How Can Every Educator Achieve Assessment Literacy?

Thoughts About Scaling Educational Reforms to Increase Educators’ Assessment Literacy

I am encouraged that so many educational leaders are wrestling with systematically bringing educational reforms to scale. Unfortunately, as these leaders have come to realize, achieving widespread implementation of meaningful reforms is really hard – especially when pursuing a goal of increasing assessment literacy.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with many of these education leaders to discuss the challenges of significantly increasing assessment literacy among educators in their states. This discussion opportunity took place at the National Policy Forum convened by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), recently renamed the Aurora Institute. This post summarizes my presentation and discussion.

The Challenge of Expanding Improvements in Assessment Literacy from Schools and Districts to Entire States

I discussed previously how my colleagues and I have been using research-based approaches to improve assessment literacy. It is hard enough to support meaningful improvements in assessment literacy at the school or district level; the challenge is magnified when trying to increase assessment literacy on a large-scale. 

In a recent CenterLine post, Charlie DePascale distinguished between inventions and innovations. Among other characteristics, the invention must become widespread and useful to be considered an innovation. But how do these inventions (largely speaking) turn into innovations, and what can we do to help facilitate the transition from a localized to a widespread reform? I highlight some important research and thinking about scale below before diving into how state leaders can use these conceptualizations to increase the prevalence and depth of assessment literacy.

Research and Reflections About Scale

Scale is multidimensional and dynamic in that it changes throughout the innovation life cycle. Cynthia Coburn (2003) offered a multidimensional framework for conceptualizing scale. 

  • Depth requires that reforms lead to deep and consequential change. 
  • Sustainability, which may be the central challenge of scale, refers to the reform lasting over time. 
  • Spread, similar to DePascale’s discussion of innovation, means the reform must move to an increasingly greater number of schools and classrooms. 
  • Ownership of the reform must shift from external (or top-down) control to an internal locus of control.

Coburn and colleagues recently added important nuance to this initial conceptualization in suggesting at least four ways to consider scaling:

  • Adoption involves widespread use, but without tightly specifying how the innovation will be used – much like a social movement.
  • Replication is characterized by high-fidelity implementation to produce the intended outcomes based on the initial conceptualization.
  • Adaptation also is characterized by widespread use of the innovation, but instead of tightly-specified outcomes, the innovation is modified based on the needs of local contexts.
  • Reinvention occurs when the innovation serves as a catalyst for further innovation.

The growing prevalence of sociocultural theory as the explanatory mechanism for how people learn demonstrates the importance of context in research, development, and innovation – especially with assessment literacy. Further, as an “open source” organization, we at the Center realize the tremendous benefits of fostering a climate of remixing or reinvention. Therefore, our approach to scaling assessment literacy follows an adaptation or reinvention conceptualization.

What can State Leaders Do to Support Educational Reforms That Drive Assessment Literacy?

State education leaders play a critical role in any large-scale reform, even if the innovation is a “bottom-up” effort. I suggest below four major dimensions for how state leaders can support innovation that hold true for many different types of reforms, even though my focus here is on deepening assessment knowledge and skills across a state.

1. Establishing a Clear Vision

State leaders must provide a clear vision about the urgency, or at least the need, for the reform and the path forward. This vision should indicate the problem or issue the state needs to address and offer a compelling rationale for why the proposed innovation can help address this problem. In other words, if one of the issues is a lack of student engagement in their own learning, perhaps having more assessment-literate educators, particularly in terms of formative assessment feedback, can improve student engagement and learning. This vision is often enacted through policies and procedures, but that approach is not enough – it must include regular and effective communication.

2. Communicating Strategically

The vision, rationale for the innovation, and relevant policies and procedures must be regularly and strategically communicated to various stakeholders in the reform. The communication plan and implementation must roll out early in the reform because if the state leader is not communicating about her/his vision, someone else will!

3. Attending to Structural Issues

Many states at the forefront of innovation are trying to make significant changes to student and teacher learning while operating in a 200+-year-old educational structure. Expecting teachers and leaders to change their practices and beliefs about assessment, instruction, and student learning within the same structures of limited planning and professional learning time, as well as other structural constraints, does not mesh with a defensible theory of action. I recognize many aspects of structure are delicately balanced between states and local districts, so it is hard for state leaders to make headway on such matters as the length of the school year, common planning time, professional development expectations, and resources – but they can often help local education leaders understand the importance of attending to such issues. I offer three types of examples for state leaders willing to address structural challenges:

  • States can pool resources, such as from federal or state funds, to improve the quality of assessment literacy learning opportunities compared to what each district could offer on its own, especially for smaller school districts. Such pooling is often met by resistance by district leaders, so these efforts can only happen with a clear and compelling vision, support, and leadership from the state.
  • States can help create and share effective models and tools to support teachers and leaders in improving their assessment literacy. States must do so with a continuous improvement mindset and with a willingness to test these models at a small scale to learn what works and what doesn’t.
  • Too many reforms and other state policy initiatives suffer from instability in leadership, policies, resources, and other factors. There are many strategies for creating stability (structures, laws, and policies) that state leaders can address.

4. Addressing Cultural Beliefs and Practices

Modern conceptions of assessment literacy require teachers and other educators to confront long-held beliefs about how students learn and about the role of students and teachers in the system. Changing structures must go hand-in-hand with changing or shifting cultures around these and other beliefs and practices. State leaders must recognize the difficulty in facilitating cultural shifts and should support local leaders and teachers in making these shifts. In doing so, leaders must rely on research-based approaches for bringing about sustained changes in teachers’ knowledge, skills, and dispositions, such as those articulated by Putnam and Borko.

In spite of these suggestions, I have no illusion that improving assessment literacy at scale is easily achieved. I hope that attacking this challenge strategically and systematically might help us make more headway than we typically see in this important area.