Rethinking My Relationship with Assessments

Mention the phrase “high-quality aligned assessments” to any current classroom teacher and you will get either an eye roll or a snicker in objection to the validity, or a master’s thesis of how fabulous they are. Prior to this year, I would have put myself in the former category.

This year is different. Our district has spent a great deal of money, time, effort and energy having teachers write high-quality assessments in our district. I spent a lot of my own time writing these assessments for the 10th grade United States History classes. While this process was not for the faint of heart, it did help me scrape the rust off of my Curriculum and Instruction Master’s Degree. Following the rust removal, I got my hands dirty writing the interim assessments to replicate the structure and format of the SAT test our students will take their junior year. This writing process was duplicated throughout all grade levels and subject areas. This empowered teachers and gave them a voice they otherwise would not have.

These aligned assessments are important because each teacher uses them to guide their instruction. Our Chief Academic Officer, Andre Wright, said, “Assessments help us in knowing as educators whether the practices we are employing are working and whether we need to make some course corrections to provide better instructional delivery to ensure students are mastering the learning they need to be at grade level proficiency. We own the outcomes for our students – assessments give us the information we need to verify whether we are on track.” Moreover, our district has taken an even greater step by creating districtwide “Data-Driven Instructional” professional development days. We convene in groups of common instructional levels and classes (for example, United States History teachers) to look at our students’ scores on these interim assessments.

While it’s important to understand the overall value of these assessments, it’s critical to also understand the individual characteristics which make them high quality. The preparation and execution of these professional development (PD) days is directing us to understand the characteristics of high-quality assessments to inform instruction. Many years ago we “looked at data” but that information was virtually useless. These professional development days are significant because we are unified as a district and as a staff. These common high-quality assessments would mean nothing if it were not for these PD days to take a deep dive into the data. The direction our district has taken has produced a dramatic upward swing of connecting assessment data improved to instruction.

So, why is this important? Because having a common direction for using high-quality aligned assessments to inform instruction starts with having all teachers speaking the same language. The first characteristic of this is ensuring teachers are on the same page of the data being investigated, as well as a common structure of what to do next with the data. Whether you teach third grade or sophomore algebra, each one uses the same action plan to mine the data and plan for the next steps of instruction.

On these PD days, we discuss our data in a collaborative setting rather than isolation. We have this time to practice our craft, learn from each other, and make adjustments to impact student achievement. We do this through strong academic leadership and direction walking us through the data analysis and then the “how-to” of our common instructional action plans.

The second characteristic is having a district-wide common action plan document that is well thought out and asks pertinent questions. This document should lead a teacher to understand the data, structure, and process of how to reteach and to align our thinking for the next steps.

Third, you must plan the reteach of the skill(s) being assessed. Each teacher needs to determine what skill(s) need to be addressed and develop a strong structure for how they will facilitate the re-teaching in a future lesson. If there is no plan for re-teaching, then the discourse with colleagues is meaningless.

The final characteristic of creating high-quality assessments is to relentlessly follow up. Teachers must take specific steps, day-by-day to reassess for mastery. This should be planned out in one- or two-week intervals.

High-quality assessments should serve as instructional guides for teachers and students. These assessments should provide evidence of students’ depth and degree of learning, demonstrate their application of skills and understanding and reveal any misconceptions and/or areas of unfinished learning. When assessment items/tasks are standards-aligned and match the content, skills, and strategies students have been taught, they provide key insights into what students know and are able to do independently. Based on this evidence, teachers can plan intentional and informed next steps for instruction.

This year has indeed been a great learning experience for me. Rather than rolling my eyes in derision, I have become an avid supporter of high-quality assessments. I was fully engaged to experience the value of using high-quality assessments to inform my instruction and as a result, the future looks bright.

Jill Cullis teaches Social Studies at Gateway High School in Aurora, Colorado. She has held many positions in her 32 years as an educator, including leadership roles in her school/district, writing curriculum, and coaching many different sports. She also taught overseas in Bogota, Colombia, for two years as well as traveling in Latin America conducting professional development.