Leading for Assessment Literacy – Q&A with Bill Rhoades

Dr. Bill RhoadesDr. Bill Rhoades has served as superintendent of the West Linn-Wilsonville School district (WLWV) in Oregon since 2011. Prior to this he was an assistant superintendent in the Hillsboro and Bend-La Pine School Districts. As superintendent, Dr. Rhoades has led efforts to create learning communities to support instructional leadership, advance standards-based professional development, and implement culturally responsive teaching and program models. During his tenure, WLWV has maintained one of the top graduation rates for districts its size in Oregon and has increased the number of AP course offerings in its high schools to 27.

How do you define assessment literacy?

The purpose of assessment should be, above all, to support the improvement of teaching and learning. To me, being assessment literate means knowing how to:

  • define clear learning goals and targets
  • develop and use a variety of assessments to gather evidence of learning
  • analyze data and make valid inferences from the results
  • provide good feedback
  • use assessment data to modify instruction
  • involve students in the assessment process
  • communicate results

And maybe most important, knowing how to develop assessment systems that motivate students to learn. Rick Stiggins used to ask the question, “How could we build an assessment system that no one would want to miss?”

Did you find any of the data around assessment literacy in the Make Assessment Matter report surprising? Did it reflect your own experiences with knowledge of assessment?

I was not necessarily surprised by the findings in the report AND the data did affirm my experiences with our general knowledge and use of assessment. I have been fortunate in that I have been working in and with districts that were motivated and interested in improving the quality of their assessment and data systems.  There was a sense that we could do better, and a sense that we could benefit from the ongoing study of quality assessment practices.

Common across the districts I have been working with has been a sense that we had not taken as much time in the development of assessment literacy and quality assessment practices as we had spent on curriculum alignment and instructional strategy development. External accountability systems were increasingly exerting pressure on school systems.  Building assessment literacy allows us a greater internal locus of control in generating, organizing, and using our results.

In your opinion, what are two key outcomes of having an “assessment literate” teacher corps?

Assessments should inform our instructional decisions, and empower and motivate students.  As collaborative work focused on using data to inform instruction has increased among teachers and school leaders (PLCs, Data Teams, etc.) there has been more opportunity to understand the thinking and assumptions behind the “instructional moves” made based on the results of our assessments. Occasionally, in efforts to become efficient at generating, collecting, organizing, using data, teams may sometimes try to “stretch” the use of a particular assessment to make instructional decisions that the assessment was really not designed to guide. An example may be the use of a universal screening tool to establish student ability groups or to infer an instructional need that would really require more diagnostic measures or deeper analysis. Understanding the effect of an assessment on student motivation can improve our decision -making and importantly student performance for all children.

It is important to understand the limitations of a given assessment. Building assessment literacy around the purpose of given assessments gives us important permissions. We can allow the data to cause more questions than answers – and this results in more efficient actions based on the results. Assessment should first do no harm and ultimately the results should empower and motivate children and teachers.

You have done considerable work around the issue of learning for non-English speaking students. What are the implications of assessments that matter for these special populations?

Developing assessment literacy has been critical for our work in support of emerging bilingual students. Assessments designed for and normed with predominantly English speaking students may not accurately measure the skills and knowledge of students who are learning English as a second language. Understanding the relationships between the assessments and the specific background and needs of the learner can help us improve the judgments and subsequent decisions we make.

On the other hand, I have worked with some schools that have been keenly aware of the dangers of misusing assessment data and have avoided using information available for fear the data would be used in ways that would be evaluative, judgmental, and hurtful to children and schools. Increasing assessment literacy has resulted in increased understanding and confidence in using data appropriately and has supported results oriented decisions at all levels of the system.

What experiences or trainings have been particularly helpful to you in understanding the effective use of assessments and assessment data?

I have been fortunate to have had some very smart and passionate colleagues to support my learning. Along with their coaching they involved me in trainings, institutes, and ongoing work with leaders like Rick Stiggins, Dylan Wiliam, Steve Chappuis,  Bob Marzano, Doug Reeves, and Tom Guskey. My aspiration is still to answer Stiggin’s question and make an assessment system that is so motivating no student would want to miss it.

Ultimately, my doctoral research at the University of Oregon was an assessment study. During that time I had the opportunity to study and explore assessment practices as they related to bilingual learners under the guidance of national leaders of research in the field of assessment.

How do you think districts can better support teachers’ assessment literacy?

I think teachers are assessing and monitoring learning all the time and, consciously or unconsciously, they make important adjustments in their instruction based on the feedback they receive. Establishing the important role assessment plays in teaching and learning is important. I believe that teachers want to cause more students to learn more every day and that they are more than willing to engage in growing their professional practice in ways they believe will make a difference for children. Adopting a framework and/or guiding principles for quality assessment is a place I might start this work. Teachers could work collaboratively to establish and build on the quality assessment practices they already have in place and they could use the framework to establish their needs and priorities for growth.  It is important for districts to support principals in leading this work.

In our district we are making time to go back to assessment literacy basics.  We feel this is particularly important as our state transitions into a new system of standards, assessment, and professional growth and evaluation. We are clearly identifying the formative, interim, and summative assessments currently used in our district and we are “walking through” the purpose of each. We are adopting a “first do no harm” approach to the use of our data, understanding that student motivation and empowerment are important outcomes. As a district we have adopted principles and practices to develop Carol Dweck’s  “growth mindset” thinking in our children and we consider our assessment practices one of the keys to whether children persist or give up.

We are also working to understand the role of assessment in developing culturally responsive teaching practices.  It has been helpful to develop assessment literacy around the potential bias in our assessments, allowing us to use standardized assessments more productively, and importantly, to develop more accurate classroom assessments.