Best ways for measuring student growth involve educator input

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Public school districts in several states are about to wrap up their “testing season”–that time of year when students are forced to take several state and/or federally-mandated standardized tests in an effort to determine growth.

However, with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), educators, working with parents, community leaders, and elected officials, have a real opportunity to stem the tide on the overreliance on standardized testing in our public schools.

Education Votes recently talked with one of the leading voices trying to bring about fundamental change to student assessment and accountability. Monty Neill, the Executive Director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing or FairTest, believes it’s time for communities to work with educators to create better, more authentic methods of measuring student learning and growth. We began with Neill by discussing ESSA and the opportunities he sees in this historic new law.

EV: As you know, earlier this year, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) became law, replacing No Child Left Behind. What would you say is the top opportunity for educators to get the most out of proper assessments for students?

MN: ESSA’s innovative assessment project allows states to build new systems to largely replace standardized statewide tests with teacher-led, school-based performance assessments. Initially, up to seven states will be able to participate; additional states will be allowed to join after three years.

One high-quality alternative is the New York Performance Standards Consortium of 38 public high schools, which have a waiver from all but one state exam. Students and teachers collaborate on designing individualized graduation tasks that are scored using a common rubric for each of four subjects.

New Hampshire has a waiver from NCLB to pilot a system in which districts administer the state test in only three grades. The primary source of assessment information will be local, teacher-designed performance tasks in all grades.

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EV: What are some of the most effective ways to measure student growth outside of standardized tests?

MN: FairTest recommends performance tasks/projects and portfolios/learning records. Performance tasks enable students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills through extended work. This can include research papers, essays, science experiments, oral presentations, or applications of math and other subjects to real-world problems. NY Consortium students learn how to present their tasks before a committee, similar to a doctoral dissertation defense. They graduate high school, enroll and remain in college at higher rates than their peers – strong evidence of effectiveness.

FairTest Executive Director Monty Neill

Portfolios are collections of student coursework gathered over time. The Learning Record is a well-structured tool for combining samples of student work with teacher observations and evaluations. Research shows that LRs and some portfolios have high levels of inter-rater reliability. This indicates consistency by teachers in judging complex compilations of student work.

EV: How can educators work together to develop with parents, community leaders, and elected officials locally-based assessments?

MN: Educators are the experts and should take the lead, consulting with others to determine the most important goals and outcomes to be evaluated in a new assessment system.

EV: How has technology hurt or hindered the assessment process?

MN: Technology can be part of performance assessments and an efficient method for organizing information. However, ESSA creates a danger that “innovation” will mean computerized curriculum-instruction-testing packages. These typically rely on multiple-choice and short-answer questions as the basis for determining “competency.” Their use will lock schools into the same sorts of narrow measures that now undermine education. Portfolios and performance tasks, on the other hand, open the door for superior teaching and richer learning.

EV: What should a good assessment tool accomplish for students, educators?

MN: Most importantly, it should improve instruction and learning through a feedback and discussion process. Teacher-designed and controlled formative assessments are valuable tools for improving student outcomes. With high-quality assessments, students learn to understand their own thinking and take control over their progress. Teachers gather richer information on each student’s strengths and weaknesses. Second, summative information is useful to share with parents as well as the students and other teachers. Third, evidence of student progress is a vital tool for school and district improvement.

Monty Neill, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest). Neill has led FairTest’s work on testing in the public schools since 1987. He has initiated national and state coalitions of education, civil rights, religious, disability and parent organizations to work toward fundamental change in the assessment of students and in accountability. He chairs the national Forum on Educational Accountability. Under his leadership, FairTest has collaborated on testing reform efforts with organizations in many states. Visit FairTest on Facebook and Twitter.

Reader Comments

  1. Monty or other readers. Could you provide examples (states, districts, consortiums) of the formative and summarize assessments used in conjunction with performance assessments/portfolios?

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