Every district strives to implement best practices in assessment. When my colleagues and I compared our assessment practices to standards of excellence, we could point to “islands of excellence” but had to admit that best practices were not necessarily being enacted systematically. We also realized that the district had not aligned the enabling context to support the development of and embedding of high-quality assessment practices into our culture. Recently, however, we have gained momentum in shifting from islands of excellence to the establishment of systematic practices to extend these benefits to more schools and students.
Improving assessment and data literacy has been a goal in the district for years. From 2009 to 2012, the district sponsored classroom assessment learning teams. Using Classroom Assessment for Student Learning from Chappuis, Stiggins, Chappuis, and Arter (2006 & 2012 editions) as the basis for our inquiry, we were successful in having pockets of teachers reflect and actively engage with new practices which led to increased student learning. We also worked to develop common vocabulary and a common framework through a year-long learning team with school and district administrators and district instructional coaches utilizing resources from the aforementioned book and Assessment Balance and Quality: An Action Guide for School Leaders from Chappuis, Commodore, and Stiggins (2010).
But, our efforts remained isolated and did not lead to systemic change. Indeed, with the implementation of Common Core State Standards for ELA and math, new curriculum and instructional materials in these content areas, and new accountability assessments, efforts decreased. Without a full understanding of what and how students should learn, it is hard to develop appropriate measures and processes for providing feedback on how well the students are reaching the target.
Even several years into the transition, it has not been easy to gain momentum to shift the focus to using data to improve instruction. With the high stakes attached to many summative assessments, assessment and testing have taken on a negative connotation. Students and staff members alike often equate assessment with punishment and not with learning, but several factors are now in place that is enabling this shift to improving instruction.
First, district leaders convened a series of ongoing discussions to gain agreement on district instructional priorities. Leaders also agreed to incorporate professional learning that would improve assessment and data literacy and topics of high interest to teachers into regularly scheduled meetings. For example, professional development related to instructional planning included discussions of learning targets, how to intentionally plan for questions that will formatively assess students’ understanding of the targets, and how to have differentiated learning opportunities ready based on the students’ responses. Meetings related to the allocation of resources for intervention systems included discussions about what the available data could and could not tell us about the effectiveness of our system. We refer to this as a “stealth approach” to developing assessment literacy.
Second, we implemented a new continuous improvement system. Schools are required to set ambitious improvement goals in ELA and Math and specify what actions adults will take each month to help students reach those goals. Concurrently, we transitioned to a new data warehouse and assessment management system. The district has also renewed its training efforts for the facilitators of collaborative teaching teams. We have seen our teachers increase their analysis of common curriculum-based assessments and work together collaboratively to improve instruction.
While there are signs that the culture is shifting, the district has also undertaken some steps to ensure that the practices become more consistent across the school district. A technical position was restructured to allow for the hiring of a forward-facing data coach who works with the schools in setting goals and setting up a cycle of data inquiry. The coach helps the schools to look at the scope and sequence and calendar out data collection, data analysis, instructional inquiry activities, as well as progress monitoring and celebrations of success. Furthermore, the district created a Cabinet-level School Improvement Officer position. This person regularly meets with site administrators and asks questions of the site administrators about what their data is telling them and how the school is responding to the data relative to the implementation of their improvement plans. While some stakeholders may currently view this as pressure and engage in the activities merely in order to comply, we are hopeful that with ongoing support, stakeholders will truly value the data and high-quality assessment and data practices will become an integral part of the culture districtwide.