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). Following up on its commitment to be a part of the solution, the Department recently released guidance to States on how they can use federal funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to reduce the testing burden and improve the use of high-quality assessments so that educators and families can better understand student learning needs and help them make progress (read the letter to States).
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. Last month, PROGRESS highlighted work in Tennessee and Tulsa, OK. Below are examples from Illinois, including a spotlight on Bensenville School District 2.
The Illinois State Board of Education completed a pilot study in August 2015 to determine which local assessments were providing valuable information to educators in order to increase student achievement, and which assessments could be eliminated. Three districts (Urbana School District 116, West Aurora School District 129, and Bensenville School District 2) collected data from administrators, teachers, and parents about local assessment use and quality using an adaption of the “The Student Assessment Inventory for School Districts” developed by Achieve (www.achieve.org/assessmentinventory). All three districts concluded that the inventory process was valuable and plan to evaluate their local assessment systems annually.
“The involvement of school board members and parents in this process was essential,” said Kay Dugan, Assistant Superintendent for Learning in Bensenville School District 2. “They provided valuable perspectives and kept us focused on one essential question — Does the assessment provide accurate and valuable information to positively impact student achievement?” As a result of their work, the committee recommended eliminating off-the- shelf assessments in reading and math to students in grades 2 through 8. Eliminating these district assessments (which were administered twice a year in the 2014-15 school year) allowed teachers to reclaim approximately 12 hours of instructional time per year.
Jean Korder, Urbana School District 116 director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment said, “We chose to participate in the pilot to address our ongoing need to increase assessment literacy and the use of high-quality assessments to make informed instructional decisions to better meet the needs of all students.” As a result of their assessment inventory work, the district eliminated benchmark tests in reading and math (provided from an outside vendor). The inventory process found that the assessments were not aligned to the districts’ current standards and that teachers were not using the results of these assessments to improve classroom instruction. Eliminating these assessments allowed the district to reclaim 270 minutes of instructional time per year.
The West Aurora School district 129 Leadership Team stated, “As a district, we wanted to ensure that our system of assessment made sense to our students, staff, and parents. Our goal for this process was to have quality assessments that provide us with the information needed to accurately assess the needs of our students and our programs.”
In addition to obtaining valuable information about local standardized assessments given each month, broken down by grade level and student subgroup, the inventory process provided information about professional development needs and engaged educators in thinking critically about assessments and the use of assessment information. The Illinois State Board of Education has made training on the assessment inventory process available statewide through their Statewide System of Supports, which offers professional learning/development opportunities to all schools in Illinois at little to no cost.
In Bensenville, there were benefits beyond reducing time spent on testing and test preparation. Another major outcome of the pilot study was improving assessment literacy among teachers and administrators, which led to the district’s current efforts to develop a “standards-based report card.” The district formed a team of teachers, school board members, and parents to revamp the existing report card with the goal of implementing the new report card in the 2015-16 school year. “The focus on developing a standards-based report card would not have happened without our involvement in the assessment inventory. Completing the assessment inventory increased our assessment literacy and changed the conversation about assessments; it helped us develop a common vocabulary and come to agreement on what we mean by terms such as “mastery” and “proficiency,” which aligns with our work around teacher evaluation and student-growth metrics.”
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