K-12 assessments have been the topic of much discussion in recent years. Even before the pandemic, schools would broadcast high standardized test scores as if they were a gold medal. But why? What does a standardized test score really say about a school, a district or a community?
For years assessments were used as placements exams, and learners that scored well were put in fast-track classes. When that fell out of favor, assessments were used to check for “readiness.” Are these students ready to learn to read? Can they move onto the next chapter in math?
Then there were the time-consuming, high-stakes exams K-12 assessments in late spring. These summative assessments tested whether learners met standards over the course of the school year. These standards were generally set by the state and measured the school’s ability to be considered “good.” We hear parents ask all the time: Is your school good? What do schools base their answer on? Usually, it’s the standardized tests given at the end of the year. When students do well, the school is deemed “good.” If they do well enough, the school may even be “great.”
But does a single summative test score really capture the growth and development of learners?
The simple answer is no. But do we want to dismantle the entire assessment system? The answer to that is no as well. In between those two answers is the path forward. Schools should use assessment systems that are effective and efficient for driving instruction, charting learner growth and maximizing student achievement.
What is the importance of K-12 assessments?
According to Chris Minnich, the CEO of the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), “Now is the time to pivot and adapt the way we assess in our schools.” He adds, “What are we trying to accomplish when it comes to standardized tests?”
Minnich has been studying test design and standardized assessments since 2003. He says the best way to use K-12 assessments as a tool for student achievement is to use them to measure student growth. While assessments are necessary in schools, the importance of a baseline or a starting zone has been lost. That’s because we place all the stress on the one time-consuming, year-end summative assessment. But for Minnich, that thought process is all backward.
“Measurement is the magic word,” he says. That’s where the importance of formative assessments comes in. When the focus shifts to formative assessments, teachers and educational leaders have a starting point for measuring growth.
”What are we trying to accomplish?” Minnich continues. “Does one standardized test make or break a student’s career, or grade, for that matter? And the answer to that is no. It shouldn’t. We have overused this data in certain places, but now at the same time, you pull all the…metrics out of the system. You’re going to be stuck back at a time…where….certain schools are allowed to talk about how great they are. But if we start with growth…if we say ‘look, you’re right here right now, and our goal this year is to have great growth in you,’….we will be able to show that through [formative] assessments. We just have to see what things kids may have missed.”
Minnich continues to say that shorter, formative K-12 assessments are better tools for showing growth. These are given throughout the year to measure student learning as topics are taught in more depth. And growth is a better indicator of success. It predicts future successes and areas where learners may need help meeting future goals on time.
Additionally, formative assessments avoid the loss of teaching time that occurs during end-of-year assessments. Those summative assessments can last for hours or be given over several days. It’s a one-shot chance for students to show that they know. Plus, results are often easily influenced by outside forces, like how the student is feeling that particular day.
Formative K-12 assessments and feedback
Feedback is another key element in making formative assessments successful drivers of learner improvement. When teachers have the ability to give responses to work in progress, learners are guided towards a better outcome. Students also internalize learning before the product is graded. Ease of feedback also offers the teacher an outlet to individualize and differentiate an assignment. They can do this by altering the instructions or modifying or defining certain terms for learners.
All learners benefit when they connect with the teacher, and feedback is another channel to allow that to happen. With feedback, learners will instantly have the reinforcement that they are on the right track. Or they can get a gentle nudge from their teacher when they begin to drift. Perhaps most importantly, teachers can flag a learner who needs more intensive one-on-one practice on a topic.
Formative assessments and mastery-based learning
Frequent and formative K-12 assessments in the classroom go hand in hand with mastery-based learning. Students who participate in mastery-based lessons complete a pre-assessment. That way the teacher can see what pre-learning has occurred and what student needs are present. What follows is a short group lesson. Then learners are largely self-directed and use project-based activities to demonstrate mastery of the topic.
Formative assessments are given along the way to see that the learners are on the right track. This informs the teacher where corrective instruction needs to take place. Mastery-based learning empowers students to:
- take ownership of their learning
- open lines of communication for support from their teachers
- demonstrate mastery in the way that best suits their learning styles.
K-12 schools make a change
When the pandemic hit, districts were already taking a hard look at the way assessments drove instruction. Students were sent home for distance learning in a society largely unprepared for such an event. Learning continued in what was deemed “emergency mode.” Many educators completed that year using this expression: “We just got through it.”
The focus on assessments was replaced with preparation for the return of the students. Schools measured the distance between desks and stocked up on hand sanitizer. Many schools did not even return for in person classes in the fall of 2020. Some opened on a hybrid model of classes. There was no uniformity within states or counties.
The present and future of in-school learning still look uncertain. So the importance of formative assessments, and measuring growth in learners, is as important as ever.
Students in different locations missed various amounts of face-to-face teaching time. Others responded poorly to at-home learning altogether. That means that the need for a baseline assessment is even stronger than before. The forces that impacted benchmark-meeting were also stronger in the past 18 months than ever before. Formative assessments throughout the year will inform teachers:
- how learners are making up for that missed time
- who needs basic, missed skills
- when each individual learner is ready to move forward.
With multiple formative assessments, changing student information and feedback all happening in the classroom at once, teachers suddenly have a great amount of data to organize. Technology is the tool that keeps the data well organized and easily managed
Managing formative assessment and feedback data with technology
There is a solution that assists teachers in finding that baseline for each individual learner. Hāpara helps teachers give formative assessments in order to see which skills need more focus. Quick feedback to learners is also simple with Hāpara, which supports this individual learning plan. As teachers progress through the year and build on lessons and concepts, Hāpara’s Workspace makes it easy to add formative assessments.
When student progress is assessed during the learning process, course corrections can be taken. Extra supports can also be given where identified and needed. The feedback teachers receive from the results of these assessments is invaluable. It keeps learning individualized and addresses the possible losses due to lack of face-to-face instruction.
Formative K-12 assessments and feedback capture the growth and measurement we need to give all learners. That’s the “good stuff” that Minnich identified as important. When teachers and instructional leaders focus on student growth, all learners have the chance to succeed.