Thanks to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, K-12 educators are spending more time than ever before on testing their students’ skills—but is all this testing doing any good?
The results from a new national survey reveal that both parents and educators would like to see a wider variety of school assessments that go beyond the high-stakes exams now common in schools—and they’d like to see a wider range of skills and subjects tested as well, including so-called 21st century skills such as problem solving and critical thinking.
The results suggest that states and schools could be doing a better job of using assessments as key tools to foster student growth and achievement.
Parents are increasingly involved in their child’s school assessments, noted Peter Grunwald of Grunwald Associates, which worked with the Northwest Evaluation Association to release the report, titled, “For Every Child, Multiple Measures: What Parents and Educators Want from K-12 Assessments.”
One finding worth noting is that many parents believe school assessment results begin to lose their impact within one month after the assessment takes place.
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“This has all sorts of implications for the types of assessments, and also the need for technology-based platforms for assessments,” Grunwald said. “It’s only through the use of technology that certain types of assessments are going to be reported back within that very tight time frame.”
Parents and educators appear to want a relatively broad set of subjects and skills assessed.
“While math and science are critical, they’re not the only subjects they want assessed. … To us, that was pretty striking,” Grunwald said, noting that subjects such as economics and the arts appear in a majority or near majority of responses.
“Parents, teachers and district administrators want a 360-degree perspective on individual student learning in every academic subject and on the tangible and intangible skills that signal college and career readiness,” noted NWEA President and CEO Matt Chapman in the report’s introduction. “They want an in-depth portrait of each child’s progress over time and a reflection of each child’s exploration, discovery, and confidence as a learner.”
And hopes for such a diverse education mean that giving just one standard assessment will not be capable of providing such in-depth progress information.
“For every child, we need multiple measures of performance,” he added.
New assessments for new standards
The National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers devised the Common Core State Standards, which aim to provide rigorous English/language arts and mathematics standards. Two state-led consortia are developing assessments targeted to the Common Core.
As the Common Core State Standards gain momentum, teachers and district administrators differ in their opinions about whether new school assessments aligned to the common standards will be effective.
Sixty-two percent of district administrators said the Common Core assessments will be “extremely” or “very” useful to their work, while just 33 percent of teachers reported feeling the same way. Twenty-one percent of teachers said the assessments will be “not very” or “not at all” useful.
“District administrators likely have more information about the Common Core than teachers do at this point—and teachers may be projecting their generally limited enthusiasm for summative assessments to the Common Core,” according to the report. “Still, this suggests that teacher disinterest could be an impediment to implementing the Common Core standards and assessments as preparation for college and careers.”
Most teachers surveyed said individual student performance and personalized learning are among their top priorities.
At least 60 percent of teachers cite the following student-centered aspects of teaching and learning as among the most important to them: monitoring individual student performance, monitoring growth in learning over time, providing extra support in classrooms, personalizing education for each student, identifying students’ strengths and weaknesses, and collaborating with colleagues on instructional needs.
Interestingly, district administrators were more than two times as likely as teachers to say that monitoring teacher effectiveness is important. Seventy-two percent of district administrators said that monitoring teacher effectiveness is important, compared to 29 percent. But 88 percent of parents responded that measuring high-quality teaching is “extremely” or “very” important.
When it comes to survey results around technology and game-based assessment, Grunwald said two findings in particular stand out.
“There’s a pretty fair take rate already reported by teachers, in terms of the use of newer kinds of assessment and technology-based assessments,” he said.
Thirty percent of teachers said they use assessments that are part of digital content, such as eBooks or web resources, 42 percent said they use adaptive (technology-based) assessments, 43 percent use game-based assessments, and 16 percent use electronic portfolios.
A parallel finding is seen in a question that asks parents what kind of assessments they’re aware of in their child’s classroom and asks teachers what type of assessments they currently use. While only 21 percent of parents reported that they are aware of game-based assessments being used in their child’s classroom, 43 percent of teachers said they currently use game-based assessments.
Electronic portfolios have gained momentum in recent years, with many educators in both K-12 and higher education exploring ways to use them to their fullest potential.
While 16 percent is not a majority, Grunwald observed that it is a significant proportion and said his general speculation, not based on the report directly, is that electronic portfolio use will increase fairly quickly in the coming years.
Formative vs. summative assessment
Eighty-four percent of parents said formative assessment is extremely or very useful; 67 percent said interim assessments are extremely or very useful; and 44 percent responded the same for summative assessments.
The report reveals that educators value daily and weekly feedback. Sixty-three percent of teachers and 81 percent of district administrators said that, ideally, they’d like to track progress and provide feedback on a daily or weekly basis. Thirty-two percent of teachers and 12 percent of administrators said tracking progress every grading period was ideal, 3 percent of teachers and 1 percent of district administrators said end-of-year tracking is ideal, and 1 percent of teachers and 7 percent of district administrators said they would like to use tracking to predict future performance.
District administrators want more assessments, too. Forty-seven percent say they would like more interim assessments that measure growth; 38 percent said they’d like more longitudinal data from interim assessments; 33 percent said they’d value seeing more student work, including portfolios and classroom observations; 31 percent would like more diagnostic instruments; and 7 percent want more high-stakes assessments used for accountability.
Alternative assessments are on the rise, with 4 in 10 teachers using game-based assessments and adaptive, technology-based assessments.
The survey reveals the following breakdown of parents, teachers, and district administrators who say it is extremely or very important to measure student performance in higher-order thinking skills:
- Problem solving: 92 percent of parents, 89 percent of teachers, and 95 percent of district administrators.
- Critical thinking: 89 percent of parents, 88 percent of teachers, and 95 percent of district administrators.
- Communication: 88 percent of parents, 77 percent of teachers, and 90 percent of district administrators.
- Creativity: 76 percent of parents, 61 percent of teachers, and 73 percent of district administrators.
- Innovation: 73 percent of parents, 58 percent of teachers, and 75 percent of district administrators.
- Collaboration: 72 percent of parents, 63 percent of teachers, and 81 percent of district administrators.
When it comes to core subject areas, English/language arts, math, science, and history take top priority. Parents, teachers, and district administrators ranked the arts and world languages near the bottom in terms of measuring student progress to be “extremely or very important” in those areas—although most responses still hovered near or above 50 percent in those cases.
Respondents all seemed to believe that learning decisions should be made locally, with limited state and federal government power.
Forty percent of parents said classroom teachers should make decisions about what students learn, 23 percent said principals/school leaders should make those decisions, 17 percent said district leaders should decide, 11 percent said the decisions should be left to state governments, and 9 percent said the federal government should have decision-making powers.
Fifty percent of teachers said classroom teachers should make decisions about what students learn, 18 percent said principals/school leaders should make the call, 17 percent would leave such decisions to district leaders, 8 percent said state governments should make the decisions, and 6 percent said the federal government should make learning-related decisions.
Just 20 percent of district administrators said classroom teachers should make decisions about student learning, 25 percent said principals and school leaders should make such decisions, 34 percent said district leaders should make the decisions, 16 percent would leave the decisions up to state governments, and 7 percent indicated that the federal government should make decisions about what students should learn.
Are assessments worth the time?
More than half (58 percent) of teachers and district administrators say that teachers spend too much time “teaching to the test.” Thirty-five feel that teachers spend the right amount of time teaching to state assessments, and 7 percent feel that too little time is spent.
Fifty-nine percent of teachers and district administrators said that too much time is spent preparing for state assessments. Twenty-eight percent said just the right amount of time is devoted to state assessment prep, and 13 percent said that too little time is spent.
Many feel that more time should be devoted to other assessments.
One-quarter of teachers and half of district administrators feel that too little time is paid discussing interim assessments. Forty-one percent of teachers, and 68 percent of district administrators, feel too little time is spent discussing formative assessments.
Parents, teachers, and district administrators all reported feeling stressed during assessment time.
- Thirty-two percent of parents said formative assessments negatively affect their children through stress, and 35 percent said these assessments cause stress that negatively impacts their child’s motivation to learn.
- Thirty-seven percent of teachers said they are negatively affected by formative assessment stress.
- Twenty percent of district administrators said formative assessment stress has a negative impact on them.
- Forty percent of parents said summative assessments negatively affect their children through stress, and 41 percent said these assessments cause stress that negatively impacts their child’s motivation to learn.
- Sixty-three percent of teachers said they are negatively affected by summative assessment stress.
- Fifty-two percent of district administrators said summative assessment stress has a negative impact on them.
Recommendations for assessment stakeholders
NWEA developed recommendations for assessment makers and policy makers, as well as for state and district leaders.
According to the organization, assessment makers and policy makers should:
- Broaden the dialogue beyond summative assessments and high-stakes accountability.
- Avoid tunnel vision and focus on more than English language arts and mathematics. Broaden the curriculum assessed and take the full measure of student learning.
- Develop innovative ways to measure the application of thinking, learning and life skills.
- Encourage local decision making on assessments that support learning.
State and district leaders should:
- Share decision-making authority and responsibility for teaching and learning with teachers, principals, and school leaders.
- Select assessments that provide useful and timely information.
- Establish professional learning communities and provide training and time for educators to understand different assessments and make effective use of assessment data.
- Dare to compare student data locally and nationally.
The survey included 1,024 K-12 classroom teachers, 1,009 parents of K-12 students, and 200 district administrators.
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