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Lessening school assessment stress

How schools are measuring learning without the anxiety of high-stakes exams
To measure academic excellence, Tacoma Public Schools tracks test scores, graduation rates, college acceptance and participation in extracurricular activities.
To measure academic excellence, Tacoma Public Schools tracks test scores, graduation rates, college acceptance and participation in extracurricular activities.

When Danville Independent Schools in Kentucky overhauled its curriculum in 2009 to focus on 21st century skills, district leaders quickly realized they faced an assessment challenge: How would teachers objectively and systematically measure the development of skills such as teamwork, initiative and perseverance?

Because such complex thinking skills can’t be measured by traditional standardized tests, educators nationwide are turning to new ideas like “stealth assessments” hidden in video games and student roundtables that work like college dissertation defenses.

“The problem is traditional standardized paper-and-pencil tests measure a very narrow slice of what we want students to know and be able to do,” says Dan French, executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education.

Equally problematic is the harm that overtesting can cause by cutting into valuable time for students to create projects, be creative, read, and engage with each other, says educator and author Mark Barnes, whose latest book Assessment 3.0: How to Throw Out Your Grade Book and Revolutionize Learning will be published in 2015.

Instead of quizzes and tests that interrupt classroom activity, many districts and testing companies are working on ways to integrate formative assessments into daily instruction and use technology to gather real-time feedback on student progress.

Stealth assessing

Educational video games that collect data during students’ playtime to measure learning is a technique that Florida State University professor and educational game developer Valerie Shute calls “stealth assessments.”

“Stealth assessments are seamless, so the distinction between learning and assessment is completely blurred,” Shute says. “Kids are playing, they are learning, and they are being assessed all at the same time.”

Another model that’s growing in popularity combines standardized tests with performance and project-based assessments. A key part of ASCD’s legislative agenda this year will be advocating for accountability systems that take into account more than just standardized test scores.

One way to imagine the assessments of the future is to think about driving tests, French says. “You have to do a pencil-and-paper test to show you know the rules of the road, but you also have to get out on the road and show what you can do,” he says.

Assessments double as instruction

Over the last two years, the Chappaqua Central School District in New York has created more than 90 assessments in an effort to better gauge creative and critical thinking skills. The assessments are scored using traditional rubrics and are aligned to Common Core standards—but don’t even think about calling them tests.

“We are trying to change the culture around assessments,” says Eric Byrne, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “We want assessments that produce learning.”

That means the assessments must mirror regular classroom instruction. Annual English language arts assessments take the form of argumentative essays. In science, students conduct an experiment and then write a lab report to support their conclusions, Byrne says.

In middle school, students are expected to write argumentative papers for ELA and to demonstrate increasingly complex thinking skills, such as the ability to build in counterarguments. K4 students also undergo annual performance assessments in math, music, art and physical education. Foreign language, science and health are added in fifth and sixth grade.

Nearly all courses in middle and high school have their own performance assessments. In physical education classes, students are tested using a sportsmanship rubric to evaluate skills like teamwork and collaboration.

High school choral students listen to a recorded performance of the class and critique it for intonation, musicality and technique, and then set goals for improvement. All the assessments take place over several days and teachers provide feedback and allow students to revise their work.

The assessment scores count for 20 percent of teachers’ state-mandated annual professional performance review. The scores do not impact student grades, but are used to revise teaching strategies and to target interventions. The assessments are designed to measure the same thinking skills and standards across all grade levels so that student progress can be compared year-over-year, Byrne says.

The popularity of the assessments with teachers has contributed to a gradual but significant districtwide shift in instructional practices, with teachers scaling back reliance on multiple choice assessments and increasing performance-based assessments in daily instruction, Chappaqua Superintendent Lyn McKay says.

Using presentations

At Danville Independent Schools, subject mastery in grades 5 through 12 is assessed through roundtables and presentations that function much like college thesis defenses. The K12 district, which is rolling out new performance-based assessments, developed the system to emphasize its “Danville Diploma Skills” learning objectives. Y

ounger students participate in roundtable presentations in core subjects, and perform individual project defenses starting in 7th grade. The presentations are judged by a panel of teachers who guide students through a series of tasks and questions before grading their performances using a pre-determined rubric. In science and math, for example, teachers grade students on eight performance indicators, such as problem-solving, reasoning and experimental design.

Students also create digital portfolios with work samples and brief explanations of how each sample demonstrates evidence of learning. A student might upload a video of a creative science experiment to show their mastery of the Danville Diploma Skill of “value and creativity.” The goal is for Danville graduates to one day eventually be able to use the portfolios to supplement college and job applications.

Administrators were able to add the performance-based assessments to the district’s testing schedule, says former Danville superintendent Carmen Coleman, now at the University of Kentucky’s National Center for Innovation in Education.

Coleman oversaw the creation of the district’s learning objectives in 2009 and the rollout of its performance-based assessments last year. For formative assessments, the district kept the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress test. For summative assessments, students take the ACT because it has a real-life impact on college acceptance.

But teachers are told to no longer “drill” for the state’s annual accountability test.

It’s too early to gauge the impact these changes will have on the district’s standardized test scores, Coleman says. However, the district’s state college and career readiness scores—as measured by ACT benchmarks and scores on other tests, like the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, more than doubled, from 34 percent in 2012 to 70 percent in 2013.

The increase in student engagement has also been dramatic, says teacher Hannah Chaney. Teachers and students are working harder than they were before, but they are more excited and invested in school, she says. “If I am going to teach to a test, I want to teach you something that is going to get you ready for life,” Chaney says.

Integrating assessments daily

Teachers in Meridian School District in Idaho are integrating formative assessments into everyday learning. They are using “exit tickets,” in which students are asked to write short responses to a lesson question before moving on to harder material. Students write their answers on personal whiteboards so an entire class can answer at the same time.

In 2009-10, the district increased its use of formative assessments after switching to standards-based report cards, which require much more finite tracking of learning. Teachers grade students based on progress made toward standards in each subject. The daily formative assessments give teachers a constant “real-time dashboard” of progress—a more effective measurement than end-of-lesson “mile marker” tests, says Jackie Thomason, director of accountability and assessment.

Teachers are assessing much more frequently, but it’s so embedded in the instructional process that students don’t feel the stress and pressure of being tested, Thomason says. The challenge is helping teachers make the transition, he adds.

To do that, Meridian brought in instructional coaches and adopted Keeping Learning on Track (KLT), a two-year professional development product by NWEA As part of KLT, teacher cohorts meet regularly to study research and strategies for formative assessments and then to evaluate how well those strategies worked during a month of implementation.

Building a multimetric system

Provide students multiple opportunities to demonstrate subject mastery and it gives them a sense of hope that can translate into improved grades and graduation rates. That’s one of the takeaways of Tacoma Public Schools’ new accountability system, says Joshua Garcia, the district’s deputy superintendent.

“By providing kids with safe opportunities to demonstrate their learning, they realize that there is still an opportunity to be successful,” Garcia says.

For example, students who fail freshman English but go on to meet the national average for the SAT in their junior year can use the score to satisfy that graduation requirement. But that’s only one element of the broad Tacoma Whole Child Initiative the district launched a few years ago.

The accountability system is structured around four goals—academic excellence, partnerships, early learning and safety. To measure academic excellence, the district tracks test scores, graduation rates, college acceptance and participation in extracurricular activities. The percentage of registered volunteers at a school, feedback from climate surveys, and the number of community-based organizations in partnership with a school site are all converted into data for tracking the “partnerships” goal.

In creating the new system, Garcia’s team eliminated a few assessments. The team examined all formative and summative tests in the district to identify areas where they overlapped. Since then, the district’s teachers have created an assessment bank so that they can spend less time making tests and more time working one-on-one with students.

Early results of the overall accountability strategy are impressive. The district graduation rate has steadily climbed from the low 50s to more than 70 percent in 2013. The percentage of students meeting end-of-course proficiency in algebra jumped from 28 percent in 2011 to 65 percent in 2013.

“There are, unfortunately, some fatal flaws with the current high-stakes testing that I think are pretty well recognized among the American public,” Garcia says. “So when you provide an alternative that is transparent with your data and give [the public] a more accurate reflection of where your students are in real time, it builds trust and confidence in your community so that they will support your future efforts.”

Jessica Terrell is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.