Conversations Around Diagnostic Assessments Should Include Educator Expertise

There has been no lack of discussion and debate about how schools can best address the COVID-19 pandemic while still ensuring students are learning and supported. A recent survey of more than 5,500 educators and advocates conducted by The Collaborative for Student Success sought to understand their opinions on this matter. Among the key findings, the survey showed that teachers and administrators preferred beginning the 2020-21 school year with regular grade-level content. This could present issues when taking into consideration that students had different remote learning experiences at the end of this year, and some may have mastered content that others did not. Survey participants were also asked their opinions on how to best measure and address possible learning gaps this could cause. A majority of the participants favored the use of a “high-quality assessment to understand the extent of student loss or growth, but not to penalize students or schools”.

To ensure these assessments are successful and truly do help teachers assess student learning levels and address gaps, teachers should have a seat at the table when districts and schools decide which assessment they will use. Teachers already have a detailed understanding of the standards students need to meet so their expertise and input on assessments is valuable. Many teachers have also crafted their own classroom-based “pre-tests” to measure prior knowledge at the beginning of each school year to meet students where they are and build upon their foundational knowledge. This expertise can and should be leveraged by districts to ensure teachers find the assessment data useful and can use it to more effectively address learning gaps throughout the year.

As a middle school science teacher, I know there are many characteristics of assessments that are important to teachers. The tests must provide teachers with timely, actionable feedback. Assessments with immediate results and detailed data can help teachers pinpoint standards and skills that may need to be taught before moving forward in the curriculum. The tests should also be as short as possible, while still giving an accurate picture of a student’s strengths and weaknesses. These assessments could even take the form of integrated learning tasks that provide teachers with the feedback they need to develop meaningful lessons while engaging students in meaningful educational tasks.

Having a benchmark assessment at the beginning of the upcoming academic year will be critical to closing potential learning gaps caused by extended school closures. But the pandemic has impacted schools, teachers and students differently, so utilizing a one-size-fits-all approach to a benchmark assessment may not be the best course of action. What works for one teacher or school may not work as well for another. Looking to educators to inform the selection of a benchmark assessment will leverage the extensive expertise they have in their content and grade levels, and ensure the test is a useful tool that can truly help address learning gaps.

Jennifer Smith is a National Board-Certified Teacher and currently teaches 8th-grade science at Monticello Middle School where she also sponsors the science club and oversees the STEM lab. She also teaches middle school language arts and geography online for Illinois Virtual School. Jennifer holds a BA in Elementary Education and an MS in Education from Eastern Illinois University as well as an MS in English from Illinois State University. She was a 2014-2015 Illinois Teacher of the Year Finalist, the 2016 Illinois Middle School STEM Teacher of the Year, and the 2019 AACT Middle School Chemistry Teacher of the Year.