Formative assessment gets results in Arizona schools

Mesa Public Schools is the largest school district in Arizona, serving 70,000 students in a diverse population east of Phoenix. The district includes two Native American communities, and approximately half the student body is composed of minorities. Mesa Public Schools uses the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS), a standards-based test, to provide educators and the public with a progress assessment of students’ ability to master Arizona's reading, writing, and mathematics learning standards.

To support classroom planning and learning and help prepare students for the AIMS administration, principals and teachers at Mesa Public Schools wanted more targeted information to track students’ mastery of the state standards. They felt that they were establishing learning goals with insufficient feedback during the course of the year, and were seeking a formative assessment solution that predicted a student’s potential performance on the AIMS.

The District’s assessment selection process began through conversations conducted with key user groups – principals, teacher specialists, test coordinators, and superintendents – who were asked what they wanted in an assessment system, what they liked and didn’t like about existing methods, and what their ideal system would produce.

Feedback from the user groups became the basis of an RFP (Request for Proposal), which identified minimum requirements as well as a “wish list” of features for this system. An adoption committee composed of teachers, principals, and superintendents was formed to review and evaluate proposals. The committee also looked at methods used by other districts, examined what was in the market, and obtained a thorough feel for available options.

CTB/McGraw-Hill’s Acuity™ formative assessment system was the number-one choice by a nearly unanimous decision. The only hesitation came from one member of the adoption committee who was concerned that there was not enough time to align Acuity with the Arizona state standards in the six weeks before school started, which could delay implementation. This concern proved to be unfounded, and Acuity was operational for the first testing administration at the start of the school year.

Acuity is an achievement tool that helps classroom teachers diagnose students’ strengths and needs while predicting student success on state NCLB assessments. Designed in collaboration with educators nationwide, Acuity is a powerful suite of diagnostic and predictive benchmark assessments with clear, concise, and informative reports that provide the data that teachers need to help their students achieve.

Acuity consists of five components:

• Predictive benchmarks that model state standards
• Diagnostic assessments that align to each district’s pacing guide
• Targeted reports available immediately after testing
• Online instructional exercises that provide extra practice
• A test item bank for teacher-created tests

“The factors that sold the committee on Acuity were its look and feel, which we felt would be easier and more engaging for teachers to use, and the instructional activities that could be assigned to students,” said Dr. Joe O’Reilly, Executive Director of Student Achievement Support for Mesa Public Schools and co-chairman of the adoption committee. “The expertise and commitment of CTB/McGraw-Hill was also a plus. CTB/McGraw-Hill is an established, reputable firm with the resources to support and enhance the product.”

Acuity was designed to be classroom-friendly, with both online and paper-and-pencil options to support the level of technology available in schools. Predictive and diagnostic assessments are administered periodically over the school year to monitor student progress. Mesa Public Schools used Acuity’s predictive assessments with 35,000 students in grades 3-8 in the 2007/08 school year. In 2008/09, Acuity’s formative assessments and associated instructional activities are being incorporated as well.

Brief training classes were held for all teachers throughout the District; the classes are supplemented by online video tutorials that teachers can use as refreshers. One-page summaries were developed that explain how and when to use a specific report, how to access it, and how to interpret it. Lastly, each school recruited a technical liaison – a teacher that received a stipend to help others with technical issues –so that Mesa Public Schools could provide colleague-to-colleague assistance.

The predictive test, which mirrored the state assessment and gave a color coded prediction of how a student was going to do on AIMS, met the principals’ needs. But teachers wanted assessments that measured what they just taught. Using the formative assessment banks, clickers or remote response devices and a 16 hour training course, the district has responded to this need. Teachers who have completed this training report that students are doing better, the instructional activities that can be assigned engage students and some students have actually asked for more formative tests to show how they are doing.

Teachers found the Acuity reports to be very clear and organized, and especially liked the ability to sort assessment results by any score or subscore. The new Matrix report answers teachers’ requests for a report that allows them to easily, and in one place, see a class roster with results by item so they can quickly look down a column to see how the class did on a concept or across to see how an individual student did. According to Dr. O’Reilly, a typical teacher comment was, “I don’t need to spread out volumes of paper. All the information I need is right there in one place.”

“Error analysis is one feature that teachers particularly like about Acuity,” said Dr. O’Reilly. “This is something teachers have always done – look at the mistakes students are making in order to re-teach. With Acuity, teachers don’t need to look at each item’s incorrect option to determine what mistake a student is making. Now, all they need to do is look at the distractor analysis to see what mistake the student made when they chose ‘D.’ Acuity allows teachers to spend more time focusing on their students.”

“Overall, Acuity has been a success,” added Dr. O’Reilly. “We haven’t used Acuity long enough to see a measurable impact on state assessments, but principals report a clearer focus on student performance, and teacher feedback has been very positive.”