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One district’s cross-district collaboration improves tests, speeds info to teachers.
By Cari Jo Kiffmeyer

In a growing number of states, K-12 directors of assessment like me are finding themselves in the center of a perfect storm. Districts are looking for ways to assess students in all subjects, not just those tested by the state. They’re trying to work out how to create technology-enhanced items and assessments to provide instant feedback to students and teachers. Yet they lack the funds to buy all the assessment content they need, and they lack the tools and processes to develop the content on their own. To add even more pressure, student performance data is now being used to measure educator effectiveness.

In Minnesota’s West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area Schools (School District 197), the primary purpose of our testing is to provide information to help improve instruction. However, we didn’t have a classroom assessment tool that was used district-wide, and therefore no way to accurately view data from a district perspective. We also wanted to be able to conduct standards-based item analysis for our classroom assessments, and compare that data to our district and state assessments. So, we turned to technology and crowdsourcing.

This fall, we began implementing a system called UNIFY that provides a computer-based platform where our teachers can collaborate and build common assessments. We decided to start our “crowdsourcing” initiative for assessment creation with mathematics teachers in grades 5-9. By launching a new initiative with a small group, rather than the entire district, we can provide more focused support and coaching for our teachers. We can also make sure we’ve set up the system in a way that will provide the most benefit for all stakeholders, and we can more easily make any adjustments that are needed before rolling it out to all students.

First, we provided our teachers with training on how to write quality assessments and how to analyze and use the data to drive their instruction. Then we created a block of time for teachers across the district to meet every two weeks. To eliminate travel time and expenses, teachers meet in professional learning communities (PLCs) via Google Hangouts.

We structured our PLCs based on the Professional Learning Communities at Work process created by Richard DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Rebecca DuFour. Within this framework, our PLCs focus their work on four critical questions:

  1. What is it we expect our students to learn?
  2. How will we know when they have learned it?
  3. How will we respond when some students do not learn?
  4. How will we respond when some students already know it?

During these 45-minute meetings every other week, teachers collaboratively develop common district assessments tied to designated learning targets and benchmarks. The teams also meet for extended periods six times throughout the year. They analyze and discuss the results from their previous assessments, both from a district perspective and an individual classroom perspective. Based on that data, they make decisions about how to guide their instruction.

In addition, once every nine weeks, teachers meet for a professional development day. During this daylong session, they create new assessments, refine existing assessments based on their data, discuss instructional strategies, and participate in training, if needed.

To date, the reaction to our crowdsourcing initiative has been very positive. Teachers have long had a desire for cross-district collaboration. Previously, common assessments were written only at the building level. This initiative has not only provided our teachers with opportunities for district-wide collaboration, but the tools and training to support that.

So far, one of the biggest benefits we’ve experienced is that we can now electronically tie each assessment question to a specific benchmark, which will give us valuable information later.

For example, previously a teacher and student might look at an assessment and see the student earned an overall score of 70 percent. While the score showed that the student passed the assessment, it didn’t tell them much more than that. In contrast, in addition to the overall score, they can now see how the student performed on each learning target or benchmark, so they know what the student mastered and where he or she needs additional support or practice.

If a teacher wanted this data before, he or she would have to do all of the analysis by hand. Now, with instant access to this data, our teachers have a much better understanding of how to guide their instruction to better meet their students’ needs.

At the district level, this data will also allow us to conduct better program analysis as part of our Academic Return on Investment (A-ROI) process, which we’re launching this year. We plan to use this process to compare a program’s cost to what the data says about its results. This will help us see which programs are having the biggest impact on student learning, so we can invest our resources wisely.

Through our assessment and A-ROI initiatives, we will be better able to evaluate our students’ progress against our standards, adjust our instruction to meet their needs, and enhance our efforts to create a guaranteed and viable curriculum. We will also be able to identify which programs are the most helpful for our students, holding our district accountable for offering the best possible education.

Cari Jo Kiffmeyer is the director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area Schools (School District 197) in Minnesota.

Image: © Randy Faris/Corbis

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