How to Use A Standardized Test to Improve Instruction
When you are a teacher and one of your good friends asks you for advice about her daughter’s problems at school, you take your time to listen. Emily is a gifted and talented English Learner (ELL). She is also an A honor roll student attending fifth grade. Last January, she took a released Science 2017 State of Texas Assessment for Academic Readiness (STAAR). According to the science teacher, Emily scored “below expectation”. This feedback was devastating for Emily. She was no longer excited about the transition to middle school. She wanted to quit the gifted and talented program and did not want to enroll for any of the advanced Pre AP courses offered in sixth grade. No wonder her mom was concerned.
When a student like Emily fails, you ask yourself many questions. What was the objective of giving a released standardized test to the class? Was the teacher feedback based on one assessment or various assignments? Is Emily’s A honor roll status accurate? Gifted students get bored easily; could it be lack of motivation? Gifted students struggle with their emotions; could it be possible that Emily is having a hard time growing up? English Learners need support to develop academic language. Is this a language acquisition issue? Was the test administered with the appropriate linguistic accommodations for Emily? Aiming for some guidance to assist Emily, we requested a conference with the teacher.
During the meeting with the science teacher and a campus administrator, we realized that scoring a formative assessment intended to improve instruction caused confusion. It distracted the teacher and the students from the real objective of this assessment. Instead of providing instructional information, the score gave a wrong impression of failure. After checking all the facts and finding a common understanding, we agreed that Emily was on track and that misusing a released standardized test resulted in inaccurate conclusions.
In this process, we learned three lessons worth sharing. First, before giving an assessment, determine whether the test is for grading or for identification of learned skills. Second, select the appropriate assessment to find the information you need. Third, when delivering test results, use your words to motivate and empower your students.
Lesson 1: Identify what to assess, why to assess and what to do with the results
Emily and her class completed the released 2017 STAAR Science test close to the 100th day of school. This means students have only completed 60% of the school year. Since the students took the entire test, they were assessed on approximately 40% of curriculum that they have not learned yet. When the teacher gave this test, she was fulfilling school district guidelines. She was also looking for data to improve instruction to prepare students for the actual test. Ignoring the fact that students had received no instruction on 40 % of the questions they answered, the teacher divided the count of good answers by the total number of questions. As expected, her class scores were disheartening. The low scores turned into fear, and the fear led to wrong assumptions.
Is there a better approach? Absolutely, to obtain meaningful data the teacher could have selected the specific questions to measure learned curriculum. When you are measuring student learning, a score is meaningless unless you identify specific learning objectives to reteach. If many students missed a common objective, this objective must be taught again to the class as a whole. When few students missed the same objective, you may group these students to have a small group or one-to-one instruction. Now, if all students mastered a common objective congratulations! One item to cross from your list.
Lesson 2: Select the appropriate assessments to find the information you need
According to the publication Rethinking Classroom Assessment with a Purpose in Mind teachers may use three types of assessment: “Assessments for learning, assessments as learning and assessments of learning (Earl 2006).” What Earl calls assessments for learning are formative assessments used to identify opportunities to reteach and improve learning. Assessments as learning are metacognitive tools that teachers may use to have conversations with students about their own learning. These metacognitive evaluations bring the student and the teacher together to celebrate common achievements, recognize the value of effort and resilience, and discuss strategies to improve learning for future success. Assessments of learning are summative assessments. These assessments provide grades. (McNamee & Chen 2005).
The state released standardized assessments have great value as formative assessments. Some additional values include: help students get familiar with this type of test, practice the use of linguistic accommodations on assessments, and reduce testing anxiety. In order to do this correctly, teachers must select the right skills to assess. This means testing on skills that the students have learned and practiced. If a large percentage of students miss the same objective, you have an item to reteach. If few students miss a particular question related to a specific objective, you have your intervention group and the specific skill to re-teach in a small group.
Released state assessments are not accurate predictors of student success on future state assessments. A standardized test given in 2017 is not a mathematical predictor of success or failure on a 2018 version of the same test. These are in fact two different assessments made up of similar, not equal, questions. Once a new test is built with new questions, the level of difficulty measured by the test designers is used to develop the raw score conversion table to make assessments comparable from year to year. The state of Texas uses the STAAR Raw Score Conversion Tables to transform raw scores in scaled scores that make STAAR tests comparable from year to year.
Lesson 3: Use the power of your words to motivate and empower students
Grant Wiggins, the educational leader, wrote The Fine Arts of Giving Feedback. In his article, he expresses that “price, advice, evaluation, or grades don’t give the learner the descriptive information needed to improve learning. Good, effective feedback is goal-referenced, specific. positive, sincere, encouraging and reflective (Wiggins, 2012). “ Goal-driven feedback narrows the conversation to clear examples of performance. It is focused, targeted and very specific. It clearly states the what, how and why the feedback has value and most importantly what to do with it.
Positive, sincere, focused and encouraging feedback validates the quality of the evaluation and invites the learners to continue to take risks to achieve their individual goals. It recognizes the value of the effort and resilience that the learner displayed in a product or a particular assessment.
Reflective feedback gives learners ownership and independence of their own learning allowing them to take the lead to grow and commit to their own learning. It helps to develop problem-solving skills, strategic planning and promotes the generation of new ideas. It also encourages innovation and helps develop student’s metacognitive skills.
Teachers who are equipped to collect data, and who use various tools and teamwork to interpret information, may navigate the curriculum more effectively and may use various tools to diagnose their class regularly. Teachers who understand their student’s’ performance data are prone to promote deeper learning and more relevant activities for their students. These teachers focus on facilitating learning instead of presenting curriculum. Teachers who continuously identify students’ opportunities for growth and who provide authentic, sincere and constructive feedback will improve teacher-student relationships, foster parent-student-teacher commitment and promote effective partnership among teachers, parents, and students. Improve your teaching skills, connect with your students and their families, and grow together!
- Wiggins, Grant (2012). 7 Keys to Effective Feedback. Educational Leadership, September 2012 (Vol. 70, #1, p. 11-16), http://bit.ly/SLd3BU
- Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
Using data to improve instruction:
- 3 Ways Student Data Can Inform Your Teaching. Rebecca Alber (2017)
- Using Student Achievement Data to Support Instructional Decision Making. Namespace.org
- Beginners Guide to Using Data to Inform Your Teaching. Rachel Tustin (2016)
- Alber, Rebecca (2017). 3 Ways Student Data Can Inform Your Teaching. Retrieved from edutopia.org
Improving feedback skills:
- Giving Student Feedback: 20 Ways to Do it Right. Laura Reynolds (2013).
- 8 Ways to Give Students More Effective Feedback Using A Growth Mindset. National Center for Women & Information Technology.
- Resources for Teaching Growth Mindset. Edutopia.org