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.

Improving Assessment through School on FIRE – Eminence Independent Schools, Kentucky

Key Markers of Success:

  • Estimated to reduce formal time spent testing by 75 percent over the long term
  • Parents and Teachers provided with dashboards that are real time measures of student progress
  • Enrollment in schools up 40 percent
  • First District in KY to reach 100 percent on the benchmarks for college and career readiness for their graduates on the state’s accountability index

“Our goal for the past five years has been to design and deliver a completely personalized learning environment for each student. The changes we’ve implemented to meet this goal have resulted in a system that focuses on learning and growth while minimizing formal testing,” said Eminence Independent Schools (EIS) Superintendent, Dr. Buddy Berry.

In 2012, the small rural district, located in northern Kentucky, was a persistently failing district — enrollment was declining as students sought more academically rigorous courses, and only 39 percent of students were meeting state benchmarks for college and career readiness. “We only had two mobile devices in the entire district, a traditional common curriculum, and no AP or honors classes,” Superintendent Berry said.

The district needed to implement dramatic changes to improve outcomes for its approximately 800 students. Berry and his staff talked to each student in the district to find out what they wanted in their schools and spent time re-evaluating their approach to education. They learned that students wanted instruction to be personalized and authentic with more technology and access to higher-level courses to prepare them for college and careers after graduation. They have also focused on competency-based assessment to reduce the amount of time students are spending on tests and increase class time.

Personalizing Learning to be Relevant to Student Success

Based on the feedback they received, the district created “School on FIRE (Framework of Innovation for Reinventing Education),” a competency-based system aligned to the Kentucky’s Core Standards and the district’s own standards. It is a learner-centric model that focuses on differentiated instruction, personalized learning, continuous growth, and the use of formative assessments and alternative means to assess student progress (e.g., photos, videos, audio, and samples of student work).

The district identified 8 critical attributes (communicate, compete, collaborate, create, contribute, innovate, persevere, and synthesize) for all students graduating from EIS to possess and developed a set of district standards, called “Exemplars of Eminence Excellence,” that students must achieve (along with 80 percent competency on core content areas) before moving up a grade level. The exemplars include mastery of hundreds of skills for next-generation learners and include, for example, meeting technology standards (e.g., coding, videoconferencing), participating in community service projects, making oral and visual presentations for the classroom and community, and achieving personal growth goals (e.g., meeting academic standards in a particular core content area, meeting health and wellness standards).

Prior to implementing the School on FIRE model, there were several district-mandated assessments (e.g., end-of-unit exams) and valuable instructional time was spent on preparing for state and district tests. Today, students participate in state-mandated assessments, but there are no district-mandated tests and students spend zero time specifically-focused on test preparation. “Our entire model is based on mastery. We want every student to master every standard. There is no need to spend time on test preparation – if students master the content, we know they’ll be ready for the test,” said Superintendent Berry.

The district involved teachers in every step of implementing the School on FIRE model and provided training and support on topics such as project-based learning and standards-based grading to support them in implementing the model.

In 2014, Eminence became the first district in Kentucky to reach 100 percent on the benchmarks for college and career readiness for their graduates on the state’s accountability index. The district went from failing to meet state academic standards for many years to being in the top five percent of high schools in the State. Enrollment grew by 40 percent. Today, Eminence remains in the top five percent of high schools in the State – this, in a rural district where 64 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced price lunch.

“As a parent, I don’t miss test results from district tests. The information I receive from the formative assessments and alternative assessments in the classroom is much more valuable in helping me understand how my child is progressing and the areas that need work,” said parent Erin Lynn. Ms. Anna Kristin Wilson stated, “I absolutely love teaching here because I’m not teaching to a test; I’m teaching kids.”

Using Technology and Competency-Based Dashboards to Reduce Test Time and Improve Learning

Technology is central to transforming learning in the district. As part of its investment in technology for learning, the district provides each student from grades K-12 with a personalized device. In addition, Eminence recently transformed a 115-year-old building into a design lab for all district students.

The Edhub (see is a completely personalized learning environment where students can create and innovate. As one middle school student said, “…I can design and build a prototype for anything I can think of.” And a parent said, “My daughters are two completely different learners and they are thriving here.”

To monitor students’ progress in meeting state and district learning standards in real time, Eminence designed COCOA – Competency Collector Application—that will provide a dashboard with real-time information on a student’s progress for the student, teachers, and his/her parents to review. “When fully implemented, COCOA will further decrease the emphasis on formal assessments, including summative assessments. We anticipate that formal testing will be reduced by 75 percent,” said Assistant Superintendent Mr. Thom Coffee. The district plans on full-scale implementation of COCOA in early 2017.

Preparing Students for Success in College and Careers Through Dual Enrollment

High school students can now earn college credits through an early college program with Bellamine University in nearby Louisville with tuition discounted 92 percent. These students also travel to and from campus on a Wi-Fi enabled school bus so that they can use the three hours of travel time each week for learning. In the evenings, the Wi-Fi enabled bus is parked in areas of the district where students would otherwise have limited access to Wi-Fi.

The success of the early college program is obvious – 99.3 percent of students who have participated in the early college program are still currently enrolled and on-track to graduate from college with a four-year degree. One student with low ACT scores who would likely have had difficulty getting accepted into a 4-year college or university enrolled in the early college program and earned 48 hours of college credit in 2 years, with a 4.0 in his college courses.