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Teachers, Students, and the Testing Pendulum

Through-Year Assessment

Over the course of this blog, we’ll explore the following questions: How might a through-year assessment system more effectively serve the primary purpose of assessment: improving teaching, instruction, and student learning? And how will this shift be experienced by those most commonly shouldering the weight of educational shifts – teachers and students?

Download Through-Year Assessments: Practical Considerations
For LEA Implementation
What are Through-Year Assessments?

Guiding questions:

  • What initial reactions do you have to the concept of a through-year assessment system?
  • How do you envision a shift to a through-year assessment system impacting you in your role?

Assessments — in various shapes and sizes — are a critical tool for stakeholders at all levels of the educational system to enable informed decision-making. Students can use in-class assessments as feedback to inform whether or not they are meeting daily learning goals. Teachers can use formative checks for understanding to gauge which groups of students might need additional support to master key content. Families can use assessments sent home to understand which skills might need individualized reinforcement. Similarly, State Educational Agencies (SEAs) use end-of-year accountability benchmarks to inform decisions regarding systems improvement.

The central question for each stakeholder is: how can I use this information to improve student learning?

Leveraging a variety of assessments that serve a clear purpose aligns with the concept of a balanced assessment system; a system in which “assessments at all levels – from classroom to state – work together in a system that is comprehensive, coherent, and continuous” (National Research Council, 2001). The call for a balanced assessment system was motivated by a desire to enhance the utility of assessments for improving teaching and learning, acknowledging that one assessment cannot effectively serve multiple purposes for various stakeholders. Instead of seeking assessment magic bullets, a balanced assessment system highlights the value of having a coherent system of high-quality assessments that fully achieve their intended purposes.

Through-year assessment has entered the national education dialogue as an alternative to the end-of-year summative assessment model for state accountability. Through-year assessment – a collection of data points picked up over time and aggregated for a summative accountability score – is one assessment approach promising better conditions for students and educators. Proponents of through-year assessments claim that investing in smaller assessments over time would help improve understanding of instructional successes and challenges while offering opportunities to make adjustments as needed. However, the constraints of the through-year assessment system require the smaller assessments administered over the course of the school year would need to function as the school’s accountability measure.

Students in classroom
TAKE 1: A classroom view of the through-year assessment system

Guiding questions:

  • How is the shift to a through-year assessment system experienced by the student and the teacher in the vignette?
  • How similarly or differently do you envision students and/or educators in your system might experience the shift to a through-year assessment system?

In this first vignette, we meet Alicia and Mr. Rigby, a math student and teacher. They are navigating the impact of using a through-year model. Due to the accountability requirement and test security constraints, students, teachers, and families are provided with a summary sheet containing individual proficiency scores.

POINT OF VIEW: Alicia, Student
Walking out of Mr. Rigby’s math class today, Alicia was excited to tell her mom about her math assessment score as she had demonstrated proficiency. Math had always been her favorite subject, but taking tests made her nervous. Earlier in the week, her nerves grew when she walked into class and noticed Mr. Rigby had changed their desks from the groups of four they normally worked in to straight lines. She took slow, deep breaths to calm her nerves and tried very hard to stay engaged the entire time. The test was long, and Alicia took a few brain breaks at her desk to keep up her stamina. While Alicia was confused by some of the questions — they were phrased differently throughout the test — she felt confident about her work on the assessment. Today, as the class reviewed their math data, Alicia was surprised when she asked Mr. Rigby about where she had made mistakes. He didn’t offer his usual feedback and opportunity to make corrections to the assessment. Mr. Rigby always told them assessments were just opportunities for him to see what they knew so he could help them get better. Earlier in the year, he had even shown the class how he answered all the math problems before they did, so he would know where they got stuck! She liked that about Mr. Rigby; he cared enough about their learning to do all the math problems first. Today, though, he reminded her that he couldn’t look at these assessments like he normally looked at their work. “It’s okay; I was still in the green band of proficiency,” she thought to herself as she left class. She might not have known exactly what she got right or wrong, but she knew she must be on the right track.

POINT OF VIEW: Mr. Rigby, Teacher
Mr. Rigby left his data meeting unsure how to provide affirming and adjusting feedback to his students. On the one hand, he was hopeful that between the first two assessments he had given the class, 60 percent of students had demonstrated proficiency in both. This allowed Mr. Rigby to provide more targeted attention to a smaller subset of students who had not yet shown mastery of the content. On the other hand, due to the current testing security measures, he and his colleagues could not engage in the item analysis that had become an integral part of their data meeting practice. This posed an additional challenge, given that content had been assessed differently from how Mr. Rigby and his colleagues had taught it during the module. He was unsure how many of his students’ errors were due to unfinished learning or the formatting and phrasing of questions. The lack of transparency into the assessment did not provide access to students’ thinking. While his PLC had spent time grouping students by proficiency ratings to provide additional support, they agreed they would need to administer an additional assessment to gain both the clarity and data to further support their students.

Key Implications: Through-year Assessment System IRL
There are a few practical implications of the on-the-ground experience of implementing a through-year assessment system highlighted in the vignette. First, test security restrictions of the multiple through-year assessments used for a summative accountability score prohibit Mr. Rigby from using the assessment and resulting data to target his instructional response. Likewise, Alicia doesn’t have access to item level data to help her reflect on her misconceptions or affirm her own content understanding. Secondly, a through-year model may cause additional testing anxiety for students who must cope with the increase of formalized testing environments throughout the year. Alicia engages a number of strategies to calm her nerves upon engaging with the math assessment. Students in a through-year assessment model will have regular opportunities to show their mastery of grade level content. For Alicia — and potentially Alicia’s family — these multiple experiences could result in objective, norm-referenced affirmation that she has met grade level expectations.

TAKE 2: A classroom view of the balanced assessment system

Guiding questions:

  • What is the experience of the teacher and student operating with a balanced assessment system model?
  • What school and classroom structures support the use of the formative assessment given in a well-implemented balanced assessment system model? How are these structures similar to or different from those in your school or district?

In the second vignette, we meet Sam and his teacher, Ms. Tanya. Their experiences take place in a school within a district that has a well-implemented balanced assessment system model that is aligned to their vision for teaching and learning.

POINT OF VIEW: Sam, Student
Sam arrived home already thinking about the homework assignment from math class. Ms. Tanya typically asked him and the other 5th graders to complete tasks at home that involved talking to family members about their learning experiences; it was one of the things his mom loved about his teacher. When his mom asked the dreaded question, it was nice to have some prescribed content. “How was your day?” came from the kitchen, as though she had read his mind. “Ms. Tanya has another family homework assignment,” he said as he walked towards his mom’s voice. “She wants us to talk about our experience taking our math interim assessment today.” “Well….?” his mom said with anticipation. Sam’s mom knew about the assessment. They all did. They’d been preparing for the Numerical Expressions FIAB throughout this first module of the school year. “Ms. Tanya was right,” he began. “The problems were really similar to the ones she has been giving us feedback on, and they got harder throughout the test. I was glad she had us do some of our exit tickets on the computer last week because the format of the problems was similar.” His mom waited for him to continue. “For me, the hardest one asked us to identify the correct math expression from just the words. It was tricky because I had to pick the one that had the correct operations and parentheses in the right place.” His mom looked reflective and asked, “When will you know if you got that one right?” Sam replied, “We will do error analysis tomorrow. Ms. Tanya will give us our results alongside the answer key. We’ll get a chance to revise our wrong answers and add our thinking so she knows whether or not we understand.” Sam hoped he had gotten all the answers right but was able to relax knowing that he’d get a chance to fix any mistakes.

POINT OF VIEW: Ms. Tanya, Teacher
Ms. Tanya left the data meeting with her math department feeling purposeful and reflective. When they had met weeks ago to backward map tasks and exit tickets in the first module to the Numerical Expressions FIAB, they had all felt nervous about the rigor and formatting of some of the items. Now, having administered the test, they were meeting again to review the overall scores to determine which items to investigate more deeply. They found that #10 was by far the most challenging item across the department. They discussed the connection between module one lessons and tasks that required students to identify expressions similar to #10. They quickly realized that they had never asked students to write or identify equations with three different operations. Most students had selected C, focusing on the numbers in the word problem and forgetting the key term “quotient.” As a group, the teachers created four similar expression problems with three different operations. They planned to spiral these into entrance tickets in the upcoming week. The department also crafted an email to families explaining the data report each student would receive along with a screenshot of item #10 and the team’s plan for addressing the learning gap across all classrooms. Overall, the students had done well, and she was looking forward to the students’ error analysis the following day.

Math problem from assessment

Key Implications: Balanced assessment IRL
The second vignette highlights the ways in which both educators and students can take advantage of formative assessments within a balanced assessment system as opportunities for improving teaching, learning and student instruction. Since Ms. Tanya has access to assessment materials, there is greater coherence and transparency between the content students experience on a daily basis in instruction and how students are assessed. Her math department team is able to analyze proficiency data and the root causes behind student achievement scores. Both Ms. Tanya and Sam have greater insight into misconceptions and can use assessment items to clarify misunderstandings. The high-functioning math department team is able to leverage item level trends in their communication with families about student performance.

Go Slow, Be Mindful, Be Inclusive

Guiding questions:

  • What practical considerations need to be taken into account in order to effectively transition a school or school district to a through-year assessment system?
  • If your school or district shifted to a through-year assessment system, what might be some top considerations for your particular role?

Although many elements of a through-year model may be appealing, the practical considerations for teachers and students are significant. Mindfully addressing these impacts and proactively managing change will be essential for district and school site leaders. Stakeholders should be made aware of the implications of the shift in assessment models and activated to engage in the process of implementing such a change. Regardless of which assessment system is being utilized, the following priorities should be addressed so that the educator and student experience is centered:

  • Ability to get deep, coherent information about student thinking
  • Item transparency for teachers and students
  • Testing conditions that may increase testing anxiety
  • Consistency in family communication about student progress
  • Turn around time of assessment data

Explicitly attending to these priorities will hold the assessment system more accountable to staying true to the primary purpose of assessments: improving teaching, instruction and student learning. Stakeholders deserve to be informed and involved in any shifts to the important role that assessments play in their lives. In order to do so, put the right folks at the center of assessment decision-making and proceed with caution.

Download Through-Year Assessments: Practical Considerations For LEA Implementation

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