Yes, But … ‘How will we know how we are REALLY doing?’
CASTLE ROCK – Over the past month, during our series on assessment, we have discussed how unintended consequences have brought us to “testing madness.” We’ve also explored the types of assessments that our teachers and students truly value, even showing how they have been successfully implemented in our schools.
When discussing the overuse of standardized testing, parents, employees, and community members agree that something must change—but often the same question arises: “Yes, but… How will we know how we are really doing?”
Week 1: Testing Madness: A story of unintended consequences
Week 2: If not this, then what?
Week 3: Performance assessments prepare students for their futures
The Answer Part I: We’ve built the balanced assessment system to address little "a" and big "A" accountability
Douglas County School District has not shied away from the accountability that the state and our parents expect. It is quite the opposite.
DCSD has actually built its Balanced Assessment System around the concept of a full range of accountability. First and foremost, we are accountable to our students, accountable for providing them a rigorous, authentic and engaging education that prepares them for the world outside the classroom walls. With big "A" accountability, we ensure that at every level we are meeting, if not exceeding, state standards.
“Knowing that accountability rules the day, we had to have valid and reliable ways to ensure students were, at a minimum, meeting the state's expectations,” explained DCSD Assessment and System Performance Officer Syna Morgan.
The District ensures that every student meets the expectations outlined in the Colorado Academic Standards. In fact, every element in DCSD’s Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum involves rigorous, high-level learning outcomes, with the state standards as the foundation. The schools' balanced assessments provide regular feedback for our teachers and students, so they know if they are meeting the learning goals.
“In the day-to-day world of teaching and learning, our students know how they’re doing based on the embedded formative assessment practices that teachers use every day. Then teachers and students use periodic checks compared to the learning goals to determine their overall progress. At the end of the learning cycle, assessments allow students to use their learning in authentic ways that connect to real-world applications,” Morgan explained.
DCSD goes even further, providing students an opportunity to use the 21st century skills they are learning in ways that are relevant to students today.
“Career and college ready is ‘someday’ for a second grader,” explained Morgan.
Learning is relevant today. Students are advantaged by their education, able to use their learning in successful ways outside the academic setting.
The Answer Part II: Comparability is Key
If our goal is ensuring our students are able to compete on a world stage today or in the future, it is crucial that we are able to ensure that their levels of performance are comparable to other school districts in Colorado, across the USA and beyond.
Athletes do this all of the time. If someone has been training for a marathon on their own, they may compare themselves to times of other runners or perhaps participate in a shorter race to see how their pace and preparation compare to those of other competitors. If they don’t, they might think they’re doing a great job, but end up finishing last.
“If we eliminate comparability, then students are going to be disadvantaged,” Morgan explained. “We need a balance. We want to have comparability. There is a difference between a free-for-all and flexibility. Students are held to a set of learning expectations that are guaranteed. It is important that schools have assessments that measure these guaranteed expectations”
Furthermore, DCSD believes that its students shouldn’t solely be measured against others in the state (like TCAP) or the country (like NAEP). The District wants schools to have the opportunity to participate in international assessments, which can provide insight into how our schools are doing in comparison to the rest of the world.
“It is one of the options for them. They can choose to bring the PISA test in and then when they get their results back they get to see how they did against other countries, not just the United States,” explained Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Fagen. “If you look at Douglas County Schools' scores against the rest of the world, we appear to be performing better than Finland in some of our high schools—a country that is often held up as one of the international leaders.”
In the future, DCSD hopes schools and students will have the freedom to choose from a variety of tests, matched to their studies or interests. For instance, high school students might choose to take the national College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA) or Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), rather than the ACT test currently mandated for all Colorado juniors.
A New Model with Performance Rigor as Central to Accountability
DCSD believes it is not only possible, but also beneficial for our students to prove they’ve exceeded state standards through more than a single test.
In 2012, the District began to create a growth scale, correlated to how DCSD students performed on local assessments related to the state tests.
“That’s where we started. We started by building a stable scale within our own system, a scale that would be able to be used by teachers to build validity and reliability into their locally developed assessments,” Morgan said. “Rather than a norm-referenced model that requires a standardized method, we focused on a criterion-referenced model that ensures comparability of guaranteed learning targets. Different assessments can be used as long as they are quality assessments that are valid and reliable,” Morgan said.
Moving forward, Morgan says this could give teachers the flexibility to create assessments that truly match the work happening in the classroom, while also proving students attainment of state standards.
The End Goal: Abundant Choices
Of course, the desired result from all of this work is better preparing our students for their futures.
“As a district of choice," Morgan said, "choice is not only choosing what school you want to go to, but is also about having a successful educational experience so that when you leave you have endless choices. Until we truly have a balanced approach and students can demonstrate their learning in multiple ways and be challenged to use their learning beyond a standard format, we are limiting their choices.”