Adopting a more holistic assessment approach means student assessment can directly impact classroom learning.

We need a new approach to student assessment

Adopting a more holistic assessment approach moves education closer to achieving the decades-old promise that assessment can directly impact classroom learning

Key points:

  • End-of-year statewide assessments are vital, but are flawed in several ways
  • A “through-year” system administers shorter tests throughout the year that can give teachers immediate feedback
  • See related article: 3 new trends in student assessment

All around the country, school has ended for students and summer break is underway. In many schools, students spent the last few weeks of the year sitting for standardized tests to assess the year’s instruction. Unfortunately, those tests will be locked away until they’re graded at some point this summer, with parents and educators not learning results until late in the summer, or in some cases, after students start school next year. By that time, students will have a new set of teachers, and these teachers a new set of students with different learning styles and needs.

There is no question that assessments provide useful data. Historically, these tests have been used to help direct resources to schools and districts around the state. Republicans have declared it’s a good check on a system we pour our valuable taxpayer dollars into. Democrats have asserted that this information is the most impactful tool for advocates, communities, and families to ensure that every child is being served by the school system. And while these are important metrics, these tests don’t always suit the immediate needs of kids.

In the wake of the pandemic’s disruption, our student assessment rituals and rationales are showing their age. End-of-year statewide assessments are vital, and when done well, they can measure how a system is serving the students we promise to prepare for college, career, and life. But they are flawed in several ways. Most notably, they give teachers too little information, too late to adjust lessons for the year. The good news is that a new and more comprehensive approach is in development that can give the system those valuable measures while providing teachers with actionable data that can directly impact classroom learning—and it can do so in real time. 

A “through-year” system administers shorter tests throughout the year that can give teachers immediate feedback, providing them real-time information to personalize and accelerate student learning in their current grade. At the end of the year, these tests can then be combined to provide education officials with what they need to make data-driven decisions for upcoming years.

This system is not just an idea. It is being successfully piloted in Montana, where the Montana Alternative Student Testing program provides teachers with immediate feedback in English/language arts and math using a series of short, curriculum-aligned tests throughout the year. The pilot began last year and has so far included more than 30 districts and 5,000 students in grades 5 and 7.

The “classroom up” approach in Montana is an important shift in statewide assessment. Educators participated in designing the tests, and the results from this collaboration will support and empower them.

It is now being expanded to grades 3 through 8 in the 2023-2024 school year, and Montana is seeking a one-year waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to remove the burden of double-testing for schools participating in next year’s assessment. Under No Child Left Behind, waivers were granted when states were transitioning to high-quality assessments under Race to the Top. If it is granted, Montana and New Meridian have committed to producing a statewide, operational assessment for grades 3 through 8 during the 2024-2025 school year. This data will be publicly reported, disaggregated by student groups, shared with parents and educators, and fed into the federal accountability system. States and districts across the country will benefit from the lessons learned during this ground-breaking program.

By adopting a more holistic approach, we move closer to achieving the decades-old promise that assessment can directly impact classroom learning. That system is being developed right now, and it can be a model for states across the country–if they have the courage to invest, innovate, and give real help to students who have lost so much time and education to pandemic disruption. Our system was tested, and the results were loud and clear–we need to do better for students, families, and teachers.

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