Assessments for Learning — Vancouver Public Schools in Washington State Significantly Reduces District-Required Assessments

Key Markers of Success:

  • Average of 900 minutes back into the classroom across grades 3 – 8
  • 16 point increase in the on-time graduation rate to over 80 percent
  • 200 percent increase in students of poverty enrolled in AP/IB coursework

“Assessments for learning” was the guiding concept in the review of district-required assessments by Vancouver Public Schools (VPS), located in the southwest corner of Washington State. By focusing on assessments for learning VPS eliminated 105 administrations of district-required assessments (many assessments were administered three or four times each year) and returned an average of 900 minutes back into the classroom across grades 3 – 8 without compromising the district’s ability to continually measure student progress and target resources to students that need them..

In May 2015, Dr. Steve Webb, VPS superintendent, appointed an Assessment Review team to analyze current district-required assessments. The 25-member team included classroom teachers, program specialists (e.g., instructional coaches for English language learners, reading Intervention specialists), and school and district administrators who focused on the following priorities for the review:

  • Reducing the impact of assessments on instructional time and increasing the efficiency of required assessments;
  • Identifying multiple tools that support student progress monitoring and continuous growth;
  • Clarifying district expectations by grade level, including determining which assessments are required and which are optional;
  • Developing a plan anchored in administering assessments for learning; and,
  • Creating options for school selection where possible.

“We kept the focus on what we wanted students to learn. We also wanted students to be engaged in the assessment process and to take ownership of their learning and for teachers to have the information they need to meet the needs of our students,” said Dr. Webb. “This purpose-driven approach drove the discussion and helped us make decisions in a timely manner.”

“We didn’t start with our current system and assume that we needed to replace or address everything in it. Instead, we started with a blank slate and made decisions based solely on our priorities. If the option didn’t meet the priorities, then it wasn’t included,” said Dr. Laura Parker, Director of Assessment and Performance Management.

Based on the recommendations of the Assessment Review team, the district implemented new requirements to streamline their assessment system in the 2015-16 school year – only three months after initiating the review process. The new plan includes one district-required assessment at each grade level from K-8 to be administered twice during the school year, for a total of 18 district-required assessment administrations in K-8. This year, the district added two administrations at the high school level – the PSAT for all 10th graders and the SAT for all 11th graders.

One of the most significant changes was eliminating the district-directed process for progress monitoring in specific programs. “Instead of progress monitoring, we focused on supporting schools to identify ways to measure growth and progress relative to their school improvement plans. This led us to focus on more authentic formative assessments that inform instruction and learning,” said Layne Manning, Director of Curriculum & Instruction.

Using Coaches to Help Teachers to Personalize Learning

With the implementation of new assessments in school year 2015-16, VPS shifted from centralized trainings to job-embedded coaching sessions at school sites. The focus is now on using formative assessments designed by professional learning communities and increasing the capacity of teachers and schools to personalize learning and target instruction to meet individual student needs. To support them in this effort, the district implemented a data analytics platform that allows users to efficiently design effective instruction. Assessment results were also incorporated into newly-designed progress reports and report cards.

“As a coach, I help teachers use data to track student growth and identify gaps and strengths” said Martin Campos, Instructional Differentiation Coach. “When a teacher is having issues with a student academically, one of my first steps is to look at the data and have a conversation with the teacher guided by our observations from the data. I am starting to use the school reports to help identify highly capable students who may be struggling or not performing to their potential in order to offer assistance to the classroom teacher.”

VPS serves nearly 24,000 students, with approximately 50 percent eligible for subsidized meals. Since 2010, there has been a 16 point increase in the on-time graduation rate to over 80 percent and a 200 percent increase in students of poverty enrolled in AP/IB courses. In addition, there has been a 120 percent increase in middle school honors course enrollment.