from Educators' eZine
Love it or hate it, high stakes testing is a way of life. To help our elementary and middle schools better prepare for the Georgia Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) we decided to create quarterly district benchmark assessments.
Why create more tests? We wanted to provide teachers with data throughout the school year to help them better evaluate their strategies and determine if students were learning what they needed to be learning—rather than just crossing our fingers at the end of the year and hoping students would perform well on the state test.
We had not done benchmark testing before. If a teacher wanted to give a unit test, they did. But we had nothing available system-wide.
Initially, we implemented a benchmark testing product in all 11 elementary and middle schools. Teachers, however, did not like the program. They felt it was forced on them and resented it—and rightfully so. The program turned out not to be a good fit and, in hindsight, we should have introduced it differently and made teachers partners in the process.
We then set out to find a different program. Instead of diving in, however, we decided to just dip a few toes first. In spring 2004, we initiated a pilot program at three schools, using Scantron's Achievement Series, a web-based assessment platform.
As we launched the formative assessment program in each of the three schools, we actively solicited teachers' feedback and suggestions for improvement. We used this information to fine-tune our implementation. This helped teachers feel like they were part of the process and that their input was important—which, of course, it was. For any program to be consistently implemented and ultimately succeed, it must have the support of teachers.
Gradually, we rolled out the program to all the elementary and middle schools, and initiated district-wide benchmark testing.
Creating and administering benchmark tests
Our instructional support staff creates item banks for our benchmark tests. The tests—which are aligned with the district's curriculum map for each quarter—are delivered three times a year in math and English/language arts in grades one through eight, and in science in grades three through eight.
Most students take the benchmark tests online in their school computer lab. However, some schools choose to deliver the tests using scanners and paper forms, particularly with special education students.
Analyzing the results
Teachers and administrators use the assessment software to view reports online immediately after the tests are over. We view the data in a variety of ways—by class, grade, school, district, or subject—to guide instruction and inform decision-making in preparation for our state tests.
With this data, teachers can easily see whether the whole class, a group of students, or just certain individuals need more help with a particular concept or skill. Teachers often use the benchmark test results to hold individual meetings with students and parents to discuss on which areas the student needs to work. Or, if there is an area with which the whole class had issues, the teacher may go back and revisit that subject as a daily warm-up activity or as the focus of a learning center in the classroom.
Teachers also get together at grade level meetings to discuss how their classes did and to collaborate. If one class did better on an area of fractions, for example, that teacher can share ideas with the other teachers about what worked in her classroom.
At each school, the principal and assistant principal discuss individual student, class and school results as well. This helps them zero in on what is going on in their building and focus their school improvement efforts.
At the district level, the instructional support staff reviews the results from all the schools seeking any major areas of weakness and to determine how they can help teachers address those areas. For example, they may use that data to go into schools to do lesson modeling, to order materials, or to focus professional development.
Administering classroom tests
To monitor student progress between the quarterly benchmarks, some teachers create tests using content from the assessment platform's item banks or based on simple answer keys. One reason that teachers like using the program to develop tests is that they have immediate access to detailed reports as soon as the test is scored.
When I was teaching middle school, I had five classes—and limited time to grade tests. When I would grade a test and determine a student's test score, say the score of "85," that "85" did not tell the student anything. It did not tell me anything either unless I spent hours doing further analysis. Is the student meeting state standards? Is he ready for the state test? Did other students miss the same concepts he did? If so, how many?
In contrast, now teachers can quickly look at students' results, identify strengths and weaknesses, and reflect on their own teaching and delivery methods to see where they are effective and where they may have missed a step. It not only saves time but enables teachers to focus more attention on providing targeted instruction and improving their own practice as well.
Balancing accountability and learning
Today, Jackson County Schools is effectively balancing accountability requirements with the goal of maximizing student learning. Because of the intense monitoring of our benchmark tests, we are no longer surprised when our state test scores arrive. We go in with our eyes wide open because we already have a good idea of how students will perform.
The efforts of our entire school community continue to pay dividends as indicated in our CRCT results. With the state promotion guidelines requiring that all third-graders pass reading, and that fifth- and eighth-graders pass reading and math, schools take special care to monitor students in these grade levels.
Our 2006 test results reveal that:
- 99 percent of third graders met the reading standard.
- 95 percent of fifth graders met the reading standard.
- 98 percent of eighth graders met the reading standard.
- 98 percent of fifth graders met the math standard.
- 93 percent of eighth graders met the math standard.
Although test results also show the majority of students not meeting the standard were special needs students, these students are progressing. It takes time and varied resources to meet the needs of special populations, and we continually strive to improve instruction for all students.
With today's increased focus on accountability and the test scores of all students, our teachers and school and district leaders are keeping their attention on what matters most—individual students and their needs.