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. PROGRESS has highlighted work in Tennessee and Tulsa, OK, and in Illinois.
Delaware Committed to Finding a Balance
In a recent visit to Wilmington, Delaware, Acting U.S. Secretary of Education King spoke with State leaders, superintendents, and educators about testing, the role it plays in teaching and learning, and how quality assessments can be used to improve academic achievement. “It’s important for us to know where we have achievement gaps. It is important for us to know where our students are making progress,” King said. “But there are places around the country where there is too much assessment and the assessments are not the quality we want.”
During his visit, Acting Secretary King praised Delaware for recognizing the critical importance of high-quality assessments in providing information to educators, parents, and students, and for understanding their value in ensuring equity for all students. He also noted that, oftentimes, there are unnecessary or overly burdensome assessments that don’t provide the information that educators need to support students. In Delaware, districts are working together to reduce the testing burden and improve the quality of necessary tests that provide information on students’ learning growth.
All district and charter schools in Delaware were required to complete an inventory of their assessments and submit their findings to the Delaware Department of Education by December 31, 2015. A committee of teachers, administrators, and parents from across the State is reviewing the assessment inventories, recommendations, and impact information. The Delaware Department of Education will release a report summarizing the information later this year.
The State provided funds to help districts and charter schools conduct the assessment inventories. A total of $325,597 was provided to the 11 districts that requested financial assistance. The individual grants ranged from $10,000 to $60,000 based on their student populations.
“Our educators, our students, and their parents all deserve the benefits of effective assessments that show when students are excelling and when they need extra support,” said Governor Jack Markell. “At the same time, tests that don’t add meaningfully to the learning process mean less time for students to receive the instruction and support they need. We are committed to finding the right balance, and this initiative is an important part of that process.”
Brandywine School District Focuses on Quality
Brandywine school district (located near Wilmington, DE) conducted its assessment inventory supported by a grant from the state. At the time, there were very few common assessments mandated by the district. Instead, many schools and teachers created assessments on their own without district involvement. Brandywine’s assessment inventory found that many of these assessments were not aligned to the State’s standards, did not measure the depth of knowledge required by these new standards, nor included a variety of item types. In particular, there was limited use of performance tasks that measure students’ critical thinking skills. The district is working with its teachers and school administrators to review, revise, and in some cases, eliminate these assessments. In their place will be high-quality formative assessments, tests used throughout the year by educators to assess whether students are learning content, aligned to the State’s standards that will be given throughout the district. For example, the district will require a common writing test as part of the secondary English language assessment.
“We recognized the need to increase the use of formative assessments to improve student learning and to involve students in monitoring their achievement,” said Julie Schmidt, Supervisor of Assessment and Accountability in the Brandywine School District. “Our focus is on quality, and not just on reducing the number of assessments. We want high-quality, instructionally-relevant assessments that provide information to teachers, parents, and students in a timely manner,” said Cary Riches, Director of Curriculum and Instruction.
During this school year, teachers are working together to identify and pilot at least one performance task per grade level in all the core content areas. “Bringing teachers together to review and score work samples from our classrooms has been very helpful,” said Riches. “It has helped us take ownership of the assessments and given us time to discuss how to improve instruction to meet the needs of our students.”
The district chose to use some of its grant funds to hire an outside assessment expert to review district assessments. “It was very helpful to have an outside person who could help us look at our assessments objectively; it expanded our thinking about assessments and pushed us to think creatively,” said Schmidt. Based on the results from the assessment inventory, the district developed a five-year plan to develop a balanced assessment system, which includes a clear vision and guiding principles to follow during implementation of the plan.
“In addition to increasing assessment literacy amongst our teachers and administrators, it has also helped us improve and expand our learning management system so that teachers have timely access to information about student performance and resources, such as test item banks,” noted Riches. “The assessment inventory process has been a catalyst for a number of changes in our district.”