The Real Value of State Assessments 

New Meridian recently hosted a dozen chief state school officers at our annual convening on assessment literacy, which focused on assessment as a lever for equity and change. It was clear throughout the day that states are rethinking assessment. As they transition beyond NCLB-era compliance toward ESSA-era flexibility, chiefs are seizing the moment to evaluate whether we are getting the proper return on investment from our assessments and accountability systems. The conversation returned to the fundamental questions of why we test students and how we use assessments to ensure all students are receiving the best possible education.

As the leader of New Meridian, I ask myself these questions every day. How are we as an organization helping schools better prepare students for the future so that they can thrive in a rapidly changing world? How can we make sure the time and money invested in our assessments is having a positive impact on students and their futures?

As a parent, I want assessments that let me know whether my daughter is on track or falling behind, assessments that are fair and appropriate to her lived experience and culture, assessments that don’t reduce her to a single number, and assessments that give her teacher the information he needs to help her learn and grow.

As an assessment leader working with states, I keep these priorities in mind. However, for an educational leader managing a school system, this may not be enough. Leaders also need system-wide information that builds upon whether my daughter is mastering the learning standards for her grade, and that helps identify larger patterns and trends across classrooms and grade levels over time, both overall and for groups of students.

Why does this information matter, and matter enough to have my daughter spend part of her time in school taking tests, tests that in fact reduce her to a single number and provide only limited information that her teacher can use to help her individually learn and grow?

It matters because an effective school system needs this kind of information to dig deeper into the conditions that are impacting why some students—and some groups of students—are thriving while others are falling behind. Enacted at the height of the civil rights movement, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—the underlying legislation passed in 1965 that has been reauthorized in various incarnations since, including NCLB and ESSA—was written to ensure all students have access to a quality education, regardless of skin color or economic status. State assessments are the most powerful lever we have to hold states and schools accountable to ensuring this civil right.

Many of the states we work with analyze the relative growth of groups of students, based on their annual test scores. How are African American students growing relative to their white and Hispanic peers? Are economically disadvantaged students keeping up? How are students with disabilities doing? If we are ever to achieve equity among groups of students, we must have this information.

Moreover, effective school systems know how to put this information to use by identifying those schools that are out-performing other schools in achieving greater learning gains for students. When matched on size, setting, funding levels, and demographic makeup, why are some schools successfully closing achievement gaps while others are not? What can those schools learn from one another about the factors that matter for student learning, like a strong curriculum and quality instructional materials, effective teaching, strong instructional leadership, a positive learning climate, and family and community engagement? As states foster these cross-school conversations, they tap into a powerful resource for struggling schools: peers who have struggled with similar challenges with similar resources and yet have found solutions that work for students.

This is the power of assessment to ensure an equitable education for all students: while state assessments are limited in the amount of instructional information they can provide my daughter’s teacher, they certainly make it possible to identify schools that are finding success and schools that are struggling in similar circumstances so that states and districts can provide needed support. Ensuring equitable access to a quality education—and providing tools for continuous improvement and collaboration—is the real value of state assessments. States need to make data available and relevant so that families and communities are realizing the return on that investment. 

Item Spotlight

A look at the unique characteristics that make New Meridian assessment items the industry leader

Inside a Fourth-Grade Research Simulation Task

There is no better way to determine the quality of an assessment than by evaluating its test questions.

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), a national non-profit that represents public officials who lead state education departments, says that good tests should be aligned with rigorous academic standards. Questions on tests should be designed to measure a student’s ability to “synthesize material from multiple sources, analyze problems, and explain and justify problems.”

Beginning this month, The Prime is giving our readers a look under the hood, so to speak, of the thought process that goes into the production of New Meridian test questions and performance tasks. This month, we’re examining a retired Research Simulation Task (RST) created for 4th grade assessments.

Laura Beltchenko, a literacy and educational professional from Libertyville, Illinois, is one of several dozen accomplished educators involved in New Meridian’s multi-state collaborative process of developing assessment items. We asked her to provide an analysis of a specific test question that asks students to identify the main idea of a 750-word passage titled “Grandpa’s Hobbit House.”

Beltchenko told us that some of the inherent strengths of this particular performance task are apparent from the outset.

“What I like about the opening scenario is that it tells students what they’ll be reading, and then it tells them they will need to review sources. Students know they are going to be gathering information about different houses, and then writing an essay,” she says. “Students have a purpose for reading as well as an understanding of what they need to accomplish to fulfill the assessment task.”

Students transitioning from 3rd grade to 4th grade should be able to understand the explicit meaning of a passage and make logical inferences (understand information not directly stated) from the text. This type of questioning, Beltchenko says, “is designed to measure inferential comprehension that is a critically important literacy skill.”

“Questions requiring inferential reading and comprehension require students to do some close reading and thinking,” she explains. “Thus, by the time students are working on 4th grade standards, they are learning how to extract answers from passages that are not only explicitly stated, but also inferred. This emphasis on teaching students how to read between the lines continues all the way to the 12th grade and beyond.”

Beltchenko also points out a simple formatting design that is critical for good test design: paragraphs are numbered in the text.

“If we are to help students comprehend what their reading, knowing where to locate textual evidence supports students’ retrieval of necessary information to complete a task,” she says. “Numbered paragraphs allow students to pin point where to find evidence in the text. Teachers can model this strategy in the classroom, asking students to locate textual evidence, for example, in paragraph four.  All students become actively engaged in close reading of that paragraph to retrieve information to contribute to the discussion or answer a question. This teacher modeling helps students to use this strategy to become skillful independent readers.”

Beltchenko says that the goal of every teacher should be to develop students into strategic readers of literary and informational text. Once developed, that skillset can be employed in virtually any reading scenario. Educators call it “teaching for transfer.”

“When students can learn skills and strategies to comprehend complex texts , they can then take those practices and transfer them to virtually any reading they may encounter,” says Beltchenko.

Laura Beltchenko has been in the profession of educating students and educators for over 35 years. Her career in public education includes classroom teacher, reading specialist, teacher and coordinator of gifted education programs as well as an associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction in a Chicago suburban K-12 school district.

Decoding the Data

Redefining an American Staple: The Parent-Teacher Conference

Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of The Prime’s Decoding the Data series, which examines organizations that report assessment data in new and creative ways. See the entire series on New Meridian’s website.

What comes to mind when you picture a parent-teacher conference?

Do you rush to the school and then stand in the hall waiting your turn? Do you then have a one-way conversation with an overtired teacher? Do you get 15 minutes to understand months of learning, comprehend test scores, ask questions and settle on a course of action before you are shuffled out the door?

It’s a familiar enough scene, one that many have experienced and one that often leaves both parents and teachers unsatisfied. WestEd is working to change that, overhauling the parent-teacher conference with an entirely new concept that gathers groups of parents for longer, deeper discussions designed to transform classrooms into educational communities.

“We provide coaching, professional development and technical assistance to help schools rethink and redesign how they engage families in student learning,” said Maria Paredes, WestEd’s senior engagement manager.

WestEd is part of a new breed of organizations that translate vast amounts of complex data into information that can be easily understood by parents, teachers, educators and policy makers. Their efforts are providing actionable information that can be used to guide learning improvements.

Overhauling the Conference

WestEd’s mission is simple: improve communication and collaboration between parents and teachers so that parents can be a more active force in educating their children. In practice, redesigning the parent-teacher conference is challenging because it brings change to a system that has been in place for decades, with very little critical review.

The new system that Paredes created starts by evaluating all of the activities that schools use to engage parents throughout the year, from bake sales and concerts to art shows and Science Night. At some schools, this could total 30 events or more, most of which are unconnected to learning goals. WestEd seeks to consolidate these events down to a dozen or so—about one a month—and integrate academic meetings that take the place of the traditional parent-teacher conferences.

The reimagined conferences are based on what WestEd calls Academic Parent Teacher Teams (APTT), groups of all the parents in a classroom and all the teachers who are involved in that class. Each group meets three times a year (once a quarter) with a fourth meeting dedicated to a one-on-one discussion between teachers and parents.

“This creates a safe learning environment, an opportunity for parents to come together with other parents to learn how students are doing, learn about benchmarks and goals, strategies from other families, share best practices and ask questions,” Paredes said. “We want to create a feeling of community, of working to support common goals—not just during school, but also out of school.”

Part of the advantage is that an engaged team of parents can continue student learning during the time when students are not in school. Students typically spend half a year without formal classroom instruction—a full 185 days or more, counting summer and weekends . “If students are really going to succeed, family engagement is critical,” Paredes said.

Sharing Assessment Data

The Academic Parent Teacher Teams meetings often start with a team-building activity, then a small lesson on a grade-level assignment in math, language arts, or a school-selected content priority. Assessment data is then discussed.

Teachers share the data, explain how the class is performing, and reveal how each student compares. Each parent is assigned a private number representing their student, so they can track their child’s performance but others cannot. The teacher explains to everyone in the room how to read the data and what the benchmark is. They then model activities that parents can practice at home and develop a six-week goal for each student. Parents are encouraged to share their experiences and strategies.

“It is empowering for families to see, to share, to understand and to have goals,” Paredes said. “Parents are finally able to have something tangible to discuss.”

Surveys in districts across the country show that parents and teachers both report positive experiences after making the change to the WestEd system. Indeed, company coaches help schools prepare for these sessions, including the choice of which assessment to share. It can be a big transition.

“We work really hard to help schools shift the hearts and minds of educators,” Paredes said. “It’s difficult to go from the old parent-teacher model to becoming facilitators of parent engagement, where the learners are adults as opposed to students. Getting teachers to think as partners, and feel confident with this new model, takes commitment and practice.”

So too does redefining the relationship between educators and parents. “Some teachers inherently understand that without parent involvement, academic success is very challenging,” Paredes said. “Others have a do-it-alone mentality. Creating a culture where relationships are valued is the goal.”

As Paredes put it, “Once that trust is established and the relationships develop, the impact on student learning is tremendous.”

Next Month: How one company is helping to make complex data more actionable for educators and parents.

Inside New Meridian

New Meridian’s innovative assessment services model is the subject of a lengthy feature published this week by Inside Sources. Read the piece here: From PARCC’s Ashes, a New Model for Interstate Collaboration Emerges

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