The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, in addition to President Barack Obama’s Race To The Top initiative, pushed the importance of summative assessments back into the limelight. Now with the rollout of the Every Student Succeed Act, education stakeholders across the country are again considering their testing approaches.
They are seeing not only a need to strike a balance between formative and summative assessments, but also the necessity of building a conversation between educators and lawmakers on what the processes and purposes of each approach are. This reality begs the question: What's the current assessment framework, and how could ESSA impact it?
ESSA could open up opportunities for flexibility in assessments, but with a caveat
Dr. Stuart Kahl, founder of Measured Progress, a nonprofit that provides help to educators on improving assessments, says summative assessments weren't meant to be "diagnostic" in nature. They were supposed to serve a different purpose than in-class formative assessments, which he described as a “multi-step constructional process” of evidence-gathering through a variety of means, from quizzes to firsthand observation.
“(Formative assessment’s) purpose is really to identify gaps in student learning as they’re learning. It’s during the learning, not after the learning,” Kahl said. “Interim and benchmark assessments are really summative assessments. They’re documenting the key component after instruction.”
ESSA stands to give states control over their educational policies, so, among other things, they can craft their own approaches to accountability — though some federal requirements will still remain. Kahl expressed hope that part of the ESSA legislation referring to “multiple measures” would enable states to create innovative approaches to this assessment framework.
In an opinion paper from January 2017, Kahl wrote that NCLB assessments were required to “include multiple up-to-date measures of student academic achievement, including measures that assess higher-order thinking and understanding.”
“To some extent, this requirement of NCLB was ignored,” Kahl wrote. “States that administered all or predominately multiple-choice tests were probably not living up to the spirit of the provision. ESSA added to the statement, '… which may include measures of student academic growth and may be partially delivered in the form of portfolios, projects, or extended performance tasks.’”
For instance, South Carolina is in the midst of redoing its assessment practices. Dr. Laura Donnelly, the director of assessment and evaluation for the Charleston district, said the there are four state exams administered to high schools, among other accountability measures. She said the multiple measures required by ESSA resulted in positive development for tracking and understanding student growth.
However, she also mentioned that one particular challenge was that the changing assessments in the state made it difficult to use the other standardized exams as a measure of progress. She pointed to the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) assessments, which are interim and measure growth for students, as the tool they find preferable. MAP had been utilized in the district for 14 years, Donnelly said.
“For several years, that wasn’t an issue, but it has been changing so rapidly, so teachers don’t know what they’re going to be tested on,” she said. “It’s hard to do trends analysis when you don’t have a data source.”
So, while ESSA granted states more flexibility, there is also an issue to balance in that it would be challenging from the point of view of data collection and storage, as well as the immediate increase in metrics that would need to be analyzed and reported.
New formative assessment models could enhance summative testing, with the right balance
As the calls for end-of-year summative assessments has grown more acute, it is still vital for teachers to conduct in-class formative assessments, and for school administrators to support that practice, according to Dr. Kathryn Mitchell Pierce, an assistant professor at St. Louis University’s School of Education, who worked on a task force assembled by the National Councils of Teachers of English to analyze assessment practices. She said formative assessment could help educators amend their instructional process as students moved towards an end-of-year summative assessment.
“It’s a mid-course correction, and it’s given at the point where students can still use it. When you give students a writing piece, and they do a final draft, you give them a lot of feedback. But that’s not formative, because it’s too late for it to have an impact,” she said.
Pierce said the need for external summative assessments was important, but has grown in classroom instruction and discussion more than may be beneficial for students. She noted that such external testing was not able to accurately judge student motivations behind learning the material, which could be vital in developing their drive for critical thinking and analytic approach.
She described several alternative approaches that could conceivably meet the standard of “multiple measures” included in the ESSA legislation. For instance, she detailed a form of inspections where teachers and leaders visit a neighboring school to examine what is being produced and how the students are progressing at a given facility, and pointed towards a group out of Harvard modeling school walkthroughs as a form of “instructional rounds” that doctors provide medical students, where conversations on assessment can generate new findings.
She suspected alternative assessment models could continue to gain prominence in the light of the increased scrutiny pointed towards whether year-end summative assessments are accurately discerning how schools prepare students for postsecondary educational and professional careers.
“There’s a lot of promise there, because people are getting leery of how the tests are being done,” she said. “These kids may be getting high test scores in high school, but they don’t reflect the kind of critical thinking they need to do to be successful in college."
For administrators, including principals and district leaders, one of the best ways they can assist classroom educators is to help keep the crush of summative assessments in perspective, acting as a buffer between classroom instruction and external oversight, and Pierce encouraged administrators to be knowledgeable about what summative assessments could and could not offer schools in terms of insights.
“Know your stats, know your tests and their limitations, and validate teachers’ insights into their kids and build structure into their school days so they can better utilize their in-class assessments,” she said. “They use their own in-class assessments to guide instruction already, so you may as well help them."