The word “assessment” can strike terror, rage, curiosity, frustration, competitiveness, derision or suspicion into the minds of its various beholders. That is certainly true among those concerned with K-12 education – in Colorado, in Durango and across the country, parents, students, teachers, school administrators, policymakers as well as elected officials have strong feelings and ideas about the word itself, let alone its multifaceted implications.
Clarifying the conversation requires unpacking just what the word implies. It is too often used as a catch-all to illustrate just how over-tested our elementary, middle and high school students are. In any given use of the word “assessment,” the user can be referring to state-mandated testing, that required by the federal government or that levied by local school districts and classroom teachers – all of the above or some combination thereof. Each has a specific purpose and is used, ostensibly, to gauge and improve educational outcomes. But tell that to the average Durango School District 9-R third-grader who spends 1,200 minutes working his way through PARCC, DIBELS, COGAT or SchoolVault – to say nothing of run-of-the-mill classroom tests – over the course of a school year.
Testing from on high
There is more than one bogeyman responsible for the vast array of assessments administered in K-12 classrooms. At the top is the federal government, which requires that states test their students thusly:
Once in each of grades three through eight on English language arts and math;
Once in high school on English language arts and math; and,
Once at each level – elementary, middle and high school – in science.
The federal testing requirements dictate that states assess students’ proficiency in the standards that particular state has adopted. For Colorado, 42 other states as well as the District of Columbia, those are the Common Core standards for language arts and math. Common Core does not provide science standards – those are generated at the state level, but the federal Department of Education requires states to test their students on whatever those standards are.
The federal requirements are clear: States must test and students must take the test – whichever the state has chosen to assess language arts, math and science. The test du jour in Colorado is the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, known more affectionately as PARCC, which replaced the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program this school year. TCAP, in turn, replaced the widely reviled Colorado Student Assessment Program in 2012. The jury on PARCC is still out, as the program has yet to be fully implemented. Early returns suggest that it takes too much time out of students’ and teachers’ classroom budgets for not enough in return.
Nevertheless, federal law says that 95 percent of the state’s students must take the test, and a failure to do so places considerable amounts of funding at risk: approximately $326 million annually. A statewide refusal to test is more than just a statement of opposition – it could severely compromise Colorado’s ability to properly educate its young people.
But the federal government is hardly the sole culprit in dictating the assessment environment in Colorado. State requirements go beyond that which the overseers in Washington, D.C., dictate.
Language-arts testing every year in grades three through 11 (PARCC);
Math assessments in grades three through eight and three times in high school (PARCC);
Science and social studies tests once at each school level – elementary, middle and high (Colorado Measures of Academic Success, or CMAS);
The ACT college entrance exam in 11th grade;
Reading assessments for kindergarten through third grade (determined by district); and,
School-readiness testing for kindergartners (determined by district).
Additionally, English-language learners have a state-mandated test all their own.
Locally grown assessments
Individual school districts often add a layer of assessment to the mix of state- and federally required tests, and Durango School District 9-R is no exception. In fact, in 9-R and in many districts statewide, district-required testing comprises the bulk of the assessment regimen that students face.
Much like the CSAP-TCAP-PARCC transition, the actual testing vehicle used by 9-R has shifted in recent years. Previously, the district used Northwest Evaluation Association products to measure individual student growth over time – and to adjust instruction accordingly. The district has since abandoned NWEA testing to pursue its own mechanism for measuring mastery of a subject: SchoolVault.
Written by 9-R teachers who must determine grade-level proficiency standards across all schools, this testing system is in its infancy. Teachers are working together to craft the assessment questions, so that fifth-graders at Park, Needham, Riverview, Sunnyside, Fort Lewis Mesa, Animas Valley and Florida Mesa are all being asked to demonstrate the same basic competence. By doing so, says 9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger, students will be better prepared and more uniformly skilled as they advance from elementary to middle school and middle school to high school. The idea is to use the data to close 9-R’s significant achievement gap: “We want everyone to have the same opportunity,” Snowberger said. “We created a system that gives data today, so that teachers can make changes tomorrow.”
This testing style, known as formative, is designed to immediately assess whether a student has mastered a topic, thereby giving teachers the opportunity to catch kids before they drop behind – and adjust instruction accordingly. The district-level testing in 9-R combines formative, assess-and-adjust check-ins with larger, summative tests – akin to midterms or finals – to see what kids have retained over the course of their studies. Other schools use different mechanisms for assessing this knowledge: Mountain Middle School, for example, combines NWEA testing with “Presentations of Learning,” wherein students demonstrate their semester- and year-long studies to a panel of teachers, parents and colleagues.
What’s it all for?
There are many implications for the data yielded from the suite of assessments that students commit four to 48 hours completing each year – depending on school and grade level. Federal- and state-required testing is primarily designed to demonstrate schools’ effectiveness and provide a benchmark for comparing student performance across Colorado – and, therefore, district performance against one another. It is an accountability piece – for students, teachers, schools and districts – and one that is crucial to measuring the effectiveness of public education and the dollars that fund it. Whether the specific mechanism for – and associated time spent – gathering the data is appropriate is an unresolved question. Many parents say no; many teachers do as well. The conversation – lively right now at the Colorado Legislature – will likely continue regardless of this year’s changes.
The district level testing – at 9-R at least – is primarily designed to gauge individual student progress and immediately inform instruction accordingly. That is useful for students and teachers, both.
In 2010, the Colorado Legislature passed Senate Bill 191, which required that 50 percent of teacher evaluations be based on student achievement. This combines state and district-level results – though the SchoolVault data is not yet part of the evaluation equation. As Snowberger said, “Until there is a data system in place that is fair and reliable, we won’t use it.” When it is used, local assessment data will comprise 25 percent of each teacher’s total evaluation.
There is much at stake in the suite of assessments that students are asked to take, and finding fault with the sum total is relatively easy. Nevertheless, there must be measures by which to gauge student progress and school effectiveness. Finding the right balance begins with understanding the many strands that define “assessments” in K-12 education and what each is designed to capture. Fine-tuning is an option; wholesale dismissal of an essential component of education is not.
Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.