Future of Learning

State tests don’t have to be disconnected from classroom practice

Nebraska plans an assessment system that can be meaningful to students

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Right now, Nebraska has a pretty typical assessment system. But Matthew Blomstedt, the state’s education commissioner, is trying to change that.

He already introduced the ACT as the state test for high school students. While meeting federal accountability requirements and offering a means of comparing student achievement across schools and districts, the test, originally a college entrance exam, also helps students understand their readiness for college. That makes the test personally relevant to students and parents, Blomstedt said.

For students in third through eighth grade, however, the end-of-year test is much less meaningful. It checks all the boxes for accountability that school and state leaders need, but it doesn’t have any side benefits for students. That’s something Nebraska’s education commissioner, Matthew Blomstedt, is trying to change.

“We want to ensure we have a truly student-centered education system in Nebraska,” Blomstedt said. “Otherwise assessment seems to be disjointed from what happens in the classroom.”

Blomstedt’s ideal is a state testing system that collects comparable data across schools using a series of assessments throughout the school year that measure student growth. Instead of getting information about schools and students from a single, end-of-year test that many complain is too high-stakes and doesn’t align with what students actually focus on in class, the information would come from assessments along the way that are aligned to what teachers are supposed to be teaching anyway.

Blomstedt expects schools could use the data from these assessments to help students set goals, individually, and track their own progress.

As it turns out, most Nebraska districts already give a series of assessments to track student growth, separate from state testing requirements. About 220 of Nebraska’s 240 school districts contract with NWEA, a nonprofit testing company, to give the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, test three times per year. Now the state is working with NWEA to align the MAP test to state standards and find a way to get the accountability data it needs from tests school districts already find value in anyway.

Chris Minnich, CEO of NWEA and the former executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, sees this work in Nebraska as key for the future of assessment. Essentially, Nebraska wants to integrate state assessment needs with district assessment priorities, connecting two systems that have been separate and competing for many years now. Instances of over-testing stem from the multiple assessment systems that schools juggle.

Minnich envisions a testing calendar that takes pressure off the end-of-year test. When assessments are given along the way, gathering data on what concepts students have mastered, then the final test of the school year would simply be a check, covering only material that students haven’t already proven they mastered before.

This system that Nebraska is working toward will only provide useful information to students and teachers, however, if the test results are available quickly. That has not been the case historically. Traditional state tests tend to be administered in the spring and results are shared with teachers in the late summer or fall.

“Nowhere else in life do you wait three months for data,” Minnich said. “In our environment right now, three to four months is just not going to be acceptable.”

The new assessment system in Nebraska is still just a vision, but Blomstedt and Minnich both believe that one day, it could be a model for the nation.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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Nebraska’s plan to administer multiple, short standardized exams each year rather than one big year-end test ignores a huge problem. The continued focus on boosting test scores will control teaching and diminish student learning.

The state’s new tests will be primarily multiple-choice and short answer. Such tools do a poor job of evaluating students’ conceptual understanding; ability to apply knowledge; “critical thinking,” such as deeper levels of analysis as well as synthesizing, evaluating or divergent thinking; and creativity. Americans want their public schools to prioritize these skills, which are essential for developing thoughtful citizens as well as adults who can succeed in higher education and careers.

When short-answer exams become all-important, as they will in Nebraska, teachers will focus narrowly on the tested content. They will pay less attention to higher order thinking, more attention to the formulaic and the rote. The tests will undermine educational quality, just as high-stakes, end-of-year exams now do.

In the 1990s, Nebraska pioneered a different approach: the School-based, Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System (STARS). Local educators developed assessment systems for their districts. The Buros Institute of Mental Measurement evaluated them to ensure they were based on state standards, were fair and unbiased, were reliable, and met other requirements.

Teachers often began by creating multiple-choice and short-answer items. But, they quickly shifted to developing in-depth performance assessments integrated into classroom work. The new assessments covered a more complete range of skills and knowledge with greater depth. Teachers and their union supported and defended the system. (For more on STARS, see http://fairtest.org/nebraska-points-way-forward.)

As a check on local assessments, Nebraska also administered standardized tests in grades 4, 8 and 10 with no stakes attached. Unfortunately, No Child Left Behind’s rigid testing mandates sabotaged many emerging higher-quality assessments, including Nebraska’s, by forcing all states to use traditional standardized tests.

The federal government’s Innovative Assessment pilot program under the Every Student Succeeds Act allows Nebraska to return to STARS, or other states to emulate it. The state would have to ensure consistency and comparability across districts in how they determined student proficiency, but New Hampshire has begun to show how to do this. (For how states can use ESSA, see http://www.fairtest.org/assessment-matters-constructing-model-state-system.) Other nations also compare assessments to equalize their use toward a common end.

The structure and content of exams is extremely important, not just their frequency. The impact on curriculum and instruction of “new” assessments should not be ignored.

- from Monty Neill, Jul 27, 2018