Start Now for a Coherent Assessment System in the Fall

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Educational Assessment School Disruption Balanced Assessment Supporting Instruction Assessment COVID-19 Response

Start Now for a Coherent Assessment System in the Fall

In recent weeks, CenterLine has featured several posts by Center associates and guest authors addressing how states, districts, and schools should consider using assessment to support instruction when school begins again in the fall. We are pleased to share this guest post by NWEA’s Patrick Meyer and Gage Kingsbury, psychometric consultant, with their perspective on this important topic.

As schools restart this fall, things will continue to be complicated. Some students will have experienced fairly little instruction, while others have been keeping up with their lessons online, and still, others have been receiving a lot of parent support. Some students will continue to learn online, while others return to their physical classroom. These disparate instructional experiences will likely make each teacher’s job even more difficult. Having a coherent assessment system in the fall as teachers begin instructing students will be critical.

Research (Kuhfeld & Tarasawa, 2020) suggests that reduction in student growth during the previous school year (COVID slide) could be substantial. Many factors, such as access to online lessons, poverty, and unemployment, vary widely from one student’s home to the next. Districts and schools also vary significantly in their online learning tools and teacher preparedness to use them for instruction. These factors all add up to classrooms that are probably lower performing and much more variable than classrooms that teachers have seen in the past.

The level of uncertainty about the impact of COVID-19 and online learning on education will require teachers, schools, and districts to make quick educational decisions responsive to students’ needs.

Starting now, schools need to begin addressing interrupted learning. Most schools will not have students this summer, but they will be able to prioritize the most essential prerequisite skills and essential knowledge for each grade-level subject area. Moreover, they can analyze the scope and sequence guides for subject areas in the prior grade to determine potential skills and knowledge interrupted during school closures.

They should plan their approach to assessing students’ unfinished learning. Testing might be one of the last things on educators’ minds as they prepare for the fall, but it should be one of the first. Schools and districts will need information that aids in curriculum design and pacing. They will also need data to identify online instructional methods that work best for their students and how to continuously improve their online offerings.

At the classroom level, teachers will need to identify what students know and can do as they enter the school year, the extent of their learning throughout the year, and how to differentiate learning to meet students’ instructional needs. A coherent system of assessment can provide the data needed to inform these decisions.

A coherent system of assessment should not only provide the right data for making decisions at each level (district, school, and classroom), but should also provide context for interpreting the information. Status and growth norms provide a norm-referenced context for interpretation, although scores must be interpreted with the understanding that existing norms reflect normal educational practice (i.e., education before COVID and school closures). Proficiency projections allow for a criterion-referenced interpretation that may be particularly relevant for understanding student progress toward mastering grade-level curricula. The particular decision at hand for a district, school, or teacher will determine the appropriate context for interpreting scores.

Marion (2020) has suggested that tests used this fall should be used for a specific purpose, and that labeling a test as “diagnostic” doesn’t make it the correct assessment, particularly if it doesn’t suggest appropriate actions for the teacher to take in the classroom.

At the outset of school in the fall, a set of diagnostic assessments isn’t the testing procedure that a teacher will be looking for. Diagnostic tests are useful for unraveling misconceptions, but they tend to be awkward to use in a classroom where the teacher knows that not all students have been exposed to the content.

No single assessment is the “Holy Grail” (Evans, 2020). A coherent system of assessment will involve multiple assessments, including ongoing formative assessment practices and interim assessments that support instructional planning to improve student learning. Districts should look for interim assessments with the following characteristics:

  • A test that can be delivered to students, either in-person or remotely, and scored very quickly.
  • A test that can dip into the previous grade’s content as appropriate for students who have deficits caused by the school closures.
  • A test that can allow a teacher to differentiate instruction and provide scaffolding for students who may have been affected by the COVID slide in various ways.
  • A test that allows a teacher to set long-term, challenging goals for students.

A quality interim assessment should quickly give a teacher the ability to treat the COVID slide appropriately for the students in their classroom. Some teachers might find little impact and be able to move on quickly with their normal course of instruction for all of their students. Others might find substantial impact and need to redesign the year’s scope and sequence of instructional plans. Many teachers are likely to find little impact on some students and a substantial impact on others and need to differentiate instruction accordingly.

Formative assessment adds an important level of depth and responsiveness to instruction. It should be a regular part of a teacher’s practice because it allows a teacher to make day-to-day instructional decisions for the students’ benefit. Formative assessment is embedded in the curriculum. It empowers every teacher to use their best professional judgment to interpret the information and determine how much scaffolding is necessary to teach on-grade content.

Principals must support teachers in developing formative assessment expertise and being able to apply those skills in an online setting if necessary. Teachers will need time to adapt their existing formative assessment repertoire for online learning. Teachers should be mindful that some formative assessments will not be suitable for online learning environments, and new formative assessments will need to be created to replace them.

It is worth mentioning that differentiated instruction suggested above isn’t ability grouping or tracking. It is teaching students in a heterogeneous classroom while acknowledging that students need to learn different content and learn it through different processes. The purpose is to push students to make bold progress in their learning regardless of their ability when they start the year. A coherent system of assessment supports this view of teaching and the long-term planning needed to support it.

So, an approach that might be used boils down to this. Use an interim assessment with the characteristics above to identify a student’s level of preparedness for on-grade learning and major areas of weakness that might indicate areas not covered well online (or not covered at all for some students). Then think strategically about the scope and sequence for the year and the scaffolding needed to help students achieve ambitious learning goals. Employ formative assessment regularly to further refine and adapt instruction for students.

Patrick Meyer is a Director of Psychometrics Solutions at NWEA. He is the inventor and lead developer of jMetrik, an open-source software program used in over 20 countries. Prior to joining NWEA in 2018, he worked as an associate professor in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, where he taught courses in educational measurement and applied statistics.

G. Gage Kingsbury is a psychometric consultant providing advice and research in the application of technology to practical assessment situations. He played a lead role in designing adaptive tests that are currently administered to K-12 students. Today, Kingsbury serves on technical advisory committees for the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, the State of Hawaii Department of Education, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. He also serves as an expert advisor on adaptive testing to NAEP.

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