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The Student Assessment Outlook

by Jefferson Burnett, Amada Torres, and Whitney Work Issue: Taking Measure

As debates rage on over education reform, assessments are a hot-button issue, not just for educators but also for parents and policymakers. The creation of the Common Core State Standards and the subsequent development of the two primary assessment tools that launched in the 2014–2015 school year have kicked off a new flurry of media coverage and debate about student assessments not seen since the early years of No Child Left Behind.

Spurred in part by concerns about US students’ preparedness for college and career, as well as their ability to compete with peers from around the world, educators and policymakers have reinvigorated efforts to make changes to K–12 academic standards to get the American education system back on track. Test developers, including the College Board, ACT, ERB and others, are quickly following the lead, working to reconfigure their assessment tools to keep up with the new standards.

Given the increased focus on student assessment from accreditors, data-hungry parents, and others in the education community, school leaders will be better equipped to strengthen their academic programs if they are conversant with the tools available to evaluate different aspects of their students’ learning experience.

The Increasing Need to Demonstrate Student Outcomes

Traditionally, schools have assessed students (and indirectly schools) for three primary reasons: accountability, instructional adjustment, and mission fidelity (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Reasons for Assessing

Assessment instruments can also provide information to address the new demands from the marketplace. School choice options have expanded in the last several years, with charter schools in particular growing at an ex­ponential rate (see publiccharters.org) and being perceived as a high-quality alternative not only to public schools but also to private schools. In addition, the growth in independent school tuitions above the cost of living has left many families doubting their ability to afford them and question­ing whether independent schools are worth the financial sacrifice. This is similar to what colleges and universities are experiencing: gone are the days when the name and the reputation of a school were indication enough of the quality education it was providing. There is a stronger demand from parents, the media and the public at large for information and data that can attest to the value of an independent school education.

Another reason for collecting data on student outcomes in a more sys­tematic way is school accreditation. In February 2009, the NAIS Commis­sion on Accreditation adopted Criterion 13 as part of its standards (see naiscoa.org):

The standards require a school to provide evidence of a thoughtful process, respectful of its mission, for the collection and use in school decision-making of data (both internal and external) about student learning.

Similarly, Criterion 12 requires schools to conduct a thought­ful assessment of individual student progress consistent with the school’s mission.

Given these criteria for the accreditation of independent schools and the constituency demands for more transparency and accountability, indepen­dent schools will need to clearly articulate the difference they make in their students’ lives and how distinctive and compelling their value proposition is compared with other school options. Instruments that assess student out­comes offer schools the option to obtain this information.

The Emergence of New Types of Assessments beyond Standardized Testing

The conversation about preparing students successfully for college and ca­reer was ignited by the publication in 1983 of A Nation at Risk: The Impera­tive for Educational Reform. This report from the National Commission on Excellence in Education effectively launched the education reform move­ment that has taken us from state standards and tests to No Child Left Behind and now to the Common Core State Standards and their associated assessments. A recurring theme has been that schools have not prepared students well academically or developed the essential competencies—creativity, adaptability and global awareness—that now make up our understanding of 21st century skills. What has changed significantly along the way is that business and government leaders (and even parents) have begun to seek outcomes from graduates that are not just core academic knowledge but encompass these new competencies (see Measuring 21st Century Competencies, asiasociety.org).

The growing choice in assessment tools provides schools with a robust array of measurement options: summative, formative, or both, and cognitive, interpersonal, or intrapersonal. Deciding which tool(s) to use will depend on what needs to be measured and why. The ERB, SSAT and SAT serve a purpose (often, but not exclusively, used for admission) that is different from the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP, individual student growth), the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE, student school experience and engagement), the College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA+, critical thinking), or the Mission Skills Assessment (MSA, inter/ intrapersonal competencies).

What is very clear is that the era of the “bubble test” is waning (see “Beyond the Bubble Tests,” remarks by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at ed.gov/news/speeches). Spurred on by the significant federal investment in two consortia, PARCC and Smarter Balanced, that offer assessments to evaluate students participating in the Common Core, evaluation of student accomplishment will be based not just on academic content but on what skills and competencies have been mastered to thrive in the economy and society of today and tomorrow.

Assessment and the Common Core in Independent Schools

There is a wide range of assessments schools can use, many of which incor­porate cognitive or inter/intrapersonal competencies (see Measuring 21st Century Competencies, p. 7). In May 2014, NAIS surveyed heads of school to better understand the type of assessment instru­ments they were currently using (Figure 2). The survey polled 649 member and nonmember independent schools, including elementary, middle, and up­per schools. The survey found that most schools use the SAT (63 percent), ACT (52 percent), and ERB (52 percent). To a lesser degree, independent schools use alumni surveys (47 percent) and AP exams (44 percent), while a few schools use MAP (10 percent) and HSSSE, CWRA+, and MSA (6 percent each). The same survey showed that assessments were primarily being used to assess the school’s academic program (85 percent), improve teaching prac­tices (74 percent), and demonstrate student growth (73 percent).

Figure 2: Percentage of Independent Schools Using Assessment Instruments

The year before the CCSS assessment exams were scheduled to begin, NAIS conducted a short survey to understand how independent schools were approaching the standards and, in particular, whether they were planning to adopt the new assessments. About 21 percent of survey participants were planning to fully or partially adopt the Common Core State Standards. Out of this group, 16 percent mentioned that they would be using the assessments developed by one of the CCSS consortia.

Finally, in terms of what is next in assessment, there is no question that our future will include two industry-changing trends: (1) the mainstream­ing of personalized learning strategies (PLS) and (2) student assessments (thanks to new software and learning analytics) that are specifically designed to address individual learning needs and interests (see Future Trends in K-12 Education, hanoverresearch.com). While the one-stop-shop standardized instrument will continue to be with us for some time, new tools that seek to measure learning and analytical skills will become mainstream. Expect to see a convergence between PLS and student assessments that will generate a new learning and instructional dynamic in schools as well as dif­ferent expectations from the school community: students, parents, teach­ers, and the board of trustees.

A version of this article originally appeared in the 2014-2015 NAIS Trendbook. The NAIS Trendbook compiles research about the trends that independent school leaders are likely to experience in the coming year. Available at www.nais.org.

Jefferson Burnett is senior vice president for advocacy and education innovation at NAIS. Amada Torres is vice president of studies, insights, and research at NAIS. Whitney Work was formerly the legislative director at NAIS. burnett@nais.org, torres@nais.org

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Taking Measure

Assessment is a critical function at all levels of day schools. From the classroom to the boardroom, the faculty to the head, every stakeholder and every aspect of school operations stand to benefit from evaluation. Nonetheless, thinking about assessment, and the vehicles for achieving it, are changing in many ways parallel to other aspects of school design. This issue offers reflections about assessment, various and novel ways of achieving it, and discussion of outcomes that can result from successful measurement.

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