Accelerating learning with the right assessment systems

Using Assessment to Support Learning Acceleration: It Takes a System!

A First-Hand Account of Responding to Student Needs With Learning Acceleration

The Oklahoma State Department of Education’s (OSDE) highest priority is keeping students and staff safe so that we can focus on learning acceleration for all students. We are also intensely focused on how assessment can be used to help address these instructional and learning needs.  To this end, in this post, I discuss the importance of a balanced system of assessment and of being very intentional about the specific purposes and uses of types of assessment within that system, especially those intended to be used to support student learning and improved instruction. 

Unfortunately, we are dealing with so many unknowns right now. For example, we are concerned with students’ opportunities to learn the intended and enacted curriculum, as well as whether students are being assessed in ways to support their learning. We have no intention of micromanaging our schools, but we still desire high-quality information that OSDE can use to help direct resources and support to schools and districts, and we strive to find ways to help schools and districts make defensible interpretations and decisions to support students.

Thankfully, student participation on the 2021 state summative assessments was quite high across Oklahoma—although participation varied considerably more than usual across schools—but these results revealed that students experienced significant learning disruptions over the last two school years.

Getting Back to the Basics 

The changing nature of our available assessment information and needs for assessment information, as depicted in Table 1, have complicated an already complex challenge of selecting and designing assessments for a variety of purposes.

Table 1. Transitioning of assessment availability and needs in Oklahoma. 

At OSDE, we are trying to strike a balance between being responsive to district needs for data and ensuring that the data we provide supports some level of defensible longitudinal comparisons. We are trying to respond to districts’ desires for more balanced systems of assessment. High-quality curriculum and instructional practices that include rich embedded assessments are ideal components of a balanced assessment system if one of the major goals is to support teaching and learning. Nevertheless, almost all of our school districts rely on commercial interim assessments, either as part of their current assessment repertoire or as they transition to more balanced assessment systems. But do they fulfill their intended purposes?

Interim Assessments Work if they Work for You

Many researchers have expressed concerns over the years about the quality and efficacy of interim assessments (e.g., Dadey, 2017Dadey & Gong, 2017Diggs, 2019Perie, Marion, & Gong, 2009), yet their use continues to proliferate. One thing seems clear though. Interim assessments may work for schools and districts if their use is grounded in a well-articulated assessment strategy (some people might refer to this as a theory of action). On the other hand, using interim assessments just because a leader or policymaker thinks they should or simply for the sake of having interim assessments, could be a waste of valuable instructional time (i.e., opportunity cost) or, worse, lead to negative outcomes because it distracts educators from appropriate instructional and assessment activities. 

The potential benefits and limitations of interim assessments are going to vary by the level of the system and based on each school/district’s specific assessment strategy. States, districts, and schools operate very differently across the country, however there are cross-cutting issues that are dependent on each entity’s assessment strategy and their system goals. At a high level, we think the following potential benefits and limitations accrue at the school, district, and state levels (see Table 2).

Table 2. Potential benefits and limitations of interim assessment implementation. 

As illustrated in the table above, the usefulness of interim assessments is dependent on understanding how interim assessment results can be used to confirm, disconfirm, or supplement observations at the school, district, and state levels. 

OSDE is working to support districts to the extent possible by providing resources that help schools make meaningful interpretations and decisions to support students. The crisis of the pandemic, the loss of 2020 summative data, and the very real exhaustion of educators requires us to be more efficient in how we think about providing information about student progress. 

This year has presented a unique opportunity to clarify the purpose of assessment types and the role each can play to support better teaching and learning. 

Moving to a System

Now that we have more credible than anticipated state assessment results for the 2020-2021 school year, we should refocus our efforts on developing and implementing balanced systems of assessment. OSDE can help support this work throughout the state with professional development, guidance documents, and other resources, but because the state does not control local curriculum, truly balanced systems of assessment must be instantiated at the district level (e.g., Marion, 2018Marion, et. al., 2019).

The statewide summative assessment will be useful for monitoring the large-scale effectiveness of learning acceleration and other interventions, but these assessments are too distal from day-to-day curriculum and instruction to guide learning activities. Therefore, other components of the system—especially assessments tied closely to the enacted curriculum—but also locally-selected interim assessments to the extent they fit within a district’s theory of action will be much more useful for supporting and monitoring school and district learning acceleration efforts. 

As the 2021 assessment results demonstrate, we all must engage in tremendous efforts to enable our students to get back on track towards meaningful levels of educational attainment. We cannot waste any effort or resources by using the wrong assessment for the job. OSDE will continue to support schools and districts in 2021-2022 and beyond in their quest to implement assessment systems that can best support student learning.

Maria Cammack is Deputy Superintendent of Assessment, Accountability, Data Systems, and Research for the Oklahoma State Department of Education.