Focusing Student Growth on Standards-based Curriculum and Assessment

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Balancing assessment schedules and content, we can teach students to value their own growth.

Balancing assessment schedules and content, we can teach students to value their own growth.

NCLB, currently in the process of evolution under the reauthorization of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA) from which is sprung, continues to pull educational strings as if from beyond the grave. The law was one that penalized districts for underperformance among America’s subgroups– special education, low-income, and racial minorities–as measured by annual testing. In 2011, the Feds offered an out of NCLB’s lashings by presenting an opportunity to avoid the impositions of further punitive actions. However, in order to qualify, states had to agree to two changes in teacher evaluation: “to improve the quality of instruction and to increase outcomes for all students” (Elementary and Secondary Education Act, para. 6).  To date, forty-some states have been granted “flexibility” (para. 6).

If you are in education, you know what this means to you. Teacher evaluation has changed to become more reflective of professional practice and student growth. No longer are teachers merely evaluated on one or two yearly visits to the classroom. Evaluation now includes how teachers hone their craft through study and professional development, their proficiencies in the classroom, and how their teaching impacts what is termed “student growth.”

Student growth is measured by assessing students before they engage in the classroom learning and then testing them after they have had the teacher’s class. Comparisons are made between the beginning scores and the ending score and from that, student growth is measured. A simple analogy: as parents, you have a baby. That baby is measured and weighed at birth. Thereafter, you take your baby to regular checkups to measure their growth or lack thereof. These measurements may or may not be seen as a reflection on your parenting.

Depending on the state you reside, the progress of schools along a timeline of implementation is in different places. But for the most part, change is occurring in public schools across the 45 states across the nation.

But for me, here is the surprise. As teachers and administrators attend my workshops on student growth, they are surprised by suggestions I make to connect these measurements of learning or growth to what they are actually teaching in the classroom. Instead, many schools and districts have purchased nationally normed assessments to gather data. Indeed, such measures have validity and reliability across the testing population, but if these assessments are measuring learning objectives that teachers do not actually teach in their classrooms, they are not valid and reliable measures for teacher evaluation.

Other schools are asking teachers to write assessments (the modern or current word for tests) to give to students on multiple occasions throughout the year. The data teachers gather from these tests will then be used to measure student growth. But what I am finding, in some but not all cases, is that teaches are writing assessments that measure knowledge–for example in a social studies class asking students to list the dates of important events or the names of prominent explorers. You know, the kinds of information that can be found in a simple Google search, the kind of information that is memorized for today but unnecessary (and oftentimes forgotten) for tomorrow. Or in a language arts class, giving students a written passage and asking them to find ten grammar and usage mistakes–the kinds of errors any word processor would automatically identify.

What teachers should be doing is writing thoughtful assessments that cause students to think more deeply about the course content and actually apply the skills the class is teaching. In content classes, this means asking questions of comparison and contrast, questions of classification, questions of evaluation and judgment. In performance classes (like PE, art, music), growth measurements should be a combination of increased knowledge alongside of performance proficiencies. Thinking and doing skills should be measured using disciplinary texts (that includes sheet music, instructions, audio & video, maps, charts, etc.) that allow students to not only show what they know (or need to know) and what they can do (or what they need support to learn), but also teach or provide a chance for them to learn more.

How does this work? A teacher, lets say fifth grade science, is going to teach students to “describe and graph the amounts and percentages of water and fresh water in various reservoirs to provide evidence about the distribution of water on Earth” (Next Generation Science Standards 5-ESS2-2). The teacher first designs two different but similar assessments: a pre-assessmsent, a test students take before they learn about the standard; and a post-assessment, a test students will take after learning.

For this example, I suggest the assessment has not only a pen and paper component but also a short video that provides background information to support the standard (like a movie trailer). Following the video, students read more specifics about the standard content and answer standards-based questions related to what they have seen including designing a graph. Then, the teacher teaches a unit or multi-day lesson to the standard (and maybe other standards, too). After the unit/lessons are taught, the teacher gives a second test, very much like the first but not identical. The difference in performance indicates student growth.

In math, a teacher may write several  word problems that require multiplying or dividing and using equations with symbols for the unknown (Common Core Math Standard 4.OA.A.2). The teacher will give this assessment before teaching the process with the understood anticipation that students will struggle with the content and rigor of the items. After teaching, the students will take another test, not the exact same test but one very similar (called a mirrored or parallel assessment). Hopefully, students will do much better on the second test. The difference between their performance on the first test and their performance on the second test will be termed “growth.”

Another problem I see with the way many schools are implementing the growth component is timing. Because this practice will be replicated by all teachers in all schools of all states approved for the NCLB/ESEA waiver I fear the push-back on overtesting will be strengthened. Many schools are requiring teachers to give the pre-assessments in the beginning of the year, typically before some September deadline date. And, to give the post before Christmas. Other schools are asking for multiple assessments on a routine schedule across the year with the final assessment in later spring.

But think about this from a student perspective.  A middle school or high school student with many different teachers throughout the day may spend an entire day taking pre or post assessments. Instead of dragging out growth across the year, base growth measures on specific and fundamental standards. Teachers and administrators/evaluators,  work together to build rational and balanced schedules that allow students to learn how appreciate the pre-post testing cycle. In this way, learners and teachers may own the learning and growth this process can afford rather than dreading big test days.

I have many more ideas for developing growth assessments. Contact me at [email protected] for support.


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