Assessment literacy: A critical lever in classroom equity

It's time to prioritize assessment literacy as part of an effort to move the achievement needle for all learners—and now, those facing the 'COVID Slide'
Jacob Bruno is vice president, professional learning at NWEA.
Jacob Bruno is vice president, professional learning at NWEA.

I became a teacher because I care about kids and ensuring that they all have equitable access to learning opportunities that will help them succeed.

I have taught in many different environments—rural and urban, low and high achieving, large and small class sizes—and was challenged in all circumstances. The challenge did not come from the kids themselves, but from the recognition that I was missing something that I desperately needed to help each of my students succeed.

When I emerged from my first year of teaching, I realized that I understood how to teach, understood my curriculum, and knew my students and my content. But what I lacked, and had never been taught, was how to bring all of those data points and resources together to create a GPS of learning that empowered me to understand exactly where each student was in their learning, and what they needed from me to succeed. That missing factor: assessment literacy.

Without assessment literacy we cannot fully address academic inequity. I believe it’s the missing piece in an overall effort to move the achievement needle for all kids.

Read: 222 free K-12 resources during coronavirus pandemic

Reducing the COVID-Slide

In a 1991 Phi Delta Kappan publication, Rick Stiggins defined assessment literacy, and stated that, “without a crystal clear vision of the meaning of academic success and without the ability to translate that vision into high-quality assessments at the classroom, building, and district levels, we would remain unable to assist students in attaining higher levels of academic achievement.”

Fast forward almost 30 years, and we have yet to prioritize assessment literacy within the education profession. Despite the focus on closing the achievement and opportunity gaps, and on helping all students regardless of background, race, gender or socioeconomic status to achieve, assessment literacy is still not seen as a critical lever in the overall effort.

Assessment literacy is more important now than ever. Teachers need high-quality assessment data to efficiently and effectively determine where their students are when schools return to some sort of normal.

Given the global pandemic and the resulting school closures, assessment literacy is more important now than ever. Teachers need high-quality assessment data to efficiently and effectively determine where their students are when schools return to some sort of normal. Further, many students will face profound learning gaps, now being referred to as the COVID-Slide.

Using data is going to be critical in our shared efforts with students and families to identify and close learning gaps. The difficulty of these efforts is compounded as we anticipate scenarios wherein we are attempting to close these gaps via distance learning, which most brick-and-mortar schools are now doing for the first time.

Read: How canceled tests give teachers freedom to innovate

Developing assessment-literate teachers

Efforts to ensure equitable access to high-quality academic instruction have resulted in a cornucopia of strategies: rigorous academic content standards, new curricular approaches, professional learning paradigms focused on positive behavior, cultural competence, and instructional shifts and interventions—just to name a few. However, these promising efforts will never fully transform the schooling experience for every child until the educators implementing them have a solid foundation of assessment literacy.

An important catalyst for achieving equity, assessment literacy is the set of knowledge and skills that allows teachers to efficiently and effectively make use of all the resources, data and expertise available in service of each student. Assessment literacy involves a wealth of skills that empower teachers as professional experts; their instruction is powered by data and diagnostic abilities to target student learning needs.

An assessment-literate teacher knows the purpose of specific measures of student understanding. They also know the critical elements of grade- and content-specific learning that should be assessed (and how to assess them); understand the relative quality of the assessments, standards and curriculum at their disposal; and have mastered ways to communicate about levels of achievement that engage students to recognize their current levels of understanding and to motivate them to continue learning. When these skills are combined with all other efforts in the service of educational equity, incredible transformations happen within the classroom.

Read: How equity has overhauled grading in online learning

Prioritizing assessment literacy in professional learning

If assessment literacy was used as a critical lever, we’d see three areas rise to priority levels:

  1. Teacher preparation programs would place more emphasis on assessment literacy as core content. Currently, college programs may include one general course on testing that often covers the basics of assessments, test conditions to consider, and what makes a quality assessment. They don’t often dive into how to interpret data, how to critically evaluate the assessment for validity (is it measuring what it’s supposed to measure), and how to take data and put it into action. It’s critical that this preparation happens before a teacher enters a classroom so that skill set is well established and ready to be put into practice.
  2. Assessment literacy would be a key element of the teaching profession. Educators would “own” this field as expert professionals who can navigate data. They would understand how test conditions impact a child’s ability to effectively take a test; what are they measuring; and how assessments fit into their overall instructional framework, especially the connection to grade-level proficiency and growth. Most important, they would be able to articulate assessment results to parents and students and connect the dots to their overall educational goals.
  3. A greater investment in professional learning includes a greater focus on assessment literacy. Educators need to go beyond the basics to increase their understanding of high-quality assessments. Schools and districts would have a defined plan for ongoing professional learning that builds on their foundational knowledge of assessment, shares current best practices, and continues to connect how quality assessments impact instructional plans. That plan must be adequately supported by resources from an established, sustainable budget to dedicated time.

From teacher preparation to practicum to in-service learning, educators and administrators are focused on instruction, curriculum, standards, and the rotating interventions and priorities of the day. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown any sense of normal out the window. Come this fall, teachers will face students significantly behind in learning. As recovery plans are already being prepped, assessment literacy should not be overlooked.

It is time we all recognize and act on the idea that deepening our assessment literacy skills is an integral part of the educator’s profession. By doing so, we will continue to help further professionalize teaching, maximize outcomes for kids, and provide that missing catalyst to all of our educational equity efforts.

Jacob Bruno is vice president, professional learning at NWEA, the not-for-profit education assessment organization.

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