Gauging Progress in the GPS – Take Two
March 5, 2015
William S. McKersie, PhD
Gauging student progress. How well have our students been doing? What is their achievement now? What is their trajectory for success? What can I as an educator do to ensure excellent progress? All are critical questions for GPS educators if we are to gauge the progress of our students so they achieve at high levels.
In December 2014, I devoted my monthly essay to “Take One” on gauging student progress. That essay dealt with the need for the Greenwich Public Schools to secure an external partner to develop a data warehouse, performance dashboard, balanced assessment system, and value-added student growth model. We are in our final push to identify an external partner and hope to have a decision announced by the end of March.
This month’s essay is “Take Two” on gauging student progress—delving into the Smarter Balance Assessment (SBA). I open with several reflections—broader messages to consider about standardized assessments and gauging student progress. I close with key facts about the SBA and its administration in Greenwich.
Reflections – Standardized Assessments and Gauging Progress
Our teachers’ daily focus is instructing students on the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful as they progress though the district and, ultimately, as they pursue college and careers. The SBA is the standardized test that we will be using, in part, to assess how well students are doing relative to the Common Core Standards and the Greenwich Public Schools’ curriculum.
Let us be clear: Assessments are not our ultimate objective. Instead, assessments measure how well students are progressing on the path to being college and career ready. They are an essential tool for understanding improvement—providing us with the information necessary to adjust our curriculum and instruction in order to best educate students.
The SBA, as a “new age standardized assessment,” holds promise to be a tool to advance learning. For instance, the first try at the SBA, last spring’s “Field Test,” revealed that the online (digital) format helped engage students in the assessment process, especially in the constructed response (short answer) areas. Given the time assessments automatically take away from teaching, it is good news that the SBA may be serving as a valuable moment for students to put their learning to the test, literally and figuratively, in a productive way.
I have yet to meet a GPS educator who is not wary of the risk that standardized assessments can overtake the teaching and learning process by driving us to focus narrowly on what the test is testing. This wariness is essential—it will ensure that the SBA is applied in Greenwich in thoughtful, robust ways, not in ways that truncate our teaching and learning.
To a person, our educators echo the sentiments Professor David Kirp (University of California, Berkeley) expressed in a recent New York Times Op-Ed (“Make School a Democracy,” NYT, February 28, 2015). Professor Kirp, in celebrating Escuela Nueva, a highly regarded educational approach in Columbia, in which students are freed to work in small groups exploring solutions to problems by applying their knowledge and creativity, bemoaned the all too typical American high school, where the control of learning has been taken away from students so that “test content” will be covered and student and school results will be what the public (apparently) demands. Kirp correctly contends:
There’s solid evidence that American students do well when they are encouraged to think for themselves and expected to collaborate with one another. In a report last year, the American Institutes for Research concluded that students who attended so-called deeper learning high schools — which emphasize understanding, not just memorizing, academic content; applying that understanding to novel problems and situations; and developing interpersonal skills and self-control — recorded higher test scores, were more likely to enroll in college and were more adept at collaboration than their peers in conventional schools.
Drawing on the insights of two other scholars, Kirp continues:
But these schools are far from the mainstream. “It’s really different and quite impressive,” David K. Cohen, an education professor at the University of Michigan, told me…Rachel Lotan, a professor emeritus at Stanford, added, “Doing well on the high-stakes test scores is what drives the public schools, and administrators fear that giving students more control of their own education will bring down those scores.”
I believe that the smarts, and wariness, of GPS educators inoculates us against the behavior Professor Lotan criticizes, which could be a by-product of the SBA misapplied and mismanaged. We are working hard in Greenwich to have the SBA be a source of insight and guidance on student growth and progress. We do not want the state required assessment to become the reason we take away the essential ingredients to rigorous learning: student experience, exploration, inquiry, creativity and, ultimately, students exerting advocacy and agency for their own intellectual growth.
The Facts – SBA Administration in Greenwich
I close with key facts about the SBA, intentionally paraphrasing statements from the February 2015 CMT, CAPT, SBA Update we recently sent to all staff and families. Even if you have read the February 2015 Update, a series of “facts” bear repeating.
Fact 1: The SBA is one part of the comprehensive assessment plan we use to gauge student progress. We want to provide staff, administrators, students, parents and the Board of Education a coherent portfolio of assessment tools for understanding student achievement and growth. Multiple measures are the key to effectively gauging student progress—the SBA is one of the sources of data and insight on student learning.
Fact 2: The SBA is a standardized online digital assessment based on the Connecticut Core State Standards. To achieve the goal that all students leave high school ready for college and career, Smarter Balance is committed to accurately assessing the performance of all students, regardless of disability, language or subgroup. (Greenwich Public Schools CMT, CAPT, SBA Update, Volume 4 February 2015.)
Fact 3: All students are required to participate in the SBA and CMT/CAPT Science Assessments. Per Connecticut Statute (CGS 10-14n Standardized Testing Requirement) “each student enrolled in grades three to eight, inclusive, and grade ten or eleven in any public school shall, annually, take a mastery examination in reading, writing and mathematics.” The SBA is the standardized test selected by the State to assess student performance in English Language Arts and Mathematics. The Statute further states, “each student enrolled in grade five, eight, ten or eleven in any public school shall, annually, in March or April, take a state-wide mastery examination in science.” The CMT/CAPT Science is the standardized test selected to assess student performance in science content knowledge and application. (Greenwich Public Schools CMT, CAPT, SBA Update, Volume 4 February 2015.)
Fact 4: The SBA truly is a digital assessment. The test format includes selected response (multiple choice), constructed response (short answer), technology enhanced (video, animation, sound interactive tools) and technology enabled (interaction, digital media, manipulation of information). The test is adaptive and recalibrates incrementally based on a student’s response within their grade level. Students will be allowed to use scrap paper, but all answers will need to be placed into the digital assessment. Paper and pencil tests are not an option. (Greenwich Public Schools CMT, CAPT, SBA Update, Volume 4 February 2015.)
Fact 5: The key to success on the SBA will be mastery of Connecticut Core Content and, performance standards, which are central to the GPS Curriculum and Instruction. Narrow test prep will be ineffective. Providing opportunities for students to write online in digital formats and read informational screen-based texts from blogs, wikis and other digital portals will prepare students for the assessment.
Online training modules are provided for schools to use for professional learning to support the administration of the assessment. We also provide teachers with ideas and examples for embedding the assessment in daily instruction. We have developed and implemented performance tasks in both ELA and Mathematics to provide opportunities for students to simulate the SBA and to demonstrate their mastery of what they have learned. (Greenwich Public Schools CMT, CAPT, SBA Update, Volume 4 February 2015.)
Fact 6: SBA results will be reported in one of four performance categories with a correlated scale score. Individual, school and district-wide reports are scheduled to be available to districts by June 12. The CT Department of Education is finalizing the process for reporting scores to schools, parents and students. CMT/CAPT Science performance results will be available this coming summer. Schools will mail CMT/CAPT Student Reports to families on or before September 30, 2015. (Greenwich Public Schools CMT, CAPT, SBA Update, Volume 4 February 2015.)