School accountability for realists

On Board Online • July 18, 2011

By Richard E. Jetter, Ph.D. 

This article is about high-stakes testing. But it’s not one of those “rebellion” pieces we have all seen (and maybe even agreed with). Rather, it is background and recommendations for school board members and administrators who – like it or not – will be using testing data to make personnel decisions. It is quite a responsibility – making judgments about human worth. What do school leaders need to know about measuring student achievement, growth, learning, and ability? 

What is our starting point?

The sometimes sordid history of testing has always been fascinating to me – Sir Francis Galton’s “Eugenics,” Alfred Binet’s IQ test, Lewis Terman’s 1914 Army recruitment tactics, and Edward Thorndike’s reliance on the science of testing to determine the “truth” about students through the use of commercialized testing materials. As part of my 2010 dissertation work at the State University of New York at Buffalo, I gained knowledge about numerous principals’ perceptions in 15 school districts across New York State regarding how familiar they were with high-stakes tests, assessment literacy and the history of assessments. They also told me about their perceptions of the familiarity of these topics to the superintendents and school board members that they work with.

The chart below summarizes the results. Most principals said they had not been trained in assessment literacy, and they didn’t perceive the superintendents or board members they worked with to have been trained in these areas. This data suggests that our administrators and school boards are not well-prepared for leading accountability initiatives in a high-stakes testing culture.

This has not only educational implications but political ones, as school board members need to understand assessments to effectively lobby state officials regarding how tests should be used in New York State. 

Valuing authentic student work

Arguably, summative testing does not always capture a specific skill area or strength that students can often demonstrate under non-testing conditions. How can school districts better document work by both students and teachers?

Each teacher should maintain a kind of “archive” for each student. In writing, for instance, student work samples can illustrate a child’s learning, progress, writing-skill growth, and voice.

Portfolios and teacher tracking charts can capture skills that students acquire but are not reflected on high-stakes tests.

This is why many educators, including me, favor incorporating portfolio-based evaluations. Learning is a socialized, process-oriented, and cumulative behavior. Our assessments should include a mechanism to address that.

Like high-stakes tests, any portfolio-based evaluation should be based on state learning standards, which were recently revised. It is inarguable that the new 2010 Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) that the Regents have adopted are more detailed and specific than their predecessor, the 1995 New York State Learning Standards. The CCLS are good standards that describe the types of reading, writing, and mathematical skills that our students should acquire for college and career readiness.

Technical writing and non-fiction analysis dominate the landscape of the new CCLS. But what is missing the most from how these standards will be measured when using summative assessments is the importance of looking at the revised student work samples.

Authors, editors, lawyers, and other professionals use the art of revision almost daily. The process of me writing this article warrants constant revisions to get to the final piece, not to mention the need for intensive mastery learning that is needed for the mathematical processes that our students must learn – as outlined by the CCLS’s grade specific demands and expectations.

Addressing this omission would improve the process of assessing students, teachers and principals. 

What school leaders need to know

During a time where newspapers publish and rank school district quality based on one annual summative assessment, school leaders need to be well-versed in assessment types that more closely track literacy progress. Assessment literacy includes understanding some of the nuts and bolts of what teachers do on a daily basis (this will also familiarize board members with the kind of rigor involved in best practices). Assessment literacy training would enable school leaders to gain an understanding of key educational concepts, such as:

  • Formative assessment models. Simply put, these are things good teachers do. They are measures teachers can use on a daily basis to track a student’s progress and strategies to encourage that progress.
  • The process of oral language acquisition and the role of the “zone of proximal development” – that is, what a student can learn without help and what that student can learn with help (which also needs to be tracked).
  • Prescriptive reading diagnosis including the administering of both formal and informal running records for gathering information on meaning, structure, and visual information for understanding student comprehension and fluency growth. This is the kind of tracking that teachers use each day.

As school board members become more familiar with what takes place in classrooms, and what works and doesn’t, both their statewide advocacy and their local decisions can only improve.

School leaders also need training in the historical foundations of testing. We have taken many wrong turns in the past, and knowing about them is the best way to avoid repeating them.

Moving forward, school boards have a critical role in the new culture of assessment-oriented education. It is up to local school boards to (1) seek knowledge in assessment literacy and historical foundations of testing, (2) support assessment systems beyond high-stakes tests and (3) keep federal and state policymakers apprised of local concerns with how different types of assessments can better be used in public education, since the entire process is a work-in-progress. 

Richard E. Jetter is principal of Spruce Elementary School in the North Tonawanda City School District.

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