For Good Measure: The Value of Year-End Assessments
by Preston Smith, Co-Founder and CEO, Rocketship Public Schools
The end of the school year is a time for graduations, family celebrations, class parties, vacation planning, and state assessments. While the last of these certainly isn’t as entertaining, these tests are incredibly important measures of student learning that our schools and teachers take seriously.
I got a crash course in the importance of these objective measures at age 18, long before I ever dreamed I’d become a teacher or a principal, let alone the leader of a network of elementary schools. Growing up in a low-income community outside of San Bernardino, California, I took AP classes, served as student body president, and graduated near the top of my public high school’s senior class. I assumed I was a shoo-in for UCLA — so much so that when I received a rejection letter, I assumed it was a mistake. It wasn’t. I called the admissions office and they explained that my high school had a reputation for inflating grades. They told me, “we don’t accept scholars from your school, just athletes.” I did manage to get into the University of North Carolina, but only because they did not know my high school’s reputation.
UCLA was right: I was not ready for college, and needed a lot of tutoring help my freshman year. Better tests and more transparent data might have signaled — to my teachers, to my principal, to my parents and myself — the real extent of my knowledge and skills. Those scores would have painted a picture of my strengths and illuminated my weaknesses. Used skillfully over time, information yielded by those tests could have helped my family and my teachers ensure I was on the path to college success.
That’s not to say that assessment data can ever fully capture all the components of academic success; not everything that matters can be measured. At Rocketship, our teachers are constantly gathering rich, qualitative information from regular, meaningful interactions with students and their families. And our supportive learning environment — defined by our core values of persistence, empathy, responsibility, and respect — creates a critical foundation for our Rocketeers’ success in school and beyond. And while it may not be possible to accurately measure those skills, as Paul Tough’s new book makes clear, these skills still matter tremendously for closing the achievement gap.
All that said, there are still significant benefits in administering annual standardized tests to all students across a state. At a high level, the very act of looking at test scores by different groups of students helps shine a light on the persistent achievement gap and ensure that schools serve all students. “We rely on the consistent, accurate, and reliable data provided by annual statewide assessments to advocate for better lives and outcomes for our children,” wrote the leaders of 12 civil and human rights groups in a statement last year protesting those advocating for “opting out” of such assessments. “These data are critical for understanding whether and where there is equal opportunity.”
Statewide assessment results aren’t just for activists, bureaucrats, and researchers. This data also provides:
- Critical information for teachers and schools. Test data informs teachers’ instruction, helps schools budget wisely, and allows both to measure the effectiveness of curriculum and instruction. At Rocketship, we use standardized testing data for all these purposes and more. To be even more effective in how we use this information, we’d love to receive it back more quickly and we’d prefer if those tests more accurately measured the growth of student learning, rather than just a moment in time. Because so many of our students start at Rocketship performing far below their current grade level, we use the Northwest Evaluation Association’s adaptive Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment to capture growth in student learning and coordinate instruction and content to target specific learning levels. These and other assessments supplement required annual tests, and provide critical feedback to help us meet the unique learning needs of each of our Rocketeers to ensure they are on the college bound path.
- Accountability for parents. These test scores give parents an objective analysis of school performance, which helps them choose the right school for their child upfront and then allows them to hold their schools accountable for serving their child, smaller groups of students, and the overall student body. Many states, as well as sites like GreatSchools, use these tests to create school scores and “report cards” to help families make informed choices for their child’s education. The best of such systems look not only at a school in isolation or a single moment in time, but instead at how student performance is growing, how it compares to similar schools, or even how schools perform with particular demographic subgroups.
- Levels the playing field for students. Test scores can give students themselves a clear view of how they are performing on state standards that are increasingly aligned with college and career readiness — and eventually as compared to their peers that they will be competing with for college admissions. Grades are important, but simply too subjective as a sole measure of student performance; they can be affected by unintentional bias based on gender or race, or associated more with measures like attendance and class participation than accurately reflecting mastery of knowledge and skills. There’s even evidence that standardized test scores can predict success on career-related tests like licensing exams — as well as performance and leadership in actual jobs.
Of course, there are limits to these tests, such as the time and stress they may consume, although there’s less to these claims than meets the eye. And it’s difficult for assessments to ever fully capture students’ ability to apply what they’ve learned. But the new Common Core-aligned assessments, while far from perfect, are a step in the right direction, offering more rigor and more open-ended assessment items that better gauge student understanding.
We need annual assessments to ensure equity and accountability in public education. No student should first learn of the shortcomings of their public school system in the year they apply to college. At Rocketship, our mission is to eliminate the achievement gap and eradicate destiny by demographics. To do that, we — and the students and families we serve — need and deserve plenty of thoughtful and transparent data about how we’re doing, and how far we have yet to travel together.
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Preston co-founded Rocketship Education in San Jose in 2006. Prior to founding Rocketship, Preston was founder and Principal of L.U.C.H.A. Elementary School, part of the Alum Rock Unified School District in San Jose, CA. After its first three years of operation, L.U.C.H.A. was the fourth highest performing low-income elementary school in California. Preston began his career in education as a Teach for America (TFA) Corps member at Clyde Arbuckle Elementary School (CA). In 2003, Preston was named “Teacher of the Year” at Arbuckle and was also nominated as one of six finalists for TFA’s Sue Lehmann award, given to TFA corps members with the highest classroom academic gains in the nation. Preston is also an Aspen New Schools Fellow.
Published on June 20, 2016