Moving the Needle on Assessment Literacy

Back when we started teaching almost 15 years ago, “assessments,” in our minds, were things like spelling tests and exit tickets. We mostly created them ourselves and learned through trial and error how to write questions that would help us understand our students’ learning. We also learned what types of questions don’t work—like the one Emily asked her students on an ill-fated unit test on the Agricultural Revolution, which yielded 35 unhelpful sketches of supposedly domesticated sheep.

In the past decade, we have come to know so much more about assessments—what makes them good, when to give them, how to interpret their results. We continue to explore how we can help school system leaders both engage educators in the development and effective use of high-quality assessments to improve teaching and learning and streamline assessment requirements so that students aren’t over-tested. And that’s what we set out to learn more about when we hopped into Ila’s car last Thursday morning and drove from Boston to New Hampshire for the Center for Assessment’s 18th Annual Reidy Interactive Lecture Series.

We were especially intrigued by this year’s conference theme, assessment literacy—a topic of enduring importance despite everything going on in the field of educational assessment right now, from innovative personalized learning platforms to the policy changes embedded in ESSA, and one we’ve thought a lot about as we’ve designed solutions to the assessment challenges our clients have faced over the last few years. Last year, in response to a number of state leaders’ concerns that their teachers needed help writing and selecting well-designed classroom assessments, we helped create an online Assessment Design Toolkit for the U.S. Department of Education. We also partnered with the Achievement Network to develop Fewer and Better Local Assessments: A Toolkit for Educators, a suite of tools aimed at practitioners seeking to improve the quality of their assessments while simultaneously reducing the testing load for schools. Still, we are always eager to learn more as we consider how we can continue to support strong assessment practices.

We emerged from the Center’s meeting reflecting on the presentations and discussions, but particularly focused on those led by two practitioners who shared their individual experiences as case studies.

First, we came away convinced that, with more and more schools, districts and CMOs implementing personalized and mastery-based learning, the need for strong assessment literacy is greater than ever before—and the range of assessment literacy skills educators need is both broader and more nuanced. These innovative models require educators to design and administer assessments with rigor and flexibility, to interpret data accurately and communicate results clearly. As Christy Kingham, a teacher leader at the Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria—a member of New York City’s Mastery Collaborative—shared, teachers at her school must understand when their students are ready to demonstrate mastery, collaboratively design performance tasks that elicit information about students’ progress toward standards, use rubrics to assess their students’ performance levels in ten core cross-disciplinary skills, and communicate effectively with families about their school’s nontraditional grading system.

The conference also reinforced our belief that the set of skills that comprise assessment literacy in the broadest sense are not merely helpful but in fact fundamental to helping new teachers learn to be effective in the profession. These skills go beyond being able to design strong assessments and organize and interpret data to actually recognizing what high-quality student work looks like. Having exemplars of student work created in response to rigorous, standards-aligned tasks is crucial for helping teachers establish high expectations for all students. As Mike Hardy of Texas’ IDEA Public Schools explained, “If teachers don’t know what mastery is, assessments will never mean anything.”

As anyone who has practiced these skills or taught them to others can attest, developing assessment literacy is not a simple task. Since it is not taught in depth in most teacher preparation programs, schools, districts and CMOs are left to teach these skills to already-overwhelmed new teachers. With expectations for students, teachers and school leaders higher than ever, we can no longer afford learn-as-you-go, haphazard approaches to developing assessment literacy or leaving teachers on their own to figure it out as best they can. So we were excited to have the opportunity to learn, alongside leaders from school districts and states across the country, about some of the strong efforts taking place in the field. We encourage our readers to examine the tools Education First has created to help advance assessment literacy and better assessment practices. And we look forward to continuing to learn from many of you and applying our developing knowledge to the creation of even more.

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