How schools are reassessing their assessments

4 steps and 9 questions for overhauling testing
By: | Issue: June, 2019
May 27, 2019
Students collaborate on a motorized Lego project at Anza Elementary in El Cajon, California. The San Diego County Office of Education has been helping district leaders with assessment strategies that move away from traditional tests.Students collaborate on a motorized Lego project at Anza Elementary in El Cajon, California. The San Diego County Office of Education has been helping district leaders with assessment strategies that move away from traditional tests.

Audits can show administrators whether their assessment strategies are informing instruction effectively and efficiently.

Audits should provide easily decipherable and actionable data to teachers and students in the classroom—where the learning takes place, says testing expert Susan Brookhart, professor emerita at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Administrators, who are further away from the learning, should receive “more general and more aggregated information,” says Brookhart, a co-author of “The Future of Assessment Practices: Comprehensive and Balanced Assessment Systems” report.

With states mandating fewer exams and the Every Student Succeeds Act offering more testing flexibility, here are four steps for revamping your assessment strategies.

1. Assessment strategies promote testing literacy

Andrew Scherrer, the executive director of equity and access at Fresno USD in California, launched his district’s assessment audit by surveying principals about 40 kinds of tests. He asked them which exams they used and how often, and whether the tests were mandated or principals had purchased the tests themselves.

“We were data rich, but information poor,” Scherrer says. “We had so much information on our 75,000 students, but we, as the gatekeepers of assessment and data, needed to make sure that data was always action-oriented and accessible.”


Sidebar: Asking the right questions about your assessments


The results, gleaned from all 106 school sites, revealed that about 25 assessments were “above and beyond” the district’s mandated tests and were eliminated.

Scherrer’s division now promotes assessment literacy to improve each educator’s ability to analyze data and utilize it within instruction.

“We want folks to be able to interpret results from those assessments, and then apply those results to improve the student experience,” Scherrer says. “We believe assessment literacy is multifaceted, but we focus on interpretation of assessments and application of those results.”

2. Consider a new model

The assessment strategies used by Fairfield-Suisun USD (21,000 students) fell out of alignment when California state standards changed with the Common Core. Teachers had also grown concerned about an aggressive testing schedule, the assessment data’s lack of value, and the testing’s disconnect with curriculum, says Shelley Ghannam, Fairfield-Suisun’s assessment operations manager.

A committee of 45 teachers, principals and administrators began auditing the district’s assessment strategies in 2015. Committee members analyzed each district test, its purpose and how educators used the data. The committee identified the tests that had the biggest impact on instruction and where overlap existed, says Ghannam.

“We looked at our current benchmark assessments that we expected our teachers to administer three times a year to see if they were aligning to our expectations of what our teachers were teaching,” she says.


Read more: K12 shifts assessment strategies


As a result of the audit, the district eliminated several assessments, including three benchmark exams, separate ELA and math placement tests, and a reading evaluation that was administered three times per year.

The audit findings also prompted the district to change to a growth model. Working with the Northwest Evaluation Association, educators began implementing MAP Growth computer-adaptive exams that measure student growth over time.

“Initially, I felt like it was going to be quite a task to change to a growth mindset assessment model, but teachers got on board pretty quickly,” Ghannam says. “They want to see their students grow, rather than just hit the mark.”

3. Make your transitions transparent

Educators seeking more actionable data are increasingly moving toward formative assessment’s ongoing process of gathering and analyzing evidence of learning. This means they are relying less on high-stakes evaluations once or twice per school year.

“In the past, a lot of our assessment work centered around multiple-choice testing and a lot of worksheets and rote memorization,” says Melissa Spadin, the San Diego County Office of Education’s coordinator of assessment, accountability and evaluation. “That’s not what we’re trying to accomplish anymore with standards that ask students to apply their thinking a lot more.”

Schools in San Diego County are shifting toward assessments that allow students to demonstrate knowledge without having to complete worksheets or take multiple-choice tests.

Schools in San Diego County are shifting toward assessments that allow students to demonstrate knowledge without having to complete worksheets or take multiple-choice tests.

Spadin helps San Diego County districts shift from compliance-based assessments to balanced testing systems that promote co-learning, in which teachers and students work together to design instruction that includes opportunities for reflective inquiry.

When overhauling assessments, district leaders should be transparent about the changes they’re making, Spadin says. She recommends that administrators generate a clear picture of the current state of assessment—from formative to interim to large-scale summative testing—and of the data that assessments are generating.

“We still hear leaders say, ‘I’m not a data person,’ and that’s no longer acceptable in education,” she says.

This review should involve a variety of stakeholders, including teams of district- and school-level curriculum, data, assessment and finance administrators; counselors and teachers; and parents. Then, the district can develop a new vision for academic, behavioral and social-emotional assessment that contains “a guiding message, is concise and memorable, and illuminates assessment goals,” Spadin says.

“For us, it’s understanding that assessment does not have to look the way it always has and that there are many different ways for students to demonstrate what they know,” Spadin says.

4. Speak the same language

Students, teachers and administrators may have different perceptions of feedback and evaluation.

Therefore, administrators should cultivate an assessment culture in which everyone can analyze student data to plan, design, implement and evaluate academic progress, says Steve Green, senior director for assessment, accountability and evaluation for the San Diego County Office of Education.


Read more: SAT, ACT grades increase when K-12 districts pay for exams


A critical component of this culture is speaking the same language. In other words, there needs to be consensus about what assessment terminology means. Sharing terms allows Green’s office to provide more effective consultation, professional development and technical assistance to the county’s 42 districts, he says.

“Folks equate assessment with testing—that it’s a formal event that happens at a certain point of time either in the school year or unit of study,” Green says. “But we’re trying to get people out of this mindset and to look at assessment more holistically.”

Emily Ann Brown is associate editor.