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Ed in the Apple: Can We Create Student Assessments That Are Helpful to Teachers?

Every spring students in Grades 3-8 take statewide assessments in English and Mathematics. States employ testing companies to create tests that meet federal standards and rank schools and students by test performance; hundreds of millions of dollars expended, you could also have ranked schools by parent income and level of education in lieu of the testing; the results would be parallel.

For teachers the results are not useful; the results don’t appear in schools until late summer or early in the school year and are heralded or despaired; the test results have no impact on classroom instruction.  Schools with high rates of poverty, high rates of family unemployment, crime and homelessness, with high percentages of English language learners and Students with Disabilities are at the bottom of the lists. In spite of program after program, intervention after intervention little has changed.

The interventions are usually changes in programs purchased by the school, instruction is unchanged.

A couple of years ago I was invited by school leader in a highly collaborative school to sit in on a teacher meeting. The math teachers had finished grading the first Common Core Algebra 1 Regents and created an error matrix, the most common incorrect answers. The Algebra 1 teachers invited teachers from the seventh and sixth grades classes, the teachers reviewed the incorrect answers and their lesson plans: how could they change their lesson plans to address the incorrect answers? In other words, you can’t change output without changing input.

Unfortunately most schools are part of paramilitary organizations, the “generals” issue ukases and expect that everyone down the chain of command will salute and execute the order; in reality it’s more like a game of telephone, whispering messages in ears as the messages change from whisper to ear.

There are no magic bullets.

The Gates Foundation is, once again, expending millions to find the Algebra 1 “magic bullet.’ A new program, “Balance the Equation: A Grand Challenge for Algebra 1,” reminds me of the rollout of the Common Core,

Today, Algebra 1 serves as a gatekeeper, rather than a gateway, to future success. In the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s first ever U.S. education Grand Challenge, we sought to identify partners to design solutions to make Algebra 1 more accessible, relevant, and collaborative for students who are Black, Latino, English Learners, and/or experiencing poverty.

Most of the “partners” will “design solutions,” the solutions will be monetized and school districts will purchase, after a few years discard.

Why didn’t Gates make Bob Moses, the iconic civil rights leader’s, “The Algebra Project” widely available? For thirty years the project has successfully taught algebra to poor students of color?

It’s never about the program, it’s about the teachers.

Teachers must take ownership of their instruction in collaboration with schools and district leaders.

I was consulting in a school district and one school leader was unhappy with teacher assessment tool, the district leader said, “design your own with your staff and when you finish have the union leader conduct an election, if the staff approves, use it, call it the ‘essentials of effective teaching.’” The school took a few months, it was detailed, and, for me, unwieldy. I asked the district leader, “Are you going to make it available to other schools?” He shrugged, “It’s not about the product, it’s about the process, an entire school spent months totally engaged in discussing effective teaching.”

The teachers gained ownership of their practice.

The current assessment tools are counterproductive; instruction is geared to the test; the curriculum is the test. The Gates and the Chan Zuckerberg are funding a major research initiative,

With a total of $200 million, the fund will support project proposals from teachers, researchers, parents or product developers on how assessment could be done better. Between now and 2023, the program will select about five research ideas to span three to five years with budgets of $20 million to $40 million.

Assessment for Good … announced it is seeking proposals for available funding for projects aimed at creative ways to assess students’ learning and “how learning environments support specific aspects of students’ emotional and identity development.” It is also calling on educators and other experts for information and ideas on how assessment could be done differently overall.

The California Consortium for Educational Excellence is taking a deep dive into student assessments, and emphasizes the “critical role of curriculum” and “learning progressions,” let’s measure what we’re actually teaching and also lets measure growth, not proficiency.

A panel of leading experts in an excellent U-Tube  

(about an hour) discussing the role of curriculum and learning progressions in a balanced assessment system.

Scott Marion, the leader of the Center for Assessment writes,

Educators understand that large-scale summative tests are far too distant from instruction, at the wrong grain size, and administered at the wrong time of year to make a difference in their daily practice.

No surprise here; and changing is a major hurtle. 

Ensuring all students have legitimate access to a high-quality curriculum would be a major step in advancing equitable learning opportunities, but curricula must be implemented with fidelity by novice as well as expert teachers.

State and district leaders should not stop at simply purchasing new curriculum materials. They must allocate considerable funding to support professional development associated with effectively instructing the curriculum. Perhaps not as eye-catching as some slick new tech tools, high-quality curriculum and associated professional development can provide the necessary foundation to advance learning.

The role of teachers in student assessment is crucial.

Teachers will gain insights into the curriculum’s learning expectations by designing and/or selecting end-of-unit assessment, formative probes, and other means of collecting evidence to support and document student learning.

Assessment efforts in Fall 2021 should prioritize collecting evidence related to students’ readiness to engage in the first few units of instruction rather than trying to document all the knowledge and skills students might need to know for the coming grade.

Marion suggests highly pragmatic state and district based approaches.

[There is a ] a research-based case for high-impact tutoring as one of the few proven ways to accelerate learning for all students. No matter which interventions are used, my interest is in helping school and district leaders think about assessment approaches to monitor the degree to which those interventions are working as intended, and to support continuous improvement efforts.

Most interventions should be tied closely to the intended curriculum, so students’ progress should be assessed using curriculum-embedded assessments. Information from curriculum-embedded assessments is especially important for school leaders responsible for supporting the day-to-day intervention work of teachers and students. However, district and state leaders also will need to aggregate results on the effectiveness of the interventions across student groups, schools, and districts. Interim assessments tied to specific clusters of state standards (rather than a broad sample of the content) should provide these leaders with data to evaluate the relative effectiveness of targeted interventions throughout the year, allowing them to highlight successful entities, as well as those needing additional support. 

New York City is moving in the right direction, the creation of a city-wide curriculum supported with substantial dollars.

I know I’ve gotten into the weeds, and change takes time; with a new mayor and maybe a new chancellor the future of education is hazy, at best. 

Scott Marion, at the Center for Assessment, is one of the most thoughtful researchers and writers (see his blog posts here) and there are piles of dollars to support creating changes in student assessments.

The current end-of-year assessments are not only a waste of time they impede effective instruction. Teaching a rich curriculum and assessing as we teach instead of teaching to an end-of-year test makes too much sense.

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Steven Singer

Steven is a husband, father, teacher, and education advocate.