreciated learning that the state seriously considers all the different stakeholders and is trying to make statewide mandated assessments a better experience for everyone.”

Jasmine Carlisle, a high school senior said, “I enjoyed working with so many leaders in education with so many varying perspectives and sharing students’ perspectives and needs in regard to assessment.”

Cathy Kolb, a 30-year veteran special educator said, “Meeting and collaborating with other colleagues is always the most important work we do as educators as it gives us the opportunity to fine tune our craft by listening and talking to teachers in order to make the assessment piece more efficient and meaningful.”

The complete Task Force report is available at: http://www.tennessee.gov/assets/entities/education/attachments/tst_assessment_task_force_report.pdf#page=2&zoom=auto,-141,47