High-Quality Aligned Assessments Aren’t Enough: Teachers Need Assessment Literacy

As an elementary student, I was introduced to the importance of using data and professional development to improve instruction. On the last day of third grade, I remember seeing a teacher’s edition and student workbooks from our reading program overflowing the garbage can outside Mrs. Baldwin’s room. I asked if I could have them so I could play school with my friends over the summer.  Mrs. Baldwin sat me down and explained how I could use classmates’ stories from class, and the teacher’s edition (she called it the Teacher’s Magic Book), to help them tell stories better. This made me feel empowered to use these resources to teach all my younger friends, even if it was only for a short time.  They humored me for about a week until I gave the first test, but I enjoyed every second of my homegrown summer school.

Fast forward to the future and my foreshadowed career as an educator.  As a high school English teacher for 11 years, a curriculum director for 7 in both Arizona and Wyoming, and a professional development provider, I have built a career around teaching and learning. When the Common Core State Standards were first was adopted in 2010, I reached for every high-quality professional development resource I could get my hands about implementing the new standards., including how they might be assessed. I located quality resources created by Student Achievement Partners, Engage New York, and others.  I continue to depend on a network of experts and accessible quality-aligned materials to help me support my teachers in understanding how to instruct and assess the standards, and how to use the data to inform their instruction.

Standards-aligned assessments, and assessment literacy, are equally important. Teachers not only need a quality and aligned assessment but also need to know how to understand how the test will be implemented according to those standards and know how to use the results to help students succeed. When one of the two are missing, it is impossible to live up to the promise of the standards and provide equally high-quality education for all students. In districts within both Arizona and Wyoming, my fellow instructional coordinators and I dug into our new state test, knowing we would need to deliver much needed professional development on assessment literacy.

We began by engaging educators in test development. This included item writing, item analysis, and an introduction on the concept of data-driven decision-making.  For many teachers, this was a new concept. We explained that the data provided by the assessment informed them of what standards the students have mastered, and which ones required more practice. This targeted approach informed their instruction in a way never before possible. When the actual assessment was administered, teachers’ attitudes and perceptions changed: they were less stressed about the test, and more confident when results came around, knowing the data was aligned to the standards.

But there was still more work to be done. Our 2018 assessment results revealed a need to provide further assessment literacy training. This training was designed to help teachers understand, process, and apply the data and information so they could continue to improve instruction and increase student achievement. We also engaged parents to help them understand their child’s performance and encouraged teachers to meet in grade level groups throughout the year to triangulate the state assessment data with other assessments, including common formative assessments and district assessments to compare and use this data as well.

Although providing time and training for teachers on assessment literacy is difficult, it is a crucial first step in making sure the standards fulfill what they set out to do- raise the expectations for all students.  Without being equipped to use the assessment as an instructional tool, teachers will be unable to identify how to help their students reach the higher bar set by the standards. There is still much work to be done to increase assessment literacy, but I am confident we are on the right path.

Amanda McAdams, a former practicing attorney and 2011 Arizona Teacher of the Year is currently the Director of Elementary Education and K-12 Literacy for Lincoln County School District #2 in Star Valley, Wyoming. Amanda earned her bachelor’s degree from Claremont McKenna College, her Juris Doctorate degree from the J. Reuben Clark School of Law at Brigham Young University, her teaching certificate from Utah State University, her Doctor of Education (EDD) from Argosy University and has received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Northern Arizona University. Most importantly, Amanda and her husband Don are the proud parents of three children. Amanda enjoys family history research, and spending time outdoors with her family.