If not this, then what?
CASTLE ROCK – After a decade of increasing standardized assessments following the passage of No Child Left Behind, it can be hard to imagine schools without testing madness.
Douglas County School District, however, believes that it is possible to have a more balanced assessment system that truly measures what matters most, without giving up the accountability and comparability that parents, the community and we expect.
Focusing on a single test isn’t best for kids or teachers
As we discussed in the first story in the series, one of the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind, was the focus on a single standardized test every year to judge student performance in a content area. Superintendent Dr. Liz Fagen says holding up a single test as the sole indicator of student performance, isn’t what is best for children.
“Parents know, one test, one time a year, does not demonstrate what their kids know and are able to do. It just doesn’t. Teachers know it too. Moving forward, we are trying to build a model for what can be. [We are really] thinking about it differently,” Fagen said. “We want to know what our students can do, not one day, once a year—but over the course of the year.
Additionally, DCSD System Performance Officer Dr. Syna Morgan says tests like TCAP and PARCC mainly measure the lower-level thinking of a student.
“The issue with multiple choice and short constructed response test items is the student thinking is still primarily in the student’s head. The depth of student thinking is not being revealed. There is a lack of direct evidence of what a student knows and is able to do,” Morgan explained.
The Solution: A Balanced Assessment Approach
DCSD is working with its 80+ schools to implement a balance in the assessment that they use. Each school is able to align their Balanced Assessment System (BAS) to the assessment practices that they value most. Student learning is assessed in a way that matches their classroom instruction and students use their learning in authentic and relevant ways.
As the name suggests, a BAS is composed of multiple types of assessment activities that when considered as a whole reflect the true accomplishments of our students.
As the District implements a BAS, the focus is on providing teachers with opportunities to track student performance, without disruption to learning. Rather than the overuse of outside tests, embedded interim (mid-way) and summative (end of unit) assessments are often demonstrated through student performances and projects.
Knowing, Doing, Using
Morgan says that the goal is for non-intrusive assessment that prepares students for the world beyond the classroom walls. Non-intrusive so that assessment is part of the learning process rather than a disruption. And prepares students by taking them beyond simply knowing the knowledge and skills or simply doing something within the learning in the academic setting. Rather the students use their learning in meaningful ways in order to stretch their thinking and possibilities.
“Performance assessment basically is their learning revealed,” Morgan explained. “They’re able to use their learning in a meaningful way and it gives the teacher and parents direct evidence that the students know, can do and most importantly, can use the learning.”
“The summative assessment is the final delivery,” added Morgan.” It’s the evidence of ‘my learning.’ However, I’m learning all along the way. As a learner, I’m moving and adjusting. At some point in the real world, we have to deliver. And that is what students do in the summative,“ Morgan said.
By having students demonstrate their learning, we are not just testing skills, but rather whether they’ve mastered the ability to use those skills in their life beyond school.
“One of the problems in education is that we teach things all separately and assume that the student can put that all together and do something different. That is not always the case,” explained Fagen. “It would be like teaching a student how to pedal, how to steer, how to balance, about the rules of the road and then assuming they can ride a bike. Of course, we’re going to teach those other things, but those aren’t the things we want to pay attention to the most.”
The truth is that a student may or may not be able to ride a bike even after learning the separate skills. The focus, all along the way, is on riding the bike. That is the outcome that we care about.
Feedback is the Key
The missing link in most assessment is accurate and timely feedback that provides tangible information to students, parents and even teachers about the student’s progress. Helpful feedback not only lets students and the teacher know how well they did but also helps steer them into the next steps.
“I, as a teacher, would be able to plan according to what is relevant to the student’s needs and interests. The assessment is catering to the learning and reporting back to the student, providing meaningful feedback in that very moment,” Morgan explains.
DCSD provided resources and support to classroom teachers in the development and use of performance assessments. Eventually, Morgan hopes that the instructional units and their corresponding assessments can then be shared throughout the District and beyond—creating a collaborative network of educators and learners.
“The long range vision is that we would actually have a dynamic learning environment, where assessment opportunities are part of a menu or a library that allow students to select the learning targets that they are ready to measure,” Morgan added.
For now Douglas County is in transition. Like building a bridge, Morgan and her staff are supporting teachers as they make their way towards this goal.
“This is a major shift from giving TCAP every year and that being the only test that counted and now having a balanced approach with the end game of students using the learning in real settings,” Morgan said.
This is not just a dream, however. Several classrooms have actually begun implementing this vision.
Next week: In the third part of this multi-week series, we will visit some of the teachers and students who are showing that these assessments can measure what matters most, without being intrusive and while still assuring accountability.