Make Assessment Work for All Students: Multiple Measures Matter

Implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is looming on the horizon, and education leaders and policy makers are in need of accurate information regarding stakeholder perceptions and opinions. The Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) recently answered that call by releasing a comprehensive survey of perceptions of K–12 assessment. The survey asked a range of assessment-related questions to superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and students.    

Some of the results are unsurprising. For instance, more than seven in ten teachers, principals, and superintendents say that students spend too much time taking assessments. Their opinions on specific tests vary, however. Six in ten teachers rate their states’ accountability tests as fair or poor, but most gave a thumbs-up to both formative assessments and classroom tests and quizzes developed by teachers. The approval gap between state tests and other assessments is most likely due to their perceived usefulness. While state tests give a summative picture of student performance, they aren’t designed to provide diagnostic information or inform instruction—functions that classroom tests and formative assessments perform well. (Of course, let’s not forget that NWEA makes millions of dollars selling a formative assessment.)

In contrast to teachers and administrators, three out of four students and approximately half of parents believe that students spend the right amount of time (or too little time!) taking assessments. Large majorities of parents consider all types of testing—including classroom tests and formative assessments—helpful to their children’s learning. A lack of communication between teachers and parents appears to be a problem: While 87 percent of teachers reported using assessment data to discuss student progress with parents, only 38 percent of parents said that their children’s teachers often or very often discussed their children’s assessment results with them. The fact that teachers and parents have such different views is troubling, but it could be explained by a lack of teacher training—most teachers claimed that although they’ve received training on how to use assessments, they have not received training on communicating assessment outcomes. As a result, only 38 percent of teachers feel very prepared to communicate results to parents. The gap could also be explained by the tense atmosphere surrounding accountability issues, which can sometimes put teachers’ and parents’ interests at odds.

Interestingly, low-income parents have different views about and experiences with assessment than their middle- and high-income counterparts. For instance, 33 percent of parents with a household income under $60,000 agree or strongly agree that state tests improve learning—compared to only 16–17 percent of families with a household income between $60,000 and $119,999. In addition, educators working in low-income districts are more likely than those in middle- or high-income districts to say that students spend too much time taking assessments. Principals in low-income schools are more likely to say that they have a data coach and have developed an assessment plan, and teachers in low-income schools are more likely to say that they modify teaching based on assessment results and use those results to collaborate with peers. 

Although 61 percent of parents say they believe that parents should have the right to opt their children out of state assessments, only 15 percent say they actually plan to opt out their own children. Furthermore, the vast majority of teachers (87 percent) said that they have never or rarely had a conversation with parents about opting out. Numbers are similar for principals (87 percent) and superintendents (82 percent).     

In its conclusion, NWEA offers a few recommendations—including a note on how important it is for states and education organizations to foster open dialogue and provide information on the new federal law to administrators, educators, students, and parents. In particular, states and education agencies should dedicate resources to training teachers on best practices for assessment and data usage so that the communication gap between teachers and parents will lessen.

SOURCE: “Make Assessment Work for All Students: Multiple Measures Matter,” Northwest Evaluation Association, (May 2016).  

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.