Assessment Literacy – A Back-to-School Priority for All

Friday, August 7, 2015 -- Ketsia Hamilton

Over the last seven years, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration have been working diligently on four main education reform efforts:

1. Adopt college-and-career-ready standards and high-quality, valid and reliable assessments for all students.

2. Develop and use pre-K through post-secondary and career data systems.

3. Increase teacher effectiveness and ensure equitable distribution of qualified teachers.

4. Turn around the lowest-performing schools.

While there has been an abundance of public discourse around college-and-career standards and Common Core assessments, there has also been a steady, albeit quieter, initiative to improve the quality of America’s teaching force. These efforts have included overhauling teacher evaluation systems and taking a closer look at teacher preparation programs, with a particular focus on how they address assessment literacy.

During the 2015 National Conference on Student Assessment (NCSA), I attended a thought provoking symposium on assessment literacy. The conversation extended beyond educators in the classroom to include students, parents, news media, test publishers, and policymakers, all of whom are stakeholders in the age of increased accountability in education. Rick Stiggins, founder of the Assessment Training Institute, moderated the presentation and defined assessment literacy as “an understanding of how to (a) gather dependable evidence and (b) use assessment productively whether in a formative or summative context.”  He cautioned that when stakeholders are not assessment literate, there can be several negative impacts on educational outcomes, the most critical being failure to effectively use assessments to maximize student success. In this blog post, we will examine current efforts to build assessment literacy for educators, students, and parents.

Assessment Literacy for Educators

With increased emphasis being placed on the ability of schools to create a balanced and robust system of assessments and the importance of data-driven decision making, it is imperative that both novice and veteran teachers are knowledgeable regarding assessment literacy. Effective instruction requires that teachers have a well-grounded sense of student proficiency in order to make instructional decisions, including making accurate judgments in the midst of interactions with students and lesson planning for the next day, the next unit, or the entire school year.  

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) defines assessment literacy as: “an understanding of the taxonomy of assessment and a familiarity with the different types of classrooms and standardized assessment.”

While this definition seems relatively straightforward, in reality, there are many layers to what should be expected of teachers to meet this competency. The taxonomy of assessment in and of itself is a challenging topic, but is also absolutely essential. For example, teachers may understand the differences of norm-referenced, criterion-referenced, formal, informal, formative, summative, diagnostic, performance, selected response, open response, and portfolio assessments. However, they need to be able to organize these assessments along dimensions such as purpose (formative vs. summative), approach (authentic vs. traditional), and scoring (norm-referenced vs. criterion-referenced). Additionally, teachers need to understand how validity and reliability issues connect to these categorizations.

The NCTQ released a report ranking teacher preparation programs nationwide in which one of the primary research questions was How adequately does coursework address “Assessment Literacy”? The findings indicated that more than half the programs evaluated had no, very limited, or limited coverage of assessment literacy. In addition, the research evaluated How adequately does program coursework address “Analytical Skills”? and How adequately does teacher preparation program coursework address “Instructional Decision Making”? The overall results concluded that only 3 percent of the programs in the sample covered assessment adequately, therefore demonstrating the tremendous opportunity that exists to improve teacher prep programs around K–12 assessment. This infographic from the report illustrates the findings:

NCTQ Teacher Preparation Report Findings

As a result of these findings, the NCTQ has several recommendations to improve the quality of teacher preparation programs for assessment literacy. Ideas include federal legislative policy, more specific allocations of Title II funds, and local school districts administering pedagogical tests on assessment knowledge as a condition of hiring.

Additionally, by 2017, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards will include a focus on assessment literacy for national teacher certification. Through a portfolio entry under the certification component titled “Effective and Reflective Practitioner,” candidates will be required to demonstrate evidence of:

• How he or she assesses

• How he or she meets the needs of students as a group

• How he or she uses understanding of student needs over time to have a positive impact throughout their learning communities.

These efforts demonstrate the commitment of advancing assessment literacy for educators as crucial to demonstrating effectiveness and positively impacting student achievement.

Assessment Literacy for Students

The Michigan Assessment Consortium (MAC) offers very thoughtful leadership and approaches to assessment literacy for all.  The MAC believes that quality education depends on accurate, balanced, and meaningful assessment, and part of its tenants to improve educational results relies on schools to:

1. Adopt standards and educator curriculum for assessment literacy

2. Improve assessment literacy and skill among educators

3. Implement formative assessment practices to balance assessment

4. Embrace assessment as a positive tool to guide teaching and learning.

The organization has developed sets of standards to address assessment literacy at multiple levels. The use of formative and summative assessments that students experience in a balanced assessment system gives them opportunity to gain competency and demonstrate mastery of standards, but they should also be keenly aware of how different assessments can impact their educational success.

The MAC defines standards for elementary and secondary learners through three main components:  Dispositions, Knowledge, and Performance.  Some example elements from the Assessment Literacy Standards are:

Elementary students should believe that they: Learn best when they know the targets for their learning.

Secondary students should know: That different types of assessments provide different types information about what they know and can do.

Elementary students should know how to: Explain their assessment results to their teachers and their parents/guardians.

Secondary students should know how to: Use multiple sources of data over time to identify trends in their learning.

Teachers support students with inquiry and application of the standards. Students demonstrating competency of these standards are likely to be successful learners who meet achievement goals. 

Assessment Literacy for Parents

Parents have become increasingly vocal in education policy, especially in the area of standards and assessment. Opting out of standardized assessments and joining organizations pushing for change in state assessment policies indicate a new level of parental involvement that can serve as a catalyst for change within educational institutions. 

The National Assessment Governing Board has taken on the challenge of developing an assessment literacy campaign for parents. The Assessment Literacy Initiative Strategic Communications Plan for Parents outlines the launch of a public awareness campaign to increase parents’ understanding of educational assessments. The campaign goal is to provide parents with information about assessments that will allow them to ask meaningful questions and evaluate, interpret, and use assessment results accurately. The campaign will be rolled out over several years, with engagement increasing over time. Early phases of the project’s implementation will include finalizing messages, developing a website and toolkit materials, and conducting initial outreach to build relationships with collaborators. Subsequent phases will launch the campaign nationally and disseminate materials to parents through grassroots networks, social media, and events with collaborator organizations.

The campaign focuses on five Understandings that are critical for parents’ assessment literacy:

1. Evidence for Interpretations and Uses. Educational tests are used for different purposes, and those purposes should be clear. Consumers of test information should be provided with clear descriptions of how to interpret and use test scores as well as evidence supporting the appropriateness of those interpretations and uses.

2. Accuracy of Test Scores. Because test scores are only estimates of students’ intellectual skills and knowledge, neither of which is observable, it is important to employ multiple sources of information when reaching a decision based on a student’s test performance.

3. Fairness. Assessments must be developed, administered, scored, and reported in ways that are fair for all students.

4. Variations in Test Quality. Educational tests, both teacher-made classroom assessments and large-scale standardized tests, can vary in quality. Tests should be accompanied by persuasive evidence supporting their accuracy, appropriateness, and fairness.

5. Assessments to Improve Teaching and Learning. Classroom assessments will substantially improve students’ progress when used to help determine if adjustments are needed in how teachers are teaching or in how students are learning.

Laying a firm foundation in assessment literacy by providing parents with accurate information through a variety of outreach efforts will empower them to be advocates able to drive meaningful conversations on how to support educators and students within the instructional practice.

The importance of assessment literacy for all education stakeholders—teachers, administrators, students, parents, and policymakers—will continue to be an important initiative affecting teaching, learning, and educational outcomes. What’s more, there is momentum for reform efforts from multiple stakeholders. As educators head back to school this fall, establishing goals around assessment literacy should be a primary focus that can help lead to better results and improved school accountability.

Interested in hearing more about what the Edmentum team learned at this year's National Conference on Student Assessment? Check out last week's post on competency-based assessment!

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