The value of assessments: A conversation with NWEA and Illinois’ LUDA

At NWEA, we have many in-depth conversations about the role and purpose of assessments with our district partners, state and federal leaders, and other key members of the educational community.

I recently had a chance to sit in on a discussion with our CEO, Chris Minnich, and John Burkey, the executive director of Illinois’ Large Unit District Association (LUDA). The conversation focused on how assessments can support educators in understanding where kids are in their learning and influence their instructional approaches to ensure that everyone in their class has a chance to succeed. Illinois is undergoing a major review of its state system for both accountability and instructional assessments. John wanted Chris’s perspectives on several questions being asked in his state.

The following are the highlights of that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

John: Can you talk a bit about the main types of assessment and what their individual purposes are?

Chris: I’ll start with accountability assessments, which are given at the end of the school year and are designed to let schools and districts know how kids are doing from a systems-wide level. Are kids meeting the standards? Are they falling short? Is there an upward trend in performance? A downward one? Accountability assessments provide a very big picture that informs educational leaders on the effectiveness of programs and systemic approaches to education. They’re not really designed to influence day-to-day, in-the-moment instruction.

Interim assessments, like MAP® Growth™, tend to be given three times a year, in the fall, winter, and spring. They give teachers really good data about what students know and what opportunity gaps each student may be experiencing. This information gives teachers the opportunity to adjust their instruction to help all kids learn.

Formative assessments are ungraded, in-the-moment checks that teachers do throughout the day so they can make even more adjustments to their teaching. We have several useful blog posts about formative assessment here on Teach. Learn. Grow. Readers can take a look at our formative assessment category.

John: In your view, what isn’t working about assessment?

Chris: The three types of assessment I just described should add up to a coherent solution for teachers, and right now, they don’t.

One of the things I think we’ve blurred, following No Child Left Behind, is our understanding of accountability assessment and instructional assessment. We’ve tried to say, “Oh, the state test can be instructionally helpful to teachers.” But in reality, the data reaches teachers too late to be useful in instructional planning.

The three types of assessment […] should add up to a coherent solution for teachers, and right now, they don’t.

We must be clear about the purpose of those end-of-year tests and stop blurring those lines. Blurry purposes of these assessments mean we’ve ended up with more tests and little else. It means that we have a lot of data on kids, but that’s it.

John: How is NWEA trying to make assessment “add up,” as you say?

Chris: We’ve been working with districts in Illinois and across the country to look at how we make sure assessment data is used in a way that actually moves students forward.

Assessment should create opportunity, not limit the amount of opportunity students have. That’s a big thing for me and for NWEA, and I know it’s a big thing for you, too.  We need to create an environment where assessments are creating more opportunity. They need to be answering questions like, “What’s the next step for this student?”

That’s precisely what we’re trying to address in Illinois. As you know, a little over half the students in Illinois take MAP Growth. So we have a really broad dataset on how students are doing there, and that can help us begin to answer that question.

So, what are we doing to change things? Well, we’ve almost doubled the amount of professional learning we’re doing in the state, and I think that’s an important piece that ties to what’s broken. Teachers shouldn’t just think, “I send my kids to the computer lab. I get scores back. I send scores to families. The end.” Professional learning can help them understand exactly what to do with that data.

John: LUDA is advocating for a very clear separation between accountability assessment and interim assessment. It’s important that interim assessments don’t turn into high-stakes events. What are your thoughts on the role of interim assessments in accountability?

Chris: We’ve seen MAP Growth used for teacher evaluation purposes, and that’s not its intended purpose. Using growth data for students is an important part of an evaluation conversation with a teacher, but like everything, you need to really think about multiple measures.

Districts should also be held accountable for every student growing. I think most superintendents I talk to say that’s a goal they could sign up for.

John: One of the things we all know as educators is that we have some great inequities in performance in our schools. There is criticism that the standardized testing system only amplifies these inequities. Can you speak to this?

Chris: I think it’s important to acknowledge the past. I would also add that just simply turning off the flashlight and saying, “Well, because of that, we’re just not going to do any of this,” would create a situation where we don’t know how schools are doing, especially with kids who have traditionally been left out of the good instruction in our country. That’s why I’m pretty passionate about assessment.

There are too many kids, some of them Black and Brown, who have been left out of good instructional practices. They get to the end of their academic career, and we all wonder why they aren’t achieving at the same level. It’s because we haven’t paid attention to what the data is telling us. It’s not enough just to assess students; we actually have to do something about what’s going on. That means investments need to follow.

John: When I was a superintendent, I used an interim assessment in my district and it really gave us a means to work with our subgroups of students and understand where they were, and then take it to that next level, to help kids. Implementation of an assessment—in particular, what you do with the data after you have it—is probably as important, if not more important, than the assessment itself. What do you think?

Chris: Exactly. And schools have to have a plan. Some of the most successful districts that work with us, the ones that really embrace MAP Growth, do professional learning with their teachers before they even start administering assessments.

Assessment should create opportunity, not limit the amount of opportunity students have.

There are so many districts in Illinois in particular that are using MAP Growth data to drive better performance for teachers and kids, and that’s really what we want. We’re not in the business of gotcha moments. We want assessment conversations to be more about asking questions like, “Hey, do you notice that this group of kids is really struggling with fractions?” or “Do you notice that in this school, we might need a different academic program for this topic?” That’s when we’re winning. That’s when we know, as educators, that we’re doing something different.

John: Many of the districts that I work with in Illinois are involved in a competency-based education pilot. Are you doing any work in that area, or are you able to help districts that want to look at assessment in a different way, particularly a competency-based system?

Chris: MAP Growth is pretty well designed for a competency-based approach. It’s not specific to grade level, and the questions are designed to adapt to wherever students are. Anyone experimenting with a competency-based approach needs an assessment that won’t simply assess grade level. It needs to be able to go above and below grade level to show exactly where students are. MAP Growth can do that.

I would also say the key for us, as we think about that, is to not just let students languish below a certain level in their academic career. Competency-based approaches are so important because they drive student engagement and goal setting. Those are both important things.

NWEA also supports policy, at the state and federal level, that helps schools set up a competency-based system where schools aren’t penalized for trying that approach and where they’re supported in keeping high expectations for all their kids.

John: If a school district comes to you and says, “Would you come in and design something that works for us?” do you say, “Yes!”

Chris: Yes. We’re very flexible about the approach a school or district can take with us. We start by making it clear that we’re built on growth, that seeing kids grow is what we’re all about. From there, the conversations are about helping educators understand where students are starting from.

We would probably start a conversation with a superintendent or a curriculum assessment director with questions like, “What do you want things to look like in a year? How do you want things to go in the early reading space? How do you want them to go in mathematics? What are your current plans for meeting your goals?”

John: Let’s talk about superintendents for a minute. Superintendents, for the most part, know a fair amount about assessment, but most are not assessment experts. What questions do they need to be asking their teams about assessment and about implementing assessment?

Chris: If I were sitting in a superintendency, I would worry less about the technicalities of assessment and much more about what I’m trying to accomplish in my community, as well as what story I want to tell our community through my assessment data.

I would start by asking, what information do I need about my students to know we’re being successful?

I would also like to know, where did my students start the year and where did they end the year? That’s where something like an interim assessment comes in. I would go beyond assessment data as well, beyond what a state test can tell me. As a superintendent, you need to care deeply about what story your data tells your community. You can’t let someone else tell your story.

One final thing that’s really important is how well kids are doing with social-emotional learning. If our kids aren’t thriving mentally and aren’t able to show up and be successful, the academics really don’t matter. You can’t get to academics if you don’t have an engaged, healthy, strong student.

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