California Schools Latest to Get New Student Test Results; So, Now What?

September 23, 2015
Lydia Dobyns

Lydia Dobyns

New tests, based on new academic standards have produced headlines that read a lot like headlines from the previous test. From “sobering results” in California, to a state superintendent warning Illinois schools to “brace themselves,” how should parents and educators interpret these test data? The problem is that relying solely on a single source of summative assessment data provides an incomplete picture of individual and school-wide student achievement levels. While the media continue to focus on annual report cards and school accountability, there is more to the story. There are promising practices that are changing ways in which schools and communities engage with data to better understand and support student learning

Whenever standardized test scores are released, the data seems to implicitly label schools as “good” or “bad” which in turn stimulate calls to improve the “bad” scores. Typical articles include sound bites from parents, community members, and policy-makers calling for investigations into the new standards and curricula, wanting comparability of new test data to previous test scores, and louder rhetoric calling for more “accountability.” This frustration is understandable. There should be urgency when it comes to adequately supporting student learning. However, overwhelming evidence suggests that changing teaching and learning paradigms takes a serious commitment of time and resources. So, in the face of this tension between expecting innovation and demanding quick results, what might be a “constructive” reaction to the first-wave data we’re getting now?

Let’s start with the possibility that the new tests could offer valid assessments of credible academic standards. We must keep in mind that this is only one set of data, from one form of assessment, collected at a single point in time. Like a candid snapshot taken of someone on an average day, data of this type is flat, static, and may not show one’s best side. We could choose to see these reports as opportunities for schools and communities to launch processes for regularly sharing and learning from representative and dynamic data. In addition to helping create a more accurate and actionable picture of student achievement, this type of engagement can ease the tension between schools that are working hard to innovate within a complex set of constraints and communities that want to see more immediate results.

Consider these questions as starting points for engaging in a conversation around student achievement data, no matter what your role is in your school’s community:

  • What’s your school’s approach to actively getting better and solving problems related to student learning? Ask how your teachers and leaders are being supported to move forward in their professional learning (time, tools, opportunities for new learning, etc.).
  • How pervasive is the practice of looking at student work as a driver of adult and student learning on your schools? The best way to generate actionable learning data might not be to take more tests. It’s often done best by looking closely at the work students are currently creating to demonstrate their competency in targeted learning objectives.
  • What are other methods of sharing school data with the community? Aaron Brengard, principal at Katherine Smith Elementary in San Jose, started a #75daysofdata Twitter hashtag to use social media for engaging his community in conversations around school data. He’s now writing a 10-part blog series on the experience.
  • How might the local community play a helpful role in engaging with schools around student achievement data? At Cleveland High School in Seattle (WA), they’ve used an approach called “data-in-a-day“. Data-in-a-day is described as a process that “invites parents, community members, teachers, students and university partners to spend a day of structured visits, observing, collecting, and compiling data, and reflecting on data in an effort to strengthen teaching in learning.”

Schools and communities can be put in difficult positions when the only source of data that is being shared around student achievement are annual standardized test scores. Now that a new wave of data is beginning to arrive, let’s take time to think about where that data fits into a larger understanding of what our schools need, and to also consider the data’s limitations. Even at its best, a single source of data is insufficient on its own for us to know all that our students – and schools – can do or what they need to improve.

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