In normal times, a discussion about the future of assessment might look five years ahead to talk about the prospects of more authentic computer-aided assessments or potential developments in continuous assessment. However, in 2020, we have more immediate needs right in front us, and the assessment tools we may have had for years will be even more relevant.
We will start this next year with many questions. How will the lack of summative assessments from this past spring impact the coming school year? How quickly can teachers determine what students may have missed in the chaotic close of the 2019–2020 school year? How can teachers parse the interim and formative assessment data of incoming students and focus on the areas that will provide the greatest return?
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The answers to these questions will vary from school to school, but we can be certain that, across the board, assessment is going to be critical to getting students back on track in the aftermath of school closures.
What’s different this fall?
The majority of schools closed in the spring before they had a chance to perform their standard end-of-year summative assessments. That’s one source of data that teachers are not going to have as they begin planning for the new academic year.
Compounding this issue, students’ abilities are likely going to be far more varied than they are at the beginning of a typical year. Again, there are many unanswered questions: What material did they still need to cover when school buildings closed? How much new instruction was provided via distance learning rather than review? Did they have internet access? Did they stay engaged or, like some students, just check the boxes or even disconnect from school completely? Did they have family members who were able to step in and support their progress, or were they struggling along alone?
Teachers will have to more heavily rely on fall assessments to understand where their students are, and what learning gaps exist within their classroom. Interim assessments will be critical in identifying and addressing the gaps from last year as quickly as possible. The goal, of course, is to get students back on track to meet grade-level requirements for this year; therefore, more fine-grained assessments that can track progress on key skills are also going to be critical.
Where to focus?
Many predict that students will be, on average, further behind, and there will be wider gaps in performance. With all these challenges, how will teachers decide which gaps to focus on first?
To help answer this question, Renaissance is offering, at no cost to educators, Focus Skills. These are the essential skills that students must master to progress to other skills. They are the building blocks that help students develop skills in other domains and areas.
Take, for example, the ability for kindergarten students to recognize letters and the sounds they make. That is a basic phonics lesson that students must master in order to progress. If they can’t recognize letters or pair them with the correct sounds, their literacy progress will halt indefinitely. That is a Focus Skill.
Knowing the order of the alphabet is something we also teach in kindergarten. It is very important, but not a Focus Skill. It may keep a student from finding a book by their favorite author in the library if they don’t know alphabetical order, but it will not prevent them from actually reading the book.
The Focus Skills map each critical skill to the standards of every state and give teachers the ability to toggle back and forth between grades, so they can see what critical skills their students may have missed out on.
Assessment literacy for parents and teachers
Parents—and even teachers—can sometimes be wary of assessments, and that concern may occasionally be warranted. But given the critical role assessments will play to support learning during the next school year, schools will need teachers and parents to be on-board.
The key will be making sure everyone understands the purposes of interim assessments. These are not evaluative tests that will be used to judge schools or students. They’re formative in nature—designed to deliver data that will help teachers identify and address students’ specific needs.
Ensuring families understand how assessment data will be used begins with teachers. They, of course, need to know how the data will be used before they can reassure students’ families, to say nothing of actually making use of the data themselves.
It’s not always the case that we give teachers sufficient training on interpreting assessment data. Most teacher-prep programs don’t require a lot of instruction on assessments, and once teachers are in the classroom, there may be little additional training. It can also be difficult for assessment companies to make specific recommendations because policies vary not just from state to state, but even from one district to another. Taken together, this means that teachers are sometimes presented with an overwhelming amount of data from assessments and asked to make use of it with inadequate training, little guidance, and infrequent practice.
Developing teachers’ assessment literacy is a long-term goal, but the urgency that most educators feel about addressing students’ learning needs at this moment can help us make progress around building assessment capacity and using assessment results to inform teaching and learning. In that regard, Focus Skills are an ideal tool for teachers. While teachers only assist with summative assessments once a year, they provide standards-based instruction all day, every day. When their instruction and formative assessment approaches are linked to the most essential skills, results are optimal.