The Pitfalls of End-of-Level Testing
High stakes end-of-level testing is nigh-ubiquitous in American society. Its roots can be traced back to the 1990s when Congress reauthorized Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) required the development or adoption of state assessments and tied them to Title I funds. These assessments, as well as the later assessments under NCLB, were originally envisioned as an effective means to measure student learning and hold educators accountable, but the results haven’t lived up to the promise. High stakes end-of-level testing has narrowed the curriculum and encouraged teaching to the test at the expense of providing equitable learning opportunities for all students, and it has ultimately failed to produce meaningful improvement to student learning.
In an effort to salvage the usefulness of end-of-level testing, supporters have proposed that data from these tests can be used to inform student learning. But the restricted scope of learning these tests measure—and the untimely availability of their results to educators—makes attempts to link their data to student learning impractical and ineffective. Enter connected data.
When data are used to connect student growth and teacher growth, that’s what I call connected data. Connected data, similar in concept to feedback loops described by D. Royce Sadler, empower teachers and students to continually inform student learning and teacher instruction. It’s data that connect student growth in performance with teacher growth in professional expertise. If the data doesn’t connect the two, then the results aren’t meaningful, and somebody isn’t growing.
Connected data work when four basic elements are in play:
- There is alignment between curriculum (standards and content), assessments, and instruction.
- Quality feedback plays a prominent role.
- Teachers self-evaluate their instruction and regularly use the data to adjust instruction and feedback.
- Students use the data, with help from teachers, to regularly self-evaluate their learning in order to close the gap between what they know and what they need to know.
Connected data rely on continuous attention by teachers and students to instruction and learning as measured by the formative assessment process, which is why end-of-level tests are neither practical nor effective as agents of meaningful change. It is difficult for students and teachers to act on data that’s a week old–let alone a month or even six months old. But with the advent of digital technologies that empower teachers to gather real-time formative data, teachers and students can work together to inform teaching and learning. Realizing this powerful ability for my teachers was one of the driving forces that led me to co-found MasteryConnect.
Strategies for Gathering and Analyzing Connected Data
There are mounds of data available these days, often gathered and analyzed through statistical methods. But too often, these types of data are noisy and inactionable in the day-to-day happenings of the classroom. The key to improving student outcomes in the long run is getting the right data at the right time.
Teachers and students can each grow in their respective spheres using relevant and actionable data collected through simpler methods. A mastery-based, formative assessment process can provide real-time data that is easily acted upon by teachers and students alike.
Once the focus has shifted from the use of high stakes, end-of-level data to formative data, there remains three fundamental strategies for gathering and analyzing connected data that teachers can apply to their classrooms in all grades and subjects.
- Teachers intentionally and frequently use formative assessment. Elementary teachers may use whiteboards or ‘thumbs-up–thumbs-down’ quick checks for understanding. Secondary teachers may use online polling apps such as Socrative. But however a teacher assesses—a quick observation or a pre-designed daily or weekly quiz—the assessment must yield results the teacher intends to use to inform instruction. Gathering this data via a digital platform provides teachers with documentation of their assessment’s results and empowers them to adjust instruction, collaborate with colleagues, and communicate with stakeholders, including parents.
- Teachers provide opportunities for students to close the learning gap. This strategy relies on teacher expertise, in both the content and the required pedagogy, to provide feedback that challenges students to build deeper representations of learning.
- Students act upon the feedback provided by teachers and peers. Students must take the next step, but they can’t do this alone. The ability to self-evaluate is a learned proficiency, so teachers play an important role in modeling what self-evaluation looks like while providing an environment of trust, where students feel safe taking educational risks.
Closing the Loop
Using the data in this way makes teachers and students more connected around the engagement of learning. And when teachers and students consistently apply the fundamental strategies for gathering and analyzing connected data, good things happen: teachers become more sensitive to individual students’ learning needs, and students become more aware of their responsibility to narrow the gap between what they know and what they need to know.
This shared purpose provides more opportunities to connect the data and close the loop between student learning and teacher teaching. The result is something we’re seeing time and time again throughout the country: meaningful change in the classroom. One example of this meaningful change can be found at Mandan 1, a small rural district in North Dakota making the shift to standards-based, mastery-based teaching and learning–and finding positive results!