University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Assessment Literacy: Student Assessment Rights and ESSA

In The View from the OEP on September 27, 2017 at 11:57 am

Today, OEP was happy to present at the Education Innovation Summit in Little Rock about Assessment Literacy: Student Assessment Rights and ESSA.  For those of you who are not attending, we wanted to share the key points of our presentation.

Rooted in the work of the National Task Force on Assessment Education, of which we are honored to be a member, we describe what assessment literacy is and why it is critical to the success of Arkansas students.

Although some consider assessment to be a task that takes time away from teaching and learning and must be endured, the Task Force defines assessment as “The process of gathering information about student learning to inform education-related decisions.” Information can be gathered not only through summative assessments like the ACT Aspire, but also through formative assessments, interim assessments, performance assessments, and any other means of collecting information about what students know and are ready to learn.

In order to use the information gathered effectively, students, teachers, administrators, parents, community members, and policy makers must be assessment literate- that is understand how student assessment can enable them to better carry out their role in education, believe that assessment can improve teaching and learning, and put into place activities and behaviors to act on these beliefs.

Although it may seem that these understandings, beliefs, and skills would be a basic part or the educational process, there is a lack of understanding about assessment by those who adopt policy and laws, and govern our schools, by those who teach our students or lead our schools, due to continued lack of appropriate pre-service preparation and in-service learning for educators, and by parents and students due to ineffective communication about how student assessment can promote high quality student learning.

When these assessment literacy understandings, beliefs, and skills are in place, it can lead to positive outcomes for students. Research has shown that students who are more involved in their own learning – and assessment – achieve more. Effective use of formative assessment practices requires teachers to understand how on-going instructionally-embedded assessment can help all students achieve at higher levels, and administrator involvement in school improvement activity is related to higher student achievement.

The Task Force agrees that sound assessments have five characteristics that support student success:

  1. Begin with a clear sense of purpose
  2. Arise from a clear vision of the learning targets to be assessed
  3. Rely on high-quality assessment methods
  4. Communicate results effectively
  5. Keep students striving for success

The first criteria,”Begin with a clear sense of purpose” means that all stakeholders understand Why we are conducting the assessment and Who will be making what decisions based on results.  In some cases, like the annual state assessment, it is to certify learning, or identify if students have achieved a pre-determined level of performance.  In other cases, like formative assessments, the purpose is for teachers to use the information gathered to inform future instruction by determining where students are in their understanding.   In some cases, assessments can serve as learning opportunities, where students learn for themselves about what skills they have mastered and what skills they still need to develop.

Once the purpose of the assessment is clear, the second criteria, “Arise from a clear vision of the learning targets to be assessed,” comes into play.  The learning targets should: be clearly and completely stated in language educators can agree carries the same meaning, measure mastery of what’s important, be organized into learning progressions, be realistic in number, be translated into student friendly terms, and consider student background, interests, and aspirations.

Only after the purpose and learning targets have been identified should an assessment be selected or created. The assessment must reflect the learning target(s), sample enough evidence to lead to dependable inference, rely on high-quality assessment methods to be sure information is valid and reliable, and minimize any sources of bias.

After the assessment is completed, the results must be communicated effectively to the intended user in a timely and understandable manner. The evidence shared must reflect student achievement accurately and support correct inferences on the part of the intended users, and the information shared must be precise and in terms the users (be they students, parents, teachers, or policymakers) understand.

Finally, a sound assessment must link the assessment process to student motivation in ways that keep all students striving for success! It should help students know where they are headed, where they are, and how to close the gap between the two.

Unfortunately, in Arkansas and throughout the country, these five criteria are rarely met by assessments.  Some states, however, have been working to ensure that they are.  The Michigan Assessment Consortium has created assessment literacy standards for students, teachers, administrators, and policymakers.  Oregon has a plan based on these principles that outlines a vision for assessment to empower meaningful student learning.  The plan includes the Student Assessment Bill of Rights, which communicates how students are entitled to the five sound assessment practices.

Although Arkansas doesn’t currently have assessment literacy standards, the success of the state’s new ESSA plan depends on stakeholders understanding, embracing, and taking action on the five assessment literacy principles. The Theory of Action states that “The ADE and (districts) will engage in continuous cycles of inquiry and improvement …. to identify and address the needs within their respective systems.” This theory assumes that the assessments provide meaningful information about clear learning targets and that the students, teachers, and administrators understand what the assessments are telling them and are communicating the results effectively.TOA

In all likelihood, however, the majority of students, parents, teachers, administrators, community members and policy makers do not really understand what assessments are telling them about student performance and learning in our state. Arkansas educators NEED to be assessment literate to complete the Theory of Action for Student Success. So, how do we get there?

Apart from going back to college to get a degrees in assessment, and since many of those teaching in higher ed. institutions may not have a deep level of understanding about assessment themselves,  it makes sense to make becoming assessment literate a school or district project.  We have some recommendations below:

  • Become more Assessment Literate!  A good first step would be to find out who in your district knows the most about assessment. There may be someone who knows about the ACT Aspire, and others who are strong in formative assessment.  Use them to learn more about the measures we use and what they mean.  In addition, there are microcredentials available through Bloomboard about data literacy and assessment, and you can also learn about these topics through resources available on!
  • Conduct a needs assessment: Determine the assessment literacy of your staff, and make a plan to get some high-quality professional development to improve their skills.
  • Use the Student Bill of Assessment Rights: This can create a baseline for discussion, and ensure that the conversations around assessment literacy include students. SBAR
  • Start talking: The new ESSA plan provides a great conversation starter for talking with parents and community members about assessments, what they mean, and how they are used to make decisions.
  • Conduct an assessment audit: Have your school/district examine what assessments are being used. As a staff identify what the purpose is of each assessment, what the assessments are measuring, the quality (reliable? valid?) of the assessment, how the results are communicated (and to whom?),  and if they are supporting student engagement.
  • Develop policies: Engage all affected stakeholders in the development of assessment policies and practices.
  • Use the data: Ensure that data from high-quality assessments to improve instruction and student achievement for all students.
  • Attach resources to priorities: Ensure efficient use of resources by checking to see if you are getting a return on investment from programs, and planing strategically for the future.

Until students, parents, teachers, administrators, policymakers, and community members understand how student assessment can enable them to better carry out their role in education, believe that assessment can improve teaching and learning, and put into place activities and behaviors to act on these beliefs, we will not effectively meet the learning needs of all Arkansas students.

Assessment literacy is critical to student success.


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