Assessment Education Perspectives


Assessment results and data too often don’t tell the whole story. According to some measures, up to 70% of students are not achieving proficiency on today’s summative tests. If that’s true, then the first step in fixing it is for teachers to know those students’ starting points in order to set goals and guide their progress.

The fact is that, thanks to assessment, we can actually see heroic growth. Consider a fifth grade student who starts the year reading at a second grade level. In June, his teacher rightfully celebrates his achievements because he is now reading like a fourth grader—still not proficient, but growing remarkably. We believe that is cause for celebration, and without properly assessing growth, that bright window might just remain shuttered.

Measuring growth accurately and fairly isn’t easy, but nobody should be willing to accept a measure that is just “good enough.” In order to create a growth assessment that works, we’re sharing seven steps that need to take place. Here are the first three:

  1. Align test questions to content standards – Standards lay out a clear, consistent understanding of what students are expected to learn, and the sequence in which they are expected to learn it. Solid curriculum plans are based around them.The standards define concepts of what we want students to master, whether in reading, English language arts, mathematics, science, or other areas—all the way from beginning foundations to advanced expressions.The first requirement to measuring student achievement and growth fairly and accurately is that the questions that make up a particular test should reflect the content of the standards.
  2. Use a vertical scale of measurement – After questions are aligned to standards, you need a scale that identifies the difficulty of the items. Here, an analogy may be useful.Before 1929, nearly every company manufacturing machined equipment also manufactured and marked the tools to service their equipment—and they all used different scales. This meant that a wrench marked ½” from P&C Manufacturing in Oregon might not fit a bolt marked ½” manufactured by the Armstrong Brothers in Chicago. Matching them up and comparing them all is a fun hobby for collectors, but would have been a real impediment to anyone trying to get some work done.Unsurprisingly, researchers have found that using a combination of different assessment scales is an unstable method for measuring academic growth over time. The solution is to use a single “vertical scale” that spans grade levels. With one long measuring stick in use, no translation is required, and this means that measuring growth increases in accuracy and reliability.
  3. Tweet: Measuring growth accurately and fairly isn’t easy. In order to create a growth assessment that works, here are the first three of seven steps we take. #edchat #education Match question difficulty level to student ability – After creating a vertical scale, you must match item difficulty to student ability. Assessments that restrict questions to grade level standards alone have an important role in providing information that school systems, states, and our nation need. Summative assessments given for state accountability purposes are explicitly built for this purpose.However, when assessments are restricted in this way, we are not able to precisely identify where students who are performing above or below grade-level actually achieve—and this represents many, if not most, of our students. How can we achieve real equity in the classroom if educators cannot chart a path forward for low-performing students or continue to encourage growth in high performers?

Our next blog will share the final four steps to creating a growth assessment that works. By providing each student with the right instruction at the right time during the school year, growth data can help teachers instill a “personal navigation system” that transforms all students into lifelong learners. Thoughtful use of accurate and fair assessment data leads directly to the equity and growth that are the future of education in America.

Judy Harris

Judy Harris brings over 17 years of teaching experience to her role as Policy & Advocacy Director at NWEA. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, a Reading Specialist, middle school Language Arts teacher, and licensed administrator. She was a member of the Joint Assessment Task Force for Oregon and co-authored The New Path for Oregon: System of Assessment to Empower Meaningful Student Learning. She was a teacher leader and Professional Development Provider for SCALE/WestEd. Ms. Harris served on the National Education Association’s (NEA) National Every Student Succeeds Act Implementation Team and the state level ESSA Implementation Team in Oregon. She was nominated by the Oregon Congressional delegation to serve on the U.S. Department of Education’s ESSA Negotiated Rulemaking Committee in 2016. She has presented on student assessment and equity at numerous conferences including the National Indian Education Association, the NEA Minority and Women’s Summit, the Symposium on Student Assessment, and the National Council of Urban Education Associations.