The Intersection

Getting Student Assessment Right

March 2, 2016


As all states wrestle with how to implement the flexibility afforded under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), it is critical to focus on the following five fundamental aspects to ensure a high-quality assessment system.

1. Ensure rigorous content standards are in place.
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are one example of content standards that embody high expectations for what students should learn in English language arts and mathematics—but they aren’t the only example. Many states that have not adopted, or that have partially adopted the CCSS, have developed their own challenging content standards for all students. Within the next two years, it is likely that the CCSS will need to be revised; all sets of content standards—such as the North Carolina Standard Course of Study—are routinely reviewed and changes made.
First, it is essential that the content standards are adopted in North Carolina be vetted by three major constituencies: educators, college and career stakeholders, and parents. The North Carolina learning expectations must be grade-level appropriate for students, challenging, and provide all students with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful at the college or career option to which they aspire.

Second, it is unlikely that a generic national assessment program and strictly multiple-choice testing will provide adequate alignment to whatever challenging content standards are ultimately adopted. Although commercial test suppliers might claim their products are aligned to North Carolina’s content standards, the reality is that the commercial vendors create one-size-fits-all products that are as reasonably aligned to as many states’ sets of content standard as possible. North Carolina must demand an assessment program worthy of the relevant and rigorous content standards deemed appropriate for our students.

2. Keep a focus on purpose…

Tests are like tools: each one is designed for a specific purpose. Assessments have different purposes that they are each designed to accomplish.

3.  …and an eye on technology.
Technological innovations have great promise for assessment systems. But technology also has limitations. For one, computer-based testing (CBT) rarely translates into reduced testing time. It typically takes the same amount of time to get dependable information about student learning from a paper and pencil test as it does from a CBT. If next-generation assessments are developed to require students to engage in more critical thinking and analysis (see #1), it is likely that they might even take more time.

4. Accountability works, if it’s done right.
As an educator in a university setting, I can attest that the accountability mechanism of “publish or perish” functions precisely as intended, motivating faculty focus on their scholarly productivity. Similarly, research has demonstrated that accountability policies for K-12 contexts typically have the desired effect of focusing effort on the student achievement. Two factors must be balanced, however.

First, to function as intended, accountability systems must include diverse elements and have real consequences. The days of accountability systems that monitor only student test score gains are—or should be—long gone.

Second, whereas we know that accountability systems without consequences aren’t effective, we also know that one-sided accountability is both ineffective and unfair. The term symmetry of consequences has been introduced to refer to accountability systems where all involved have some “skin in the game.” For example, accountability systems where only educators or school systems face sanctions for poor student achievement are often—and rightly—judged to be unfair to educators. Systems where only students face penalties for poor performance also seem unfair. The key policy goal should be to create accountability systems that balance fair, clear, and reasonable consequences for all involved.

5. Demand assessment literacy.
Finally, it is an embarrassment that formal training for educators in assessment is so spotty. For example, such training is not required to become a licensed teacher, principal, even superintendent, in the state of North Carolina. It is hard to imagine that fundamental competence in assessment is not mandatory in today’s environment where assessment information is so prevalent, so necessary for ensuring student success.

Overall, the coming next generation of content standards, assessments, and reporting mechanisms all offer great opportunities to improve learning for all students. Thoughtful, coherent, planned assessment systems are surely possible, but only if they are rigorous, maintain focus on the unique purpose of each component of the system, balance technological opportunities and limitations, and include initiatives to develop effective accountability and enhance assessment literacy.

(Dr. Cizek was a panelist and resource expert on “Quality Assessments: Effective State Policy” at The Hunt Institute’s December 2016 Holshouser Legislators Retreat: Education for a Stronger North Carolina | Policy, Implementation, and Results. The above blog was a short version of “Getting Student Assessment Right.” To read the expanded version, go here.)

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