Seeking Assessments That Matter

To paraphrase from the classic movie Major League, “in case you haven’t noticed, and judging by the chatter and recent urban legends you haven’t, student assessments have managed to have positive impact here and there, and are threatening to be seen as a positive part of the teaching and learning process.”
Sure, student tests aren’t the Cleveland Indians finally making it to the playoffs, but we have long seen the same negative feelings and concerns attached to testing as we did for the Indians before “Wild Thing” Vaughn pitched them out of the cellar.
The improving public perceptions of testing is best seen in a new research survey conducted by Grunwald Associates on behalf of the Northwest Evaluation Association. In Make Assessment Matter: Students and Educators Want Tests That Support Learning, NWEA surveyed more than 2,000 students and educators on their perceptions of assessment. Interestingly, this seems to be the first significant study that actually asked students what they think about the tests they are taking.
There are some great write-ups of the full survey, including this piece at Education Week by Catherine Gewertz and this article at Huffington Post by Rebecca Klein.
Some of the results may surprise you. Among the highlights:
  • 81 percent of students think student test scores reflect how well teachers teach
  • 95 percent of students agree that tests are “very” or “somewhat” important for helping them and their teachers know if they are making progress in their learning during the year
  • 80 percent of students say they have not heard of new state accountability tests, despite all of the CCSS hype we hear about
  • 81 percent of students think student test scores reflect how well teachers teach
  • 64 percent of African-American students, 65 percent of Asian-American students, and 61 percent of Hispanic students believe state accountability tests are very important to their futures, compared to just 47 percent of white students
  • 78 percent of students think taking tests on computers has a positive impact on their engagement during tests, with 95 percent of district administrators and 76 percent of teachers agreeing that adaptive technology-based tests are “extremely” or “very” valuable for engaging students in learning
  • 55 percent of teachers report they never took a course in assessment literacy in their teacher prep programs
  • 96 percent of teachers who say they use assessment results do so to improve teaching and learning in the classroom
So what does it all mean? We see that students and teachers both value testing, as long as it is the right type of test. We see that, while they might not be able to define it, educators find real value in interim assessments and see them very differently than the “high-stakes” summative tests that seem to dominate the headlines. And we clearly see that much work needs to be done to build better understanding of the types of tests, why they are used, and how the data is applied. Or more simply put, we like tests if they are relevant and student learning focused.
Based on its research, NWEA offered up five recommendations for policymakers, administrators, educators, and all those involved in the learning process to consider, including:
  1. Engage with students in policy development process, especially when making testing mandates at the state, district, and classroom levels
  2. Realign assessment priorities in support of teaching and learning
  3. Establish formal learning opportunities on assessment for every teacher, principal, and building administrator
  4. Improve student learning by making educator collaboration a priority in every school district
  5. Prioritize technology readiness in every district, focusing on infrastructure and addressing glitches
It is important to note that most of these reccs do not cost us big bucks, unlike the typical policy reccs we see in education. All are focused on ensuring we spend our resources wisely and are focusing our assessment efforts on student learning, not solely on accountability.
Specifically, we should all be doing the stadium wave for number four. As testing isn’t going anywhere, it is of value to all those in the teaching and learning process to be more assessment literate, to better understand the portfolio of tests available to them, to distinguish the good from the mediocre from the useless, and to ensure that results are put to use and put to use quickly.
As we know in today’s education space, perception is the new truth. Whether we agree or not with these findings, these are the perceptions of students, teachers, and district administrators from across the nation. The scientifically valid sample gives us a clear understanding of how folks are thinking about testing. And it provides us an important building block as we shift to ensure tests have meaning and utility.
Sure, testing is not going to win the triple crown every school year. But this data makes clear that good tests are positioned to have real impact come the end of the school season. 
(Full disclosure: Eduflack has worked with the folks at both Northwest Evaluation Association and Grunwald Associates.)

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