Reclaiming Assessment

February 15, 2011

Beth Graue

Beth Graue

Effective assessment practices are more likely to take place in schools with higher achievement. That’s because these contexts offer explicit connections, through assessments, to varied communities of interest: district, school, teachers, students, and families. These connections increase the likelihood that the assessments meet the needs of these audiences and that they prompt some kind of action.

These findings result from a recent study conducted in nine Wisconsin elementary schools participating in a class size reduction program called Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE). SAGE is a state-supported class size reduction (CSR) program that provides funding to districts to limit class sizes to 15 students and 1 teacher in grades K-3. Almost 500 Wisconsin schools participate.

SAGE is a multi-faceted classroom reform, composed of four implementation pillars. In addition to the class size component, Wisconsin’s SAGE legislation requires schools to (a) provide rigorous curricula, (b) strengthen home and school links by keeping the school building open for extended hours and connecting families with community resources, and (c) enhance teacher professional development and evaluation. 

This approach recognizes that improving student achievement is a complex challenge that requires equally complex interventions, particularly in communities troubled by racism and poverty. Although initially developed to address concerns about urban poverty, SAGE is open to all Wisconsin schools. Participating schools receive $2250 per low-income child in grades K-3 to offset costs of implementation. SAGE legislation provides annual funding for program evaluation.

By reducing the number of students in a class, teachers are thought to have more opportunities for formative and summative assessment, which provides information for more targeted instruction, which results in improved student achievement.

A research team directed by UW-Madison education professor Beth Graue has followed nine SAGE schools in six districts from 2004-2008. The diverse sample included schools representing a range of urban, rural, and semi-urban locations, and schools affected by poverty, and low student achievement. 
Study participants reported that assessment was easier in SAGE classrooms because teacher time and attention were spread among fewer students. Teachers said the smaller groups allowed for more effective diagnosis and intervention.

Graue emphasizes that action is the lynchpin of high quality assessment.  In supportive assessment systems, teachers have tools that they understand and that they can use to improve practice. This improvement relates to the needs of their students this year.

By contrast, assessment in lower quality classrooms takes place in disjointed systems that focus primarily on summative rather than formative assessment. In these schools, teachers have tools to find out where students are, but this knowledge is not connected to instructional action.

Earhart Elementary School

Graue and colleagues found an example of what they consider “best practice” at Earhart Elementary School (a pseudonym). The administration, teachers, and students at Earhart together designed an accountability system to meet student needs. 

Earhart Elementary is a small diverse K-5 school in a working class neighborhood. More than two thirds of the students are classified as poor, one-third are English Language Learners (Latino and Hmong), one-third African-American, and one-third white.

Two components characterized Earhart’s assessment practices. The first was a district-designed curriculum and assessment that promoted coherence between district instructional practices and the state and federal accountability system. The second was the school’s professional learning community that created a shared sense of purpose and responsibility. Through these top-down and bottom-up forces Earhart developed its approach to assessment and instruction.

Standards, instruction, assessment, and reporting were critical and related elements of this education system. School staff regularly talked about linking their activities in the classroom with assessments and reporting forms.

How They Did It

Earhart teacher Tammy Helman worked with 12 first graders. When the results of an assessment diverged from what she thought a child could do, Ms. Helman simply changed her practice. While some might have discounted the results of the assessment, Ms. Helman used the discrepancy between her teaching and assessment experiences to prompt more intensive instruction for the child.

In her third year as Earhart’s principal, Paula Walworth led her staff in a comprehensive school reform process called Professional Learning Communities. PLC emphasizes shared leadership and professional collaboration. It centers on three questions: (a) what do we want our students to learn?  (b) how will we know if they learn it, and (c) what will we do if they don’t?  These questions and their action-oriented premise shaped much of their work.
To encourage collaborative practice, Mrs. Walworth designed schedules so that grade-level teams had weekly shared planning time. These groups met periodically with their respective instructional resource staff.

One example of shared vision related to student learning and assessment was the use of an assessment wall, where staff posted student data across time to understand progress. This visual depiction of learning helped staff see learning in a concrete way—a visual that moved student learning from within one teacher’s head to a shared document that often brought up questions about practice. Assessments were linked to instruction in the classroom to provide a strong community sense of the goals, grounding instruction in sense-making that has purpose.

Mrs. Walworth paired the use of the assessment wall with examination of instructional time between classrooms and Title 1 reading teachers. This led to changes in teachers’ scheduling and practice to ensure that Title 1 services were provided in addition to, rather than separate from, regularly scheduled teaching.

Ms. Helman encouraged students to provide feedback on writing. Conversations around peer evaluation were made possible, in part, by the small group size of 12 first graders and Ms. Helman’s modeling of supportive evaluation.

The Importance of Being Aligned

Research at Earhart and other SAGE schools revealed that systematic alignment was perhaps the most striking aspect of constructive assessment practices. Teacher participation in the alignment process was crucial for professional buy-in and made it more likely that instruction connected to assessments. Everything was more difficult in schools that lacked alignment:  The system was more chaotic and  assessments were considered more of a burden. If standards, curriculum, instruction, assessment, and reporting tools are all aligned, the focus was never pulled away from the task at hand.

At the heart of the alignment process is the issue of audience. Assessments serve varied audiences for different purposes. Some assessments are designed to inform classroom decision making, some are used to track school efficacy. Many assessments are used to inform multiple audiences, including, but not limited to: state and district administrators, teachers, parents, community members, and the students themselves. When assessments were required for outside audiences and teachers couldn’t see the relationship to their own instruction, they said their practice felt unaligned and the assessments seemed intrusive.

The final aspect of alignment is action, or the degree to which educators feel they can act on assessment information. The practices at Earhart promoted action that linked assessments, instruction, collaboration, and professional development. The systemic nature of the district’s approach facilitated this and was taken up by a school staff hungry for taking an active role in planning.