As a high school teacher, I used an array of diverse assessments to measure and evaluate student achievement and success. Many varied components would go into each student’s grades and narratives – test and quiz results, the quality of projects, writings and self-reflections, observations of students, and judgments regarding effort, growth, and class participation. Given the multiple student cognitive abilities, attitudes, character traits, and strengths and problems, it would have been foolish of me to use only one type of measure to determine a students’ success in my class.
Given that multiple types of assessments such as the ones I used above are used by most teachers, one would expect that appropriate, multiple assessment approaches would be also used to assess school and district success. Thus, it is surprising that “one size fits all” standardized tests, with their major emphasis on multiple choice-short answer questions, are touted as the major, and often the only way to judge school success, student achievement, and even teacher effectiveness.
Unfortunately, the sole use of these traditional tests pose many problems for assessing actual student knowledge, skills, abilities, talents and interests. First, many educators and lay people suggest that standardized tests often do not do a good job of measuring the purported skills associated with them. For example, as recently pointed out by a New York State teacher in a NY Times op-ed piece, the New York English Language Arts test questions do “a poor job of testing reading comprehension”. A student’s answers to the questions on this test have “little bearing on [his or her] reading ability and yet [have] huge stakes for students, teachers, principals and schools”[i]. Some students also might be good readers but do poorly on the reading test because of their poor test-taking skills.
Second, standardized tests have limited use in evaluating whether students have learned many of the most important skills required for college work or for living in a 21st century world, such as interest in learning, motivation to learn, research and study skills, coherent writing abilities, effective oral communication skills, project and problem-based development skills, problem finding and question asking, the ability to apply learning to authentic situations, scientific investigation skills, “deep” thinking, student “grit”, and the development of each individual student’s talents and abilities.
In addition, the tests usually provide schools and teachers with limited, if any, feedback to help them figure out how to improve teaching and learning. And, unfortunately, they also have a number of negative side effects, such as increasing sterile test-prep activities, narrowing the curriculum, increasing student anxiety and frustrations, and reducing student interest in learning. Many of our best teachers write about how the emphasis on testing plays havoc with their curriculum, the interest and motivation of their students, and their joy of teaching. Some have even left the teaching profession altogether because of their school or district emphasis on preparing for standardized tests.
As opposition to the use of these tests increases, and a greater understanding of their limitations and negative consequences develops, it is imperative that opponents to standardized testing suggest alternatives. In fact, there should be many varied assessments used to determine school and district success, just as there are many and varied types of educational goals, results, and students. This is a very different paradigm from the “one size fits all” standardized testing results model of measuring success. So, described briefly below are some examples of types of measures that might be combined into an assessment plan useful for judging district and school success, student achievement, and the school or district conditions that limit or reinforce success. The first number of measures are designed to measure output – achievement and successes of students, their involvement and participation in multiple types of activities, perceptions of stakeholders in how the school is meeting their needs, and so on. The second set of measures focus on input: characteristics of student population, conditions under which students learn, amount of resources available, the quality of curriculum and teaching, and others.
Achievement, Successes, Activity Involvement, and Perceptions
Student graduation data
What do students do when they graduate, where do they go and how successful are they both during their time with us and after they leave us?
In analyzing school success, data should be regularly collected on the % of students who graduate and what they do after graduation (types and names of colleges and universities attended, financial aid obtained, military enlistees, technical school attendees, etc.); what % of those who attend college graduate and why do they drop out; college majors. Student data also should include surveys and interviews with graduates to find out their levels of satisfaction with their K-12 school programs;
Mission-related achievement data
How well do our students meet the mission of our school or district?
Student data should be collected and analyzed that demonstrate achievement and success based on mission-related goals. For example, a school specializing in the visual arts might collect data on the type of artwork students complete and a sampling of student portfolios; a school with an emphasis on music may focus assessments around the types of student performances given by students and the skill level of its music students. Vo-Tech schools might collect data on the types of training received by each student, their post high school plans and career goals, their job placements and acceptance levels into advanced programs.
Report card results
How successful are our students, based on the results of their daily and yearly work?
We know that the best predictors of student achievement and success lie with how well students do in their classes and in the recommendations of teachers and others in the school. We therefore need to make sure that each school or district develop specific, “standards-based” report cards, built around measures of 21st century goals, that reflect how well students succeed and grow in their classes and courses. Report cards should be broken down into specific cognitive and social expectations, with ratings that use levels of achievement as well as grades. Narrative comments convey specific information to parents-guardians about the strengths of individual children and areas that need improvement.
Report card data can be summarized to provide a picture of how well the school or district is doing to meet the needs of its students. Randomly selected report cards, along with narrative comments, can also be collected and shared.
Cornerstone-graduation project(s) results
How well do our students complete “cornerstone” projects that both develop and assess core 21st century skills?
Cornerstone projects consist of research projects and “authentic” performance tasks that culminate in presentations and exhibitions and demonstrate in-depth understanding of ideas, the ability to use 21st century skills, and the ability to transfer and apply learning. Students who are able to develop questions around their interests or suggested topics, conduct research, read and comprehend, write essays and research papers, and make presentations to others demonstrate an understanding of content and competence in using significant skills.
Cornerstone project results at different school levels demonstrate progress towards the development of these skills as well as final mastery of them.
Student plans for the future
What are student plans for the future?
Every student should be required to develop a plan for his or her future, indicating their next steps after graduating from high school and their more visionary goals for the future. Part of the development of a plan should include research about future educational goals, career options and choices. A summary of these plans is an important indicator of school and district success.
What is the comprehensive nature of individual student work?
Portfolios - collections of student work - help us to assess actual student work and incorporate “real learning” into the assessment process, not the artificial, “out of context” kind of learning assessed through standardized tests. Portfolios are also individualized and customized to demonstrate an individual’s nuanced and varied skill levels, talents, abilities, and interests. Today, with Internet capability, an individual student’s best writing and/or artwork, project results, tests, self-reflections, plans for the future, and other student work can be scanned and placed electronically into portfolios.
Students should be asked to develop portfolios of their work throughout their K-12 experience. Sample portfolios, or parts of portfolios, can be used to illustrate the types of work students are doing within the school or district, and how well a school or district is helping students master key 21st century knowledge and skills.
Survey-focus group data
What do parents, students and teachers think about us?
In this day and age of the Internet, it is relatively easy to develop, post, and summarize survey data. Every school and district should collect data from parents, students and teachers at least once a year, and then use the data to review its programs, applaud its strengths, and figure out ways to improve what it does[ii].
What do graduates and dropouts think about us?
Once students leave school and move on to colleges and other post high-school experiences, they have greater perspective on their experiences and can often provide valuable insights into the strengths of a school program and “needs improvement” areas. Data from graduates should be sought after, even if it is often difficult to collect.
Attempts should be made to collect and analyze data from dropouts, even if this data might be difficult to collect, in order to indicate why they dropped out of school and therefore suggest ways to help other students stay in school.
How do students view our school? What do they see as our positive and negative features?
Students who will be leaving one school to go to another school within the district (e.g. from elementary to middle school) or leaving a school to transfer to a school outside the district, or graduating from high school should be the focus of special attention when it comes to surveys and data collection. These students should be asked to reflect on their school experiences and focus on what they perceive as the strengths of the school they are leaving, the major learnings resulting from their school experiences, and suggestions for improving their learning experience. This data should be collected, analyzed and shared.
Community service and field-based activities
What are our students’ opportunities to connect with and apply their learning to the outside world?
How do students provide service to the community? How do students connect with the outside world via field trips, career days, and so on? How do outside individuals and groups provide services to and work with students within a school? These and other similar questions should be part of data collection that is shared and used to provide feedback on connections to real world, outside resources.
Extra-curricular, support, or enrichment activities
What opportunities are there for students to participate in extra-curricular, support and enrichment activities? How much do our students take advantage of extra-curricula, support and enrichment activities?
“Extra curricular” activities provide opportunities for students to explore and learn about a variety of options that are beyond academics. What extra-curricular activities are available? Data should be available that indicates which students are partake of which extra-curricular activities, and how often they do so.
In a similar vein, are their support and enrichment activities available for students? Data should indicate which students participate in these and why.
Conditions, Culture, Teaching, Curriculum, Resources,
School and district student population, resource availability and conditions
What are the characteristics of our student population? What resources do we have available to support our teachers and students? What school or district conditions help or hinder us in meeting achievement goals?
This data helps us to understand the characteristics of the school, district and student population, and resource adequacy, needs problems and challenges. The data include information about student populations, such as ELL, special education, identified gifted populations; the number of students on free or reduced lunch. Other data includes the % of students who drop out of a school or district before graduation and the reasons why they leave; % who are “lifers” within the same school or district, % of students who are absent 10 or more days a year, % of students given suspensions and other discipline data, and mobility rates.
District and school information include, among other things, resources available for technology, supplies, materials and other needs; class sizes; adequacy of library-media centers, art-music, and extra curricular programs; and support personnel available (NTA’s, nurses, counselors, community laiasons).
Curricular programs and instructional activities
What are the common types of curricular programs and instructional activities used in classrooms?
One part of a school or district assessment plan might include examples of the kinds of curriculum, teaching and learning experiences that are incorporated into classrooms and other activities. Suppose, for example, that the school or district promotes inquiry learning. Do teachers in the district use an inquiry learning model in their classrooms? If yes, what does learning look like? What are the essential features of the mathematical curriculum? The reading-language arts curriculum? Are there any special programs in place (e.g. leveled books, writing process, deep learning, competitions) that provide the opportunity for a different type of learning experience for students?
School and program reviews
How can we increase the amount of “objective” assessment data in order to determine our successes and improve our programs?
When I was on the staff of the Bucks County Intermediate Unit, an educational service agency in Bucks County, PA, we conducted a number of program reviews for our constituent districts each year. We would enlist a number of teachers, administrators, and experts from across the county and the area to spend three days in a district examining and analyzing all or part of the district’s program. Our final report would list the strengths and needs of the program, and also make suggested recommendations for improving the program.
These types of reviews are extremely valuable for a school or district, especially since an outside agency is conducting the review. It provide a wealth of objective information and data, along with suggestions for improvement, that help to assess a program and provide the impetus for making changes.
Building a Comprehensive Assessment Plan (CAP)
Just as we should expect teachers to build a comprehensive assessment plan to measure student success and achievement in their classes, so should we expect schools and districts to build a Comprehensive Assessment Plan (CAP) that measures both output and input: a broad array of types of achievement, successes, involvement, perceptions, conditions, culture, and resources. The plan should both assess student achievement, growth, and development, and also be useful in improving school conditions and success in the future.
The selection of a set of a core set of assessments, built into a Comprehensive Assessment Plan, may be best determined by each school or district, depending on its resources, options, and viewpoints. My own view is that a combination of student population and school and district conditions-resource data, strong report card and student portfolio data, cornerstone project results, and surveys of and reflections from current students and graduates will provide significant and important data on how well a school or district is doing as well as the conditions under which schools, districts and teachers operate.
In today’s world of e-mails, Internet surveys, smartphones, computers, tablets, much of this data would be relatively easy to collect. Many of these measures, taken together, can become part of a holistic school-district annual report card, presented by a principal or superintendent to school boards and available to the general public. They can be used to identify problems that need to be addressed. They present a much more nuanced picture of how well a school is doing, the qualities of student graduates, what issues a school or district are facing, and what steps need to be taken to improve the results.
Unfortunately, a broad, varied array of assessment data just doesn’t get collected and developed by itself. A school or district needs to assign someone who is responsible for the development, collection, and analysis of this complex data. The person responsible might even be part of a collaborative, regional effort. The development of this more comprehensive approach will also take time to develop, and a long-term goal should be to enable every school and district to develop a significant assessment process for judging success with students and the conditions and resources necessary for success.
How Federal and State Officials Can Help This Assessment Process
Here are some ways that state and federal officials can provide support for a the use of a much more comprehensive assessment process:
- Encourage schools and districts to collect and synthesize a wide variety of data, provide funding, resources and examples to help them;
- Provide examples and models of report cards, surveys, cornerstone assessments, portfolios, and the like. Provide the technical means for collecting and analyzing data from these examples and models.
- Provide support for school, district, or regionally-based individuals to be hired to build assessment systems, organize data collection, and prepare summary reports around data.
- Encourage schools and districts to develop their own mix of data alone or collaboratively with others, develop new measures, and share their methodology with others;
- Forbid the use of a single number to describe a school or district’s success;
- Encourage the development of data summaries that are easy to understand and posted for the community to see;
- Encourage schools and districts to develop a wide variety of ways to use data as feedback and to experiment and find solutions to problems that arise from the data, including curriculum adaptations, community liaisons, ways to motivate students to stay in school, and so on.
- Encourage high performing schools and districts to share what they do that makes them high performing, especially when they have a significant number of students that need special help and attention.
- Provide support for professional development that enables staff to review and draw conclusions from data; encourage professional development to develop potential solutions to problems discovered through data collection.
- Encourage school and district experimentation with potential solutions, even if they lead to failure (that’s how we learn).
Ultimately, a trust in a decentralized assessment process, a belief in the value of multiple, diverse assessments to measure school and district success, along with a combination of strong leadership at all levels, will provide the necessary impetus to move us away from the primary reliance on standardized tests to assess student, school and teacher success. We should be moving towards the use of varied sets of data that provide nuanced, helpful pictures of success and student achievement and help to improve the conditions of learning. Let us hope that we move in the right direction soon, because the current direction is leading us away from the kinds of education that our students need to prepare for living in a 21st century world.
Elliott Seif, Ph.D. is a long time educator, author, consultant, educational advocate, and trainer. If you are interested in further examining ways to improve teaching and learning and help to prepare students to live in a 21st century world, read more his blogs on ASCD Edge and go to: www.era3learning.org
[i] Elizabeth Phillips, We Need to Talk About the Test: The Problem With the Common Core, The New York Times op-ed page, April 9, 2014.
[ii] A High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) is available free of charge from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. Go to: