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Developing Your District Assessment Plan

Developing Your District Assessment Plan

Five steps to help leaders create a thorough and effective system.

By Patrice Hartnett

Every day your school district spends time, money, and resources on teaching and learning. But are students actually mastering the knowledge and skills they’re supposed to be? How do you know?

Successful assessment requires the development of a district assessment plan. Here are five key questions to ask as you begin developing your plan.

 1. Who are the people involved?

It takes many people in a variety of roles to make a district assessment plan work. So the first step to developing a plan is to identify who needs to be involved.

  • Choose a leader to be in charge of each assessment—district benchmarks, End-of-Course tests, and so on. This person will be the lead decision maker as well as the go-to person for the assessment.
  • Do not wait until just before a test to go to your IT department with a list of needs! Instead, involve them early in the planning process. That way they’ll have time to take care of things like ensuring network access for collaborative item writing, preventing third-party content from being blocked by firewalls, and providing secure student logins for online assessments.
  • Involve your curriculum director or the curriculum department to ensure you begin the assessment process with high-quality items. If you buy third-party content, they can make sure it aligns with your scope and sequence. Alternatively, they can help facilitate item writing by teachers in designated grade levels and/or subject areas to create local content.
  • Involve your in-house data experts to ensure your reporting will provide the necessary data for each stakeholder.
  1. What will the assessment cover, and how and when will it be administered?

The next step is to develop an assessment overview. Here, you will outline general information about the assessment and what it will cover.

  • What is the purpose of the assessment?
  • What subjects and/or grade levels will be assessed?
  • When will the assessment be given?
  • Where will the items come from? For example, will the items come from third-party content or will you write your own?
  • Will the test format be paper or online?

To ensure district-wide buy-in, make sure that key stakeholders—including school principals and content leaders—are in the loop and on board with these plans.

  1. Where will the content come from and who will put it together?

After the assessment overview is developed, you’re ready to begin assessment construction.

  • Identify your blueprint writers, item writers, and item reviewers.

Here’s a special tip for item reviewers: Be sure to carefully review third-party content. Even though it’s widely used, it may have errors such as missing graphics, misspellings, or even incorrect answers. If you find an error and want to change the item, you’ll need to get permission from the provider or the state. By correcting these items up front, however, you can avoid having to toss out invalid items after the tests have been administered.

For both locally developed and third-party content, it’s also helpful to have a content-area teacher take each test to make sure the correct answers match the answer key.

  • Choose the test constructor to pull the accepted items into the test and order the items.
  • Identify the test formatter who will place the test into the appropriate format for paper or online administration.
  1. What are the details of the individual tests in the assessment?

While planning assessment construction, you can also plan key details for the individual tests in the assessment.

  • Identify the number of individual tests.
  • Choose the naming convention for the tests. This must be consistent! For example, will the tests be organized by subject area or by course code? Or will you put the standard in the test title, along with a grade-level indicator? This will determine how teachers find the tests (and later the reports), so choose your naming convention carefully.
  • Choose the number of questions per test.
  • Set up the source or item bank for each test. Many districts choose to create an item bank for each test. Others, however, may prefer to create an item bank for each subject area.
  • Select online test options, if applicable.

It is important to note that the various planning phases will often inform each other. For example, once you know how many tests are involved and how many questions are needed for each test, you may have to go back to your item writers to ensure they have enough resources to cover all those items.

  1. When does each piece need to be completed?

Develop your assessment timeline last! Otherwise, you may find yourself cutting corners to try to cram things into a timeline that’s unrealistic.

  • Choose your test windows. After you identify the date of the first administration, work backward from there to create your timeline. In addition, be sure to share test windows with key stakeholders:
  • The IT department—to ensure your networks and equipment are ready.
  • District leaders—to ensure there’s enough time to plan for and deliver any professional development that may be required.
  • Students and parents—to make sure students are in school and ready to perform their best on test days.
  • Establish your printing deadline and your accommodations printing deadline. Remember that tests often need to be printed at least 60 to 90 days in advance of your first test administration because they will have to be reformatted to meet various accommodations for students with disabilities—e.g., printing in Braille.
  • Establish your reporting deadlines.

With a carefully developed district assessment plan, you and your stakeholders can gather the assessment data needed to create a cycle of continuous improvement in your school district.

Patrice Hartnett is the director of internal programs for Performance Matters (www.performancematters.com), developer of the Unify assessment platform. She has more than 20 years of experience in public education, including as an administrator in New Hampshire’s largest school district, where she managed a staff of 100 employees and was responsible for curriculum mapping and data management.

Getting Ready for the New SAT


Six tips from a trio of teachers, including Doug Lemov.

By Carol Patton

The revised Scholastic Aptitude Test debuts next month, prompting many questions, concerns, and perhaps even anxiety among school administrators, teachers, and students. Since it’s being touted as more rigorous and challenging than its predecessor, many educators are searching for creative strategies that link classroom lessons to test questions while better preparing students for college and future careers.

The authors of Reading Reconsidered—Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs, and Erica Woolway—offer six tips to help teachers accomplish this seemingly massive task. In many cases, they say tweaking versus revamping lesson plans may be all that’s needed to guide students on a path of higher learning.

 Tip 1: Read widely, with an eye to complexity.

The new SAT requires students to read and comprehend different types of complex texts, explains Doug Lemov, a managing director of Uncommon Schools, a nonprofit organization that manages 44 inner city public schools in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

“It really has to be a school-wide approach that systematically takes on the idea of exposing kids to not just more challenging text but a wider variety of challenging text,” he says. “The SAT is asking kids to determine what more common words mean in a strange setting. Expose your kids as much as possible, as broad as possible, to a variety of syntaxes and uses.”

More than ever, students must navigate their way through scientific and historical documents, adds Colleen Driggs, director of professional development with the Teach Like a Championship team at Uncommon Schools.

Consider reading assignments that pair novels with works of nonfiction. “Get under the hood,” she says. “[Ask] why did the scientist decide to present his findings in this particular order. It’s about being intentional, not just in literature class, but with whatever is put in front of [students].”

Tip 2: Read, write, discuss, revise.

Typically, students read a text, discuss it in class, and then write about it. But oftentimes their writing reflects the classroom discussion rather than their personal views or insights, says Erica Woolway, chief academic officer of the Teach Like a Champion team at Uncommon Schools.

She says teachers need to offer more opportunities for students to read text, express their thoughts in writing, discuss their ideas in class, and then revise their written opinions. This encourages original thinking and also enables teachers to better assess student understanding of the text.

Tip 3: Practice close reading.

Besides reading very dense, complex text, the SAT also requires students to analyze its meaning.

“Students can’t analyze evidence they don’t understand,” says Driggs, adding that educators can teach students how to dive deep when reading complex text versus grasping its general meaning. “Students need to fully and thoroughly understand that evidence, analyze it, and think about the intentionality of the author using that evidence for a very specific purpose to convey a very specific message.”

Tip 4: Employ “sensitivity analysis.”

Used in conjunction with close reading, teachers can use this powerful teaching tool to get at the heart of text, says Lemov.

He points to teachers who rewrite a very challenging sentence—from text students have read—by changing one word, a punctuation mark or de-italicizing a word that instantly nuances the portrayal of a character differently.

“[Students] develop an ear for satire, irony, and tone, which is critically important when reading difficult passages under pressure,” he says. “This is the most portable and applicable close reading technique you can use to get kids up to speed quickly at reading challenging text.”

Tip 5: Practice active vocabulary.

Sometimes, a passage may offer context clues to help readers infer the meaning of a word. But the revised SAT asks students to determine word meaning from the context without clues.

This challenge becomes even more difficult when the context may not inform readers of a word’s meaning.

Woolway encourages teachers to enact wordplay by defining hard words and then asking students to use them in a variety of sentences or scenarios to better understand their different “shades.”

“Make sure when you give those definitions, they truly and accurately reflect the depth of meaning those words can have,” she says.

Consider the word destitute. Lemov explains that an SAT-aligned teacher would first define the word for students as “being utterly without resources.” Then the teacher would ask a series of questions to promote deeper thinking, such as, “Could a king ever be destitute?” or “Could you be destitute if you have a lot of money?”

“It forces kids to change the shape and meaning of the word, to apply the word and problem solve with the word,” Lemov says. “You’re playing with shades, applications, and settings of words. That’s the killer application.”

Tip 6: Read nonfiction strategically.

Students need to read more nonfiction, and not just in English class. History, science, and even math teachers must evolve into reading teachers to better prepare students for the revised SAT, says Lemov.

One reason to expand their reading menu is based on research. It’s been shown, Lemov says, that weak readers who are well informed about a topic are better able to comprehend technical or difficult text about that topic than strong readers who are unfamiliar with the topic.

He also suggests that students read multiple books or articles on the same topic. By reading texts from numerous authors with different perspectives, he says students can expand their depth and breadth of knowledge on any given topic.

Start Small

While absorbing these tips into lesson plans might seem overwhelming, Lemov says teachers may be surprised at how one small change, such as how vocabulary words are taught, can cascade through their teaching practice with tremendous results.

“It’s probably just a few tweaks you could make that would help you get a little more aligned, a little more vigorous, and that would conform other things that happen in your classroom that can actually make a tremendous difference,” says Lemov. “You may be quite happy and impressed with how far reaching that influence is.”

Photo courtesy of istockphoto.com

The Secret to Bringing Coding to Life for Students

The Secret to Bringing Coding to Life for Students

Discover how these students joined together to solve multiple problems.

By Julia Dweck

Every teacher hopes to ignite a passion for learning in his or her classroom. I was lucky enough to watch this happen when my students embarked on a two-month journey in a nationwide robotics competition. I teach gifted students in grades 3 to 5, and when I first introduced robotics to my students, I didn’t know what to expect. While sharing a learning environment with other students of different skill and grade levels, collaboration can present challenges for some students. But with their minds and hearts in gear, the competition allowed a community of innovative thinkers to quickly emerge. I was awed by the intensity of each child’s interest and tenacity in working through coding missions. Ultimately, what began as an introductory computer programming and robotics challenge became our most meaningful collaboration to date.

Here’s how we pulled it off.

My students first displayed an interest in robotics during a reward initiative that I instituted in our classroom called “Thirty Thursday.” Each week, students can earn 30 minutes of free time to explore a technology of their choice. It was during this time I noticed that students, across grade levels, gravitated toward a new coding tool for the classroom, robots Dash and Dot.

Because of their interest, we decided to participate in the Wonder League Robotics Competition from Wonder Workshop, the creators of Dash and Dot. Though none of them had ever coded before, a group of students from grades three, four, and five joined the competition. The robots encouraged active discovery and, over time, my students felt a growing kinship with the technology itself. Working in two groups of six, they established their team identities, Wonder Dash and Robotic Constellations and tackled seven space-themed coding challenges.

Asking Questions

Each week, students watched a new mission video, and afterward they worked together to devise three questions to guide their work. Asking the right questions required them to understand the problem from multiple angles and perspectives, as a collective intelligence. By taking part in the questioning process, students felt a greater personal stake in each mission. As they advanced, they anticipated solutions to new problems, and I discerned a shift in students from passive observers to active architects of their own learning.

Encouraging a Growth Mindset

Each robotics challenge brought students back to the 9 ft. x 9 ft. game floor mat where teams worked to solve coding challenges using the robots. They used whiteboards to strategize and consider others’ perspectives, and as time went on, the students’ attitudes shifted from what Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck (no relation) refers to as a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset,” in which setbacks were viewed as gainful opportunities to try again.

Technology to Collaborate

With precious little classroom time available, students used alternative forms of communication. A video log augmented real-world discourse between peers, while also satisfying typical Common Core standards—e.g., CCRA.SL.1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. Online discussion boards on the Moodle learning management system promoted further collaboration as students asked questions and shared feedback. Articulation of ideas, both orally and in writing, heightened my students’ learning.

A Common Purpose

The camaraderie and peer support among the members of each team encouraged students to attempt more ambitious challenges. They developed the same type of kinship sports teams feel, and they grew to appreciate each other and themselves as integral parts of a whole. Throughout each challenge, students tackled common goals with a profound sense of purpose.

Collaboration Scaffolds Learning

The sixth mission was the most taxing, as it required a greater degree of sustained focus. Dash had to circle and return with various samples, requiring a longer code structured over multiple tasks. The encouragement of their peers bolstered students’ confidence, allowing them to push themselves but never to the point of frustration. Ultimately, their success was based on focus, determination, and persistence, enhanced by a collaborative team format. Wonder Dash and Robotics Constellation went on to place second and sixth in the nation.

To those teachers considering robotics for the first time, I advise a careful selection of the technology, considering what is comfortable and age appropriate. If you’re looking for new ways to teach “soft skills” like collaboration and decision making, consider robotics and coding as a way to get students up and moving around while learning. Robotics allows for physical opportunities in which students are problem solvers within a classroom culture of innovation.

Make sure that you, as a teacher, can facilitate and guide students with the technology. As an educator, your level of confidence and enthusiasm is palpable and communicative, and it’s that same enthusiasm that we are driven to inspire in our students.

The Wonder League underscored the importance of teamwork and the amazing things that individuals can accomplish when they work together. Coding scaffolded my students’ teamwork, revealing the keys to meaningful collaboration.

Julia Dweck is a teacher who works with gifted students in grades 3–5 at Willow Lane Elementary School in Macungie, Pennsylvania.

The Path to a STEM Job Starts in Elementary School

The Path to a STEM Job Starts in Elementary School

A forward-thinking superintendent details how she transformed her general ed program into a series of career academies.

By Dr. Genevra Walters 

When you think of STEM, it’s likely you think of science, technology, engineering, and math, all rolled into one. At Kankakee Schools in Illinois, our STEM program aims to do a lot more than teach four topics: We want our students to apply what they learn in real-life settings.

According to projections by STEMconnector.org, by 2018, the U.S. will need 8.65 million workers in STEM-related jobs. As a district, we have to ensure that our graduates are prepared for life after formal education and ready for the jobs of the future. From the moment students walk through the door of Kankakee school to the time they walk across the stage to receive their high school diplomas, they are constantly transitioning to their next stage of life. As educators, we have to prepare them for any challenge that will be thrown their way.

While our gifted and magnet programs have traditionally been a top priority for our district, it’s my mission to level the playing field by providing STEM and career exploration opportunities to everyone. At the beginning of the 2015 school year, we implemented a new K–8 reading and math curriculum, and renamed general ed “College and Career Academy Classrooms.” Knowing that the number of STEM-related jobs is growing rapidly, I put STEM at the core of our general ed overhaul and added a cross-curricular focus on real-life application, Next Generation Science Standards, and career exploration through project-based learning.

My teachers and principals are inspired to think past the traditional teaching style of memorizing facts to pass a test. They work to facilitate creation, push students toward critical thinking and problem solving, and teach students how to apply what they’ve learned beyond the classroom.

Traditional education teaches and assesses academic skills in isolation. When students are not able to make the cross-curricular connection, they lose engagement with their own learning. Project-based learning makes STEM feel relevant because students have to use knowledge from all areas to complete a task. Demonstrating their skills through projects also prepares students for the challenges they will face after graduation.

To ensure that each student in kindergarten through sixth grade is exposed to a variety of different STEM careers, I created a virtual career wheel for teachers to follow. Each grade focuses on a different range of careers, so as students move through school they have a chance to explore a variety of fields and figure out where their interests lie. For example, first graders focus on careers in agriculture, food, and natural resources while third-grade students focus on engineering, outer space, and plant life.

During the school year, students undertake four large-scale projects that align with their grade-level focus (and appropriate state standards). We use supplementary curriculum from Defined STEM, which breaks down tasks by grade level and keeps all lesson materials such as articles, videos, and rubrics in one spot. Hands-on projects may take the form of building models, solving problems, creating videos, or writing magazine articles—and the list goes on. The projects give students room for individual creativity while testing the problem-solving and collaboration skills they have learned in all subjects.

Through middle and high school, students participate in career-interest inventories and choose from numerous educational tracks, including Freshman Academy, Business Academy, and Medical Academy. In the near future we will be adding a STEAM or STEM Academy and a Leadership Academy with ROTC. In the coming years, the high school will transition to the same sort of academy model that the elementary school is using now. By the 2019–2020 school year, each sophomore will choose an academy for the remainder of school.

Our future plans for incorporating STEM across the curriculum include connecting physical education to STEM, and exploring a Kinesthetic Sports Magnet program. For Summer 2016, we’ve partnered with a local community college to create a girls’ camp. We plan to expand that partnership further in the coming months.

Since Kankakee switched to a STEM focus, we have seen an increase in student performance in math and reading. Students are more engaged working in cooperative groups, and they’ve even organized a “dress for success day” every month. Our teachers have transferred the core responsibility of teaching and learning back to our students, who are developing the 21st-century skills they need to succeed.

Dr. Genevra Walters is the superintendent of the Kankakee School District in Kankakee, IL.

Photo courtesy of MediaBakery

Enhancing Music Education for Digital Natives


Enhancing Music Education for Digital Natives

How to use tech tools to help teach and engage students.

By Linda Christensen, PhD

Today’s students learn in a variety of ways. The days of “looking it up in the encyclopedia” have given way to our era of mobile devices and video games. What started with Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego has become a national phenomenon.

For music teachers, many of whom are already reeling from budget cuts, the prospect of teaching digital natives may be intimidating. But for the enterprising educator, there’s never been a better time to teach students a fresh approach to mastering “Every Good Boy Does Fine.”

The Benefits of Music Education

Music education has a number of proven benefits. In addition to providing students with a means of self-expression, it also stimulates beneficial skills for potential future work experiences. Playing in a band or orchestra also boosts and reinforces teamwork, perseverance, project management, and time management.

And if that weren’t enough, the National Association for Music Education reported a difference in brain development and improved memory for young children who have taken music lessons. Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement also highlights research suggesting that students in music education tend to have better GPAs, higher scores on standardized reading and math tests, and are less likely to drop out of school.

Music programs across the U.S. are under attack. As schools undergo numerous budget cuts, music and arts programs are among the first to be eliminated. This is not a recent development: more than 1,000 teachers were let go, and the involvement of students in music education steeply declined.

Reinventing the Music Lesson

But there is a light, and perhaps a song, at the end of the tunnel.

Teachers that incorporate newer teaching modalities—using the digital devices that students are so at home with—are far more likely to be successful at reviving the currently sagging music curriculum and leaving today’s students with a more balanced education that incorporates music.

For instance, students’ smartphones can become de facto teachers’ assistants, offering exercises that can expedite a student’s learning curve, and in some cases, real-time feedback on exercises. Students can reinforce classroom instruction during study hall or the bus ride home with devices they’ve got in their backpacks.

Many teachers have a zero-tolerance policy for smartphone use in the classroom. In my classroom smartphones are encouraged, if not required. During traditional lectures, I use apps that offer real-time student interaction to keep students focused on the material, while allowing them to use their devices to interact with me on polls, quizzes, drawings, and more. Some examples of excellent apps are NearPod, TalkBoard, and Socrative.

For non-lecture activities, such as practicing instruments, there are effective apps like Piano Maestro, Practicia, and Practice Center. These provide the teacher with useful feedback on students, including which songs were practiced and for how long. Students can also send their teacher audio and video recordings from the practice room to show their progress or to ask for help. Using apps like these, I can catch issues between lessons that help my students move forward, so they don’t have to wait for the next lesson to correct or change the way they practice.

I’ve only encountered two students in my career who were hesitant to use their devices in the classroom and the practice room. They didn’t use their phones and mobile devices frequently, although they had access to them. But after mentoring them and showing them how the devices could benefit their education, they now happily admit that these apps have worked, and can’t imagine learning how to play an instrument without using a device.

Linda Christensen is the Director of Education for JoyTunes, a company that combines music methodologies with the latest in gaming features through a series of apps. She is a piano and music technology specialist with over 20 years of experience in higher education. Previously, she served as Professor of Piano and Music Technology and Music Department Chair for Wayne State College.

Photo by MediaBakery


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.