Opinion

Klompus & Odemwingie: Time With Students Is More Precious Than Ever. A Smart Approach to Testing Can Help Educators Make the Most of It

By Ben Klompus and Michelle Odemwingie | January 11, 2021

Many leaders are wondering how to approach assessments — whether to give them, and what the implications will be for students now and into the future. At the same time, complex school reopening plans, remote teaching and learning accessibility issues, and renewed attention to social emotional learning have, for good reason, kept educators from focusing on key questions: Are students learning? What do we do if they are not?

In a moment when time with students is more precious than ever, educators need to make the most of the time they do have in order to combat the learning loss that has been an unjust byproduct of the pandemic. This means spending less time teaching students what they already know and more time teaching them what they need to learn.

In our roles at Achievement Network (ANet) and Relay Graduate School of Education, we work closely with school and system leaders around the country to develop strategic, equitable assessment strategies that deploy assessments as tools for learning rather than evaluative measures of learning.

Whether before or during the pandemic, the highest-achieving leaders invariably double down on their efforts to use evidence of student learning to plan what comes next. The following example of a collaborative, data-driven approach comes from one of our schools this fall:

It is Monday, and the fourth-grade team of teachers is meeting (via Zoom) with their principal for their “weekly data meeting.” The prior Friday, they each administered a virtual, common and curriculum aligned end-of-week math task that assessed the key learning objectives for the week. Ahead of their meeting, they use a simple data tracker to compare results across classrooms, identify 2-3 common questions that many students struggled with, and agree to share representative samples of student work they will examine during their data meeting. Once together, they celebrate wins since the last week and narrow their focus to the standard and student work samples they shared ahead of time. As a team, they name what students needed to know and show to demonstrate mastery of these questions, they analyze student responses to identify trending student errors, and then they plan and practice concrete reteach strategies they will use in upcoming lessons in order to ensure all students get additional rounds of practice. They agree to report back their results the next time they meet and return to class.

When provided with a coherent assessment system, aligned across the classroom, school and system levels, educators can spend less time sifting through data and more time targeting student learning gaps.

In schools that partnered with ANet to streamline their assessment strategy, students regained an average of five days of instruction per year after the elimination of redundant testing or testing without a clear purpose.

Over the last three years, leaders at Tunbridge Public Charter School in Baltimore City worked with an ANet coach to harness the power of data to determine how students are learning and what to do if they are not. They used assessments to define and implement a bridge to grade-level instruction that increases access for all students. In practice, this means teachers increased the amount of time they spent at content meetings looking at data or student work, identifying student learning needs and adjusting their instructional plans to include content in specific areas students struggled to create that “bridge” to learning grade-level content. As a result, Tunbridge teachers have covered more grade-level content than they did at this time last year, even with a fully virtual school day. By increasing the amount of time they spend at content meetings looking at data or student work, teacher teams are more quickly able to respond to their students’ needs and spend more or less time in specific areas as indicated by the data.

In Denver Public Schools, where Relay has trained leaders for almost a decade, Southwest Regional Instructional Superintendent Heather Haines has named just two priorities for the 34 schools in her region: ensure that every Black and brown student has access to rigorous, standards-aligned materials every day, and monitor learning through a regular review of student work.

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To achieve this vision, Haines and her team maintain a consistent focus on evidence of learning — daily student work and weekly assessments — so they can make each moment count and correct course in time to ensure all students end the year at or beyond their grade level goals. Since aligning her team on these two priorities, Haines’s network has seen more than a 25 percent increase in the number of classrooms providing all Black and brown students with the opportunity to engage in grade-level, curriculum-based tasks (currently, 75 percent of classrooms are achieving this goal across the network).

Leaders like Haines who consistently examine evidence of student learning are not only better equipped to find any gaps and make informed decisions about how to close them. They are also asking: Do students from marginalized groups have the supports they need to access instruction relative to their peers?

Taking this extra step to examine data disaggregated by race and ethnicity is particularly critical at this moment, when the pandemic has exacerbated inequities between students in marginalized groups and their more advantaged peers.

Across the board, our partners who have moved toward a more balanced assessment approach — replacing nonessential assessments with those intended to help teachers adapt their instruction to better meet student learning needs — see opportunity gaps close. We urge state, district and school leaders to be clear about how every assessment helps us answer the two fundamental questions: Are students learning? What do we do if they are not?

This moment in time demands this level of focus. States and districts that use this opportunity to strengthen the way their assessment system supports teaching and learning will have the best chance of increasing the likelihood of strong, equitable outcomes for all students.

Dr. Ben Klompus is dean of principal supervisor programs at Relay Graduate School of Education. Michelle Odemwingie is chief of school & system servicesat Achievement Network.

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