A Note from the Superintendent’s Desk – John Bute – ISBE and Elementary Assessment Tests

John Bute RESIZEDOctober is the month when ISBE (Illinois State Board of Education) releases assessment results from the previous school year. Media members often jump on the “numbers” from these assessments to open dialogue about the quality of teaching and learning in local schools. As an educator, I agree that assessment is an integral part of instruction, as it determines whether or not the goals of education are being met. Assessment often affects decisions about grades, grade level or course placement, advancement to higher grade levels or curriculum, instructional needs, and, in some cases, funding. Assessments inspire us to ask these hard questions, “Are we teaching what we believe we are teaching?” “Are students learning what they are supposed to be learning?” “Is there a way to teach this content or skill better, thereby stimulating better learning?” These questions, and others, are often discussed in grade level, department level, and building level meetings. The assessment scores that are compiled by ISBE and released this month do not answer any of these questions.

Today’s students need to know not only the basic reading and arithmetic skills, but also skills that will allow them to face a world that is continually changing. They must be able to think critically, to analyze, and to make inferences. Changes in the skills base and knowledge our students need require new learning goals; these new learning goals change the relationship between assessment and instruction. When assessment works best, the following questions are answered, “What is the student’s performance base?” “What are the student’s needs?” “What has to be taught?” “What performance demonstrates understanding? knowledge? mastery?” “What changes or modifications to a lesson are needed to help the student?” “Can the student demonstrate and use the new skills in other projects?” “What is working for the student(s)?” “What can I/we do to help the students more?” “In what direction should we go next?”

Nearly every school district administers state-mandated standardized tests. Every student at a particular grade level is required to take the same test. Everything about the test is ‘standard’ from the questions, to the length of time students have to complete it (although some exceptions may be made for students with learning or physical disabilities), to the time of year in which the test is taken. Throughout Illinois (and the country), and with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, commonly known as the No Child Left Behind Act (which requires research-based assessment), student performance on these standardized assessments has become the basis for many critical education decisions and discussions. I believe that using these “snapshot” high stakes tests for any reason, other than discussion, is a disservice to teaching and learning. In looking at the Central SD 104 curriculum, we do not have single course offering where we determine student achievement based on the results of one assessment. That notion is contrary to educators everywhere.

Standardized tests should not be confused with the standards movement, which advocates specific grade-level content and performance standards in subject areas. In 2009, an initiative was created to develop a set of standards for all states to adhere to. The result was the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS), as it has become known. The majority of states have adopted and implement CCSS. Standardized testing has produced one positive reform in the area of how student achievement is measured. Standards-based grading, which involves measuring students’ proficiency on well-defined course objectives, has gained popularity among teachers and administrators (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006). Although many districts adopt standards-based grading in addition to traditional grades, standards-based grading can and should replace traditional point-based grades.

Grades Should Have Meaning

Each letter grade that a student earns is connected to a credit. However, many classes reflect only one step in a sequence of learning. So what does each grade indicate to students, parents, and teachers of later courses in the sequence? When first considering this question, I realized I had no answers. If pressed to describe the qualitative difference between an A, B, C, D, or F, my answers would be vague. A more focused idea of what grades mean to me are:

An A means the student has completed proficient work on all course objectives and advanced work on some objectives.

A B means the student has completed proficient work on all course objectives.

A C means the student has completed proficient work on the most important objectives, although not on all objectives. The student can continue to the next course.

A D means the student has completed proficient work on at least one-half of the course objectives but is missing some important objectives and is at significant risk of failing the next course in the sequence. The student should repeat the course if it is a prerequisite for another course.

An F means the student has completed proficient work on fewer than one-half of the course objectives and cannot successfully complete the next course in sequence.

One of the biggest sources of frustration in schools today is the sense that we are at the mercy of factors we cannot control. We cannot control student socioeconomic levels, state funding, class sizes, difficult parents, standardized assessments, or a host of other issues. However, we can control how we assess students and how we describe what a student knows and is able to do.

Even if a teacher uses a point system to satisfy a mandate or to use a particular grade book, that teacher can still use a standards-based system. The crucial idea is to use a system that is not based on the inappropriate use of averages. The system must not allow students to mask their level of understanding with their attendance, their level of effort, or other peripheral issues that often make up that numerical grade average. I find that avoiding point values that might appear in a traditional percentage-based system is helpful because parents and students can get confused if they see numbers that look like what they’ve seen in the past but refer to a different scale. Teachers who have to assign points can avoid this confusion by using completely different numbers. A point value in the range of 1 to 10, for example, would not have the strong associations of a point value of 85, and thus would not be as easily misinterpreted.

john-bute-chartHelps Adjust Instruction Imagine two different grade books for the same set of students, as shown in Figure 1. Which one of the two better illustrates what students know and what they still need to learn?

The standards-based grade book provides a greater wealth of information to help the teacher adjust instruction. Note that two objectives (1 and 3) may require more class instruction. The notations for Objective 2, on the other hand, suggest that the class only needs practice and one student needs some reteaching. Students can also see much more information about their learning. In the traditional grade book, Amanda would assume she is in great shape, but standards-based grading reveals that she has not mastered a crucial concept.

Gifted and talented students can be truly challenged in a standards-based classroom because if they show early mastery of fundamental skills and concepts, they can then concentrate on more challenging work that is at higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy or that seeks connections among objectives.

Students who struggle can continue to retest and use alternate assessments until they show proficiency, and they are not penalized for needing extended time. Students with special needs would be guided to modify their work and, if needed, develop different ways of demonstrating that they’ve met their proficiency goals. Their working styles can be easily accommodated in this system because modified assignments and assessments require no special adjustments in the grade book. The grade book simply shows where they are in meeting the standards, without reference to how they are demonstrating their learning or what modifications needed to be made.

Central SD 104 uses some standards based reporting. This month we have formed a committee to examine our assessment reporting procedures and transition toward a more meaningful method of reporting what students know and are able to do. For more information, please contact Central Elementary Principal, Dawn Elser.

Tomlinson, C., & McTighe, J. (2006).  Integrating differentiated instruction and understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.