A view from the classroom: 6 tips for improving assessments so they work better for students and teachers

Like many schools around the country, my K–8 public school in Boston is just now wrapping up end-of-year testing. After taking a long, collective breath, I’m seizing this opportunity to reflect on how K–12 assessment systems are working and ways to improve them. When it comes to testing, and all aspects of teaching and learning, it’s very important to step back and ask hard questions about how well we’re serving students—especially after more than two years of pandemic-related disruptions.

When NWEA offered me the chance to guest blog on Teach. Learn. Grow., I was thrilled. Teacher voices aren’t always reflected in educational decision-making. But the truth is, we have a lot to say and share. I’d like to suggest some important ways education leaders and policymakers can improve assessment systems in our schools.

1. Look at time spent on testing

My sixth graders are tested in some capacity every three weeks or so. That’s a lot, and it’s worth examining whether we’re using our time wisely and in ways that benefit kids.

Our assessments include district interim tests, MAP® Growth™, and end-of-year state tests, not to mention teacher-developed tests to check that students are keeping pace with our instruction. We need to think about how these work cohesively and whether they’re serving our teaching and learning goals, not just fulfilling accountability needs. For example, I’ve been wondering if there are ways to shorten some of our tests or perhaps even combine some subject-matter content into shared assessments.

2. Prioritize instructional alignment

I’d also like to see much more alignment between our tests and our curriculum and instructional pacing. Too often, my students are tested on topics they haven’t been taught yet, and that makes little sense. Just recently I had to say to my kiddos, “You might not know everything on this test, but just try your best.” The look of fear on their faces was crushing. They ended up feeling stressed out and weren’t as successful as they could have been on the assessment. What’s the point of that?

We teachers can help get this right. Just ask us!

This is an issue a lot of teachers are concerned about. I’m part of the National Teacher Leader Council at the nonprofit Educators for Excellence, which recently released a survey showing that teachers from around the country believe the best way to make state assessments more useful is to limit the reporting of results to material teachers have taught.

3. Involve teachers

One way to solve problems related to testing frequency and alignment is to make sure teachers are part of the assessment design process. That can also help ensure that the tests work for students and allow them to show what they know and can do. For example, with a teacher at the table, you might see more:

  • Built-in student breaks
  • Accessibly worded questions
  • Adequate spacing between writing tasks
  • Asset-based reporting of information in small enough slices to empower teachers to deliver targeted interventions

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to re-word questions for students in our curriculum assessments on the spot because they couldn’t decipher what the questions were asking, even when they understood the content. I’ve had so many kids who could explain scientific concepts beautifully in class and then received a poor grade on an assessment because they were stressed or couldn’t properly interpret a question.

We teachers can help get this right. Just ask us!

4. Rethink non-tested subjects and teachers in those classrooms

Massachusetts doesn’t have a summative sixth-grade science test. But that doesn’t mean the subject isn’t vital. It’s imperative that education leaders make this clear, whether we’re talking about science, social studies, or some other subject that may or may not be paired with a high-stakes test every year.

This is certainly not a request for more tests to signal a subject’s importance; rather, it could mean ensuring that you devote time to and elevate things like school productions, art displays, or science fairs, for example. And it definitely means avoiding the kind of drill-and-kill test prep that can take over the entire spring semester in some schools.

In a previous school where I taught, one of my colleagues had to stop science instruction for two whole months so students could get extra test prep in math and reading ahead of the state tests. That wasn’t good for anyone, and educational leaders should avoid creating that kind of situation.

[Teachers] need to stay informed about new research and best practices, and we need to partner with and learn from each other.

This year, I did switch to math instruction for two weeks before our state math test, but that’s okay. Good math students make good science students, and there is plenty of overlap between math and science standards and learning goals. (If curriculum were more integrated in the first place, we’d be teaching these subjects more cohesively, but I digress.) Plus, the math teacher on our team agreed to devote two weeks of post-test learning time to teaching science to make sure I could finish our end-of-year unit on magnets. That kind of teamwork and flexibility is helpful, but pushing instruction aside in a subject for months is never a good idea.

5. Prioritize teacher planning time

Being a teacher requires making sure we keep a learner’s mindset. We need to stay informed about new research and best practices, and we need to partner with and learn from each other. But lately, for many teachers in under-resourced and under-staffed schools, team meetings have gone by the wayside as we cover classrooms, monitor the lunchroom, and keep the bus lines moving. Those are important functions in a school, but education leaders need to protect and prioritize teacher planning time.

It’s also vital that when we have that planning time, school and system leaders give teachers some autonomy and agency over how to use it. Making it overly scripted or, worse, a compliance exercise is not going to produce positive results.

My school has faced pressure to show we’re implementing certain strategies related to analyzing assessment data and addressing what we find. While some of this work is helpful, and I particularly appreciate tools the district has provided us to analyze test results, we have to make sure we’re not being asked to check boxes and fill out reams of documents rather than collaborate with peers.

6. Set aside time for teachers to dig into assessment data with their teams

Many teachers need more meaningful opportunities to learn how to analyze data effectively and use it to inform their instruction. I think school and district leaders may assume we get that in our schools of education, but the truth is that most of us barely scratch the surface of this topic in our programs. Even with in-house training, however, teachers often just don’t have the time to analyze data in a timely fashion with all the other obligations thrown at them.

I know NWEA offers professional learning on a variety of topics, including how to use MAP Growth data. Other assessment providers likely do as well. Teachers need the time to be able to access these trainings and the autonomy and time to adopt it for their classrooms.

Looking forward

As we close out another extraordinary school year, I’m grateful for the assessments we have at my school and the role they play in helping me be a better teacher. But I’m equally grateful for the opportunity to reflect on how we can make them better and ensure they’re serving their primary purpose: letting us know how students are doing and how we can further support them in reaching their full potential.

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