Many students — and parents — have gotten used to the flurry of activity that takes place around spring standardized testing. Pizza parties, rallies, gift cards and door-to-door campaigns to students’ homes are a few of the strategies and incentives schools use to make sure students are in their seats on test days, ready to give it their best.
But even if all students take the test, educators have long complained that end-of-year, “summative” assessments are not useful because the results are not available until fall when their students have moved on to the next grade.
“It is too late to make any instructional adjustments,” says Michael W. Huneke II, director of assessment for Marietta City Schools in Georgia.
The Marietta district, however, is one of nine in the state that, next school year, will begin using an assessment program intended to phase out reliance on that end-of-year test. The “through-year” assessment is a new test from nonprofit NWEA — a computer-based assessment that adapts to students’ responses. The new system will collect achievement data throughout the year reflecting students’ growth as well as their proficiency levels.
Teachers in the consortium — called GMAP — will receive the feedback they need to “help inform instruction,” Huneke says, while still meeting the federal requirement for a summative test for accountability purposes.
The Nebraska Department of Education also will implement the new assessment model in grades 3-8 — but not until the 2021-22 school year. Jeremy Heneger, the agency’s assessment director, calls it “a hybrid” of MAP Growth and the state’s summative Nebraska Student-Centered Assessment System, also developed by NWEA.
More or less testing?
Over time, districts have added interim assessments, such as MAP and i-Ready, to address educators’ needs for more information on how their students perform on state standards. The increase in the use of those other measures, however, has led to what many described as “overtesting” — one of the issues addressed by increased flexibility allowed under the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Giving states an opportunity to try new models was the purpose behind ESSA’s Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority. Georgia, with its GMAP consortium, is one of the states participating in the program.
Whether the new approach in Georgia and Nebraska — and eventually on the market in 2022 — will reduce testing, however, depends on what districts were already doing.
In Georgia, for example, those already giving interim assessments will see a drop in the amount of testing, explains Huneke, but those that don’t will be giving the same number of tests — just spread out over the school year.
“The experience will be better for students and instructors because they will sit for shorter amounts of time, although three times a year,” he adds. The model would also reduce the need for a separate assessment for gifted screening purposes because it would provide a national percentile rank score.
If the “comparability studies come back as hoped,” he says, students would stop taking the summative Georgia Milestones exams in English language arts and math by the 2021-22 school year and no longer take the science exam during the 2022-23 school year.
In Nebraska, Heneger says, students currently taking both MAP Growth and the summative test in the spring would now take one test in the spring and get results back for both “formative” and summative purposes.
How it works
The three tests spread across the school year will “culminate” in a score after the spring assessment, explains Abby Javurek, NWEA’s senior director of large-scale assessment. The assessment for each student is based on his or her performance from the previous test, she adds, noting if a student mastered a standard in the fall, the next interim assessment would move on to more in-depth questions.
But if a student hasn’t mastered the standard, they would have until the spring assessment to do so.
The model is similar to how North Carolina — also part of the ESSA innovative assessment pilot — is now approaching its end-of-year assessment. Students’ results on interim assessments, what the state is calling “check-ins,” will be used to determine which “route” they will follow, meaning which items they will be assessed on at the end of the year.
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction worked with North Carolina State University to develop what Tammy Howard, the state’s director of accountability services, calls “through-grade assessments.”
One question regarding interim assessments, however, is whether teachers actually use the data to re-teach or adjust instruction for students as state and district leaders say they do.
In a 2016 research brief from the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins University, researchers Alanna Bjorklund-Young and Carey Borkoski suggested there’s no proof either MAP or i-Ready help teachers “know which specific skills their students know or do not know.”
Even if an interim assessment predicts how students would perform on the end-of-year test, that information is not enough to “determine whether these formative assessments are valid for the purposes of changing teacher instruction,” they write. But they also noted the need for more “external research studies commensurate with the widespread use of these assessments.”
Others note positive impacts of formative assessments, but refer in more general terms to the value of feedback to students.
“The formative assessment that has documented benefits for student learning is the kind where students are aware of what they are trying to learn and, with their teachers, use the evidence in what they do, make, say or write to understand what they know now and chart their next steps,” says Susan Brookhart, a professor and assessment expert at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
A 2017 paper written for the Council for Chief State School Officers notes the idea of replacing one summative test with interim assessments has been around since before ESSA, and the shift comes with multiple trade-offs and challenges — one of which is reaching agreement over what should be included in interim assessments.
“Expectations about student learning during the academic year, and the scope and sequence of instruction that supports those expectations, vary from teacher to teacher, school to school and district to district,” the authors wrote.
They also recommended states interested in moving this way start small and take their time to build “capacity and knowledge.” For that reason, the experiences Georgia, Nebraska and North Carolina have as early adopters of the approach will likely get a lot of attention.
‘A bit of a challenge”
Huneke and Heneger also note there will be hurdles as districts shift away from a summative test.
“We as a nation have been utilizing end-of-the-year assessments for decades, and changing that philosophy is a bit of a challenge,” says Huneke.
And Heneger says the new format will limit some flexibility districts have over assessment.
“One disadvantage is that districts will have less autonomy when administering the interim assessment,” he says. “For instance, there will need to be more standardization in test windows, accommodations, test retake policy and security.”
But Heneger notes the results of the interim tests will also now include reports telling teachers how students are performing against grade-level standards.
“This information will better inform teachers on where students are in terms of grade-level proficiency and how to help students master those skills,” he says.
Another question about the shift away from using just end-of-year data is how states will determine participation and whether students would need to be present for all three interim assessments for the results to count, suggests Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment based in Dover, New Hampshire.
Using interim assessments, however, is not the only way to phase out a summative test.
The schools and districts participating in New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment of Competency Education consortium — also part of the federal pilot program — replaced some summative tests with teacher-developed performance assessments, but only in specified grades and subjects.
Third-graders, for example, still take a summative English language arts test, and 4th-graders still take an end-of-year math test. Another “guardrail” says Julie Couch, administrator for the New Hampshire Department of Education Bureau of Instructional Support, is 8th-graders take the summative test in both subjects.
Currently, six districts and parts of four more are members of PACE. And while the state is required to expand the consortium under the federal pilot, that’s proving hard to accomplish.
“One of the reasons for that is the additional time that teachers need to devote to this project,” Couch says. That includes collaborating with teachers in other districts to develop the assessments, submitting reports for end-of-year competency scores, and participating in professional development.
But the state, Couch says, is now creating an online, collaborative platform for storing student work and working with colleagues on the assessments so teachers won’t “miss time away from their students.”