Taking time to assess what students know, think, and feel

A second grade student works behind a protection shield at a socially distanced desk at Wesley Elementary School. Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

What if testing could be used to reveal what students in grades K-12 know, understand, and feel about the events they’ve lived through in 2020?

A 2001 National Research Council (NRC) report defined assessment as “a tool designed to observe students’ behavior and produce data that can be used to draw reasonable inferences about what students know.” In the years since the NRC report’s release, the United States has relied upon standardized assessments in English Language Arts and Math, combined with federal accountability systems, to report and monitor the performance of students attending public schools. These assessments are generally given each spring, in grades three through eight and once in high school, and are intended to capture what each student has learned during the current school year. With some variation, in most states, a student can score proficient, which indicates passing or average; above proficient, indicating higher levels of knowledge; or below proficient. The scores are aggregated at the level of the school, district, and state, and publicly reported the following school year. This is also when parents and teachers generally have a conversation about the student’s score.

When my twins’ fourth grade teacher shared their scores during their back-to-school conference last September, I was reminded of how little we learn from the summative data. Knowing their reading level was above proficient as compared to their district and state peers did not help their teacher understand areas where one or both of them might be struggling any more than the scores could tell me if they identified or connected with the stories they read. I left the meeting with a nagging feeling about what would be useful.

That feeling returned when the chatter started about what to do about state assessments following the initial closure of schools due to COVID-19. Questions surrounding the feasibility of administering tests, technological needs, and individual capacities of students, teachers, and parents, as well as the reliability of any test results started swirling around virtual water coolers in Zoom chat rooms. When the U.S. Department of Education (ED) exempted states from reporting school and district performance on annual state assessments last spring, a cacophony of opinions appeared about the role and use of state assessments in the upcoming school year. On September 3, ED informed chief state school officers they were not planning to issue a comparable waiver for the upcoming school year and that they should plan to administer assessments. Inside many education policy circles and conversations, some of which I’m a member of as a program officer, there was a collective sigh of relief. Many felt ED’s decision signaled the administration’s commitment and understanding of the importance of assessments. Several statements were released, including from diverse coalitions of organizations—Center for American Progress, the National Urban League, the Education Trust, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce—many of which I am proud to support, praising the importance of enforcing federal testing requirements. As I read and listened, I found myself again thinking: how could assessments be useful in this moment?

The role of assessments in this moment

I am a mom of 10-year-old Black, male twins who are experiencing their final year of elementary school completely online after being quarantined for seven months away from those they love, play, and learn with, while witnessing protest and unrest that portrays our country as deeply divided on issues of race. It would be great to have some insight into how they are processing everything that has occurred. Could assessments play a role in that? Could assessments help determine if my fifth-grade twins see the racial intersections and cultural connections of the events happening in our county? Is it possible for elementary grade students to contextualize learning about viruses, public health, and data reliability? We were recently informed that our district would be fully remote through January 2021. Could assessments also help me understand if remote learning is working for the twins, or if they are experiencing learning slide, similar to the learning loss generally experienced in the summer?

As a program officer leading a strategy that prioritizes engaging and empowering teaching and learning opportunities, I think about assessments, particularly formative assessments, as a tool for improving student achievement and impacting classroom instruction. As the nation’s 14,000 school districts resume the 2020-2021 school year teaching in online, hybrid, and in-person formats while continuing the fight against an unrelenting and disruptive opponent, how should we think about the role of assessments?

Measuring the skills students need to succeed beyond school

The short answer is we should expect our assessments to do more for learners. Formative assessments, such as performance tasks, portfolios, and exhibitions of student work, are a good place to start. Unlike summative assessments, formative assessments can develop and measure higher-order thinking skills, according to a 2017 report from Hewlett grantees Learning Policy Institute (LPI) and Council for Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). In these tasks, students directly apply the relevant knowledge and skills for a particular subject, which centers the student and their knowledge and interests and uses assessment to measure their progress toward demonstrating mastery of one or more standards. Formative assessments occur throughout the year, instead of at the end of the year, so they also help to inform teaching and learning in real time. These sorts of assessments, which are already in use in a few places around the country, can reveal the competencies and skills students need to develop beyond school.

Take, for example, the Portfolio Defenses undertaken by Hewlett grantee Envision Education. Graduating seniors undergo a culminating assessment covering numerous courses and topics, and demonstrating multiple competencies, such as communication and complex analysis. Assessments such as these shift the student role from “passively receiving and responding to external questions at one end of the continuum, to taking increasing initiative for finding and making sense of information, as well determining questions, methods, and strategies for investigation at the other end,” explains the LPI and CCSSO report. Moreover, these assessments help the student and the people supporting her understand more about her identity and process as a learner.

“In the end, it’s a reflection of who you are as a person and an intellectual. How… pieces of your work represent the evolution of your journey over the last four years,” said Yvonne Armenta, an Envision alumni. Her high school required presentation of a college portfolio defense in order to graduate, which, Yvonne says, required knowing how to give and receive feedback. “I had to learn how to deliver the feedback so that people could understand what I’m trying to say; that I value their perspective and see their side of things, but I had something to offer them that might improve their work.” These types of assessments deepen knowledge and promote engagement, and they also improve instruction as teachers and peers provide feedback more frequently and in a timelier fashion to allow for instructional shifts necessary to support gaps in student learning.

An opportunity to build a better assessment system

In the September 3 letter to state chiefs, Secretary Devos wrote, “Now may be the perfect time for you to rethink assessment in your state, including considering competency and mastery-based assessments, to better gauge the learning and academic growth of your students.” I could not agree with her more; now is the time for assessments to look different! Let’s use this opportunity to build the robust assessment systems allowed by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). There are challenges to states and districts solely using traditional summative assessments to measure learning, including teaching to the test and, watering down or narrowing the curriculum, to name a few. These things have been blamed for precluding children, like my twins, as well as other children from under-resourced groups, from accessing deep and engaging teaching and learning opportunities. For these same reasons, annual summative assessments do little to help advance our K-12 teaching and learning goals. Rich assessments, such as portfolios, projects, or extended performance tasks, provide students more opportunities to demonstrate depth of knowledge, while also assessing other skills, such as collaboration and communication.

Hewlett’s grantmaking is centered around providing all students with challenging and relevant learning opportunities that build the critical skills, mindsets, and agency they need to succeed. We support a student-centered, equitable, inclusive, and knowledge-driven education system that recognizes and supports competency over proficiency. We think this moment provides a valuable opportunity for us to learn alongside our partners about how to build systems of assessments that measure students’ knowledge about their own identity, their goals as a learner, and their wellbeing, along with traditional content. Only then can we assess what students know.

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