Changing the paradigm: from testing to assessment
Moving from a one-day event to a process that involves students and benefits their learning
CASTLE ROCK – For most of us, the concept of student testing conjures dreaded memories from our childhoods; those awful pop quizzes, intensive finals and of course sitting down with number two pencils to fill in the bubbles of the state’s standardized tests.
Douglas County School District’s Chief Assessment and System Performance Officer says gauging student growth does not have to look like this moving forward. Instead, Matt Reynolds, his team and every school across the District are working to build a new balanced assessment system, which aims to measure students, teachers and leaders on the things that matter most and providing teachers and students with immediate and valuable feedback, helping to direct and ultimately achieve learning.
Assessment should be a process, rather than an event
No longer is learning paused to assess students’ growth or challenges.
“Rather than being an event, we want assessment to be a process; a process that involves the student,” explained Reynolds. “Every learning experience is an opportunity to really gather data and provide feedback to students on how they are doing. Any activity where they are actively working and learning is an opportunity for assessment, instead of it just being a one time event, where they are filling in bubbles.”
During projects teachers observe students in action and can immediately provide feedback to the student, giving them the information they need to improve.
“We want to encourage the learning. We want to move them along and give them a status report of where they are,” explained Reynolds.
As discussed in last month’s series on the Guaranteed and Viable curriculum, when students take ownership of the learning, including assessment, student engagement increases tremendously.
“We, as individuals, are more intrinsically motivated than extrinsically motivated, so if you get them involved in the assessment process and they take ownership of it, the power is theirs,” Reynolds said.
As previously discussed, engagement increases when students understand the ‘why’ behind their learning, including assessments, and they have the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in ways that connect with their lives outside of school or the careers they hope to one day pursue.
“Very few professions require you to take a multiple-choice test as part of your job, so they are not aligned with what students will need in the real world. They also do not align with our instruction,” Reynolds explained. “There has been a huge problem because there is no alignment between tests and what kids will need for their futures.”
The needs of our students have changed, so teaching & assessment must also change
As Reynolds explains, assessment has always been part of teaching.
“Assessment has been a key component of teaching and learning since the beginning of time,” explained Reynolds.
In recent times, due to a number of factors, assessment has changed, transforming into something that does not necessarily meet the needs of today’s students.
In August, the creation of the American educational system was discussed during the A Case for Change series. Built in the early 1900s, the system was made for a different time when the majority of students were being prepared for work on assembly lines.
“For so long we have focused on memorization and compliance,” explained Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Fagen.
“When you and I were in school we were tested on memorization. We would do the spelling tests on Friday, or we would do math problems from a book,” added DCSD Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education Ted Knight. “For years, we assessed, so we could give kids a grade, so we could sort them. This gave us a mechanism to say whether you were in the top third or the bottom third."
This created the pathways between management jobs and those on the factory floor.
However, the world has changed as a result of the Internet and smartphones.
“We live in a world where just 'knowing' isn't enough. You actually have to apply this knowledge,” Knight said. “It is easier to measure rote memorization. It is much tougher to measure kids’ thinking at a high level.”
The unintended consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act
Additionally, over the past couple decades the focus has turned to accountability. With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, public schools were expected to test their students annually to ensure they were receiving a baseline level of knowledge. The data was then used to identify and address schools and districts that were failing to meet these expectations.
Since standardized tests are relatively easy to implement, they proliferated over the past decade and placed additional emphasis on memorization, again because it was easiest to measure.
“As a result of the No Child Left Behind Act, the stakes of those one-time, bubble sheet assessments has been really raised to a point where it is unbalanced,” Reynolds explained. “There is too much emphasis on these one-time tests.”
Given the emphasis placed on these tests, including impacts to funding and teacher evaluations, schools across the country began teaching to the test, rather than the type of quality, immediate feedback that teachers want and need.
“DCSD embraces accountability, but is dedicated to ensuring that it is the right kind of accountability,” said Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Fagen. “Douglas County and all school districts aspire to have some level of comparability. At the same time, personalized learning is more important than comparability.”
While the State tests provide comparability regarding basic skills and knowledge, they do not provide insight into what matters most, like World Class Outcomes, 4Cs and 21st Century Skills that will prepare our students the career or college pathway of their choice.
"[The current standardized tests] give us information on only a small portion of what we value and use the same ruler to measure kids," explained Reynolds. "They are akin to measuring whether kids can all jump over the same height. It is all about jumping over the same height and it is not at all about the individual learner."
"Making sure that every child has what he or she needs to learn is more important than making sure we can compare two kids who maybe the same age but very different developmentally," added Fagen.
For this reason, DCSD is building a Balanced Assessment System (BAS) that includes the State test, but places far more emphasis on the more frequent performance assessments, which do not feel like tests to students, and they better inform instruction for teachers.
Balanced Assessment System aims to provide comprehensive view of student achievement
In Douglas County, we are dedicated to getting a full-picture of our student’s academic health, rather than relying on a single data point.
Reynolds compares the world of student assessment to going to the doctor for a yearly physical.
"When you step on the scale that becomes one data point, but it doesn’t give you a full picture of your overall health. You have to do other things; you have to get your blood drawn, you have to go through an examination,” Reynolds said. “State testing is the same way. It is a single data point. It measures one specific thing at that one point in time. Our weight is going to fluctuate, just like student performance is going to fluctuate. We need other measures to help us understand where our students are with the 4Cs and 21st Century Skills. Those are things that are not going to be measured by these assessments."
He says it is critical that we focus on measuring those things that matter like Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Communication and Creativity because it is what our students will need to master to succeed in life.
"When you raise the rigor on your expectation of students, you must raise the rigor on your assessments," Reynolds said.
Making this adjustment to assessing high-level thinking and skills, however, is not easy.
"For something as complex as creativity or evaluating, you need a complex task that assesses that. Those complex tasks do not live in these multiple-choice assessments,” Reynolds explained. “The key to measuring Communication or any of those skills is to look at a body of evidence. For someone to know if they are a great communicator, we need to see them in a variety of different settings communicating. To see if someone has critical thinking skills, you have to see that they’re able to do critical thinking in a variety of different scenarios."
Reynolds hopes that eventually students, teachers and even their families will have access to assessment information, so they can support a student’s growth.
"I want parents to have an active real-time view of how students are doing on the 4Cs. I want them to see the students’ work, the rating and to hear teacher feedback," Reynolds said. "The Elementary Progress Report is a step in the right direction, because that will give them a snap shot of students over a full semester."
The new Elementary Progress Report, which is coming this December, will provide families with more insight into their student’s coverage, because in addition to capturing how they are doing on learning content, it will provide updates regarding their progress on World Class Outcomes, the 4Cs and 21st Century Skills.
LEARN MORE: New Elementary Progress Report
Balanced Assessment empowers teacher-leaders, involves students
As DCSD has formed its BAS, it has intentionally empowered teachers, providing them with the largest slice of the assessment pie.
"Their slice is larger because teacher assessments have more frequency and are larger in instructional impact," Reynolds said. "We value our teachers as educational professionals. We know that they are gathering data every day on the learning of our students. That data that they are gathering every day is the most important part to improve student learning. That is really what we want to focus in on."
Following Fall Break, our series on assessment will continue, showing how DCSD is working to involve students in the creation and execution of assessments.
"Students must be intimately involved in assessment, after all they are the key component of assessment," Reynolds said. "Student involvement has been the missing piece and part of the reason that this is such a big shift."