Assessment: Can You Have It All?

The Competing Priorities of Assessments

There have been many debates over assessment in recent years—and yet a decades-old one persists: can a test serve a dual role—providing both Criterion Referenced Test (standards-based; CRT) and Norm Referenced Test (NRT) interpretations? The apparent dichotomy received significant attention in the NRT-CRT debates of the 1980s, and a somewhat arbitrary firewall was established suggesting that stakeholders of student assessment have to choose between either a CRT or an NRT, or students must test in both. Do we want to find out how our students have learned relative to a discrete set of concepts, or do we want to know how their achievement compares to that of students in the same or different demographic groups? The reality is often that we desire BOTH.

But as states and districts are faced with pressure to reduce testing time and yet are still required to meet various accountability requirements, student seat time is at a premium. When to assess and how often are top of mind for districts and states. This is further complicated by the need for a balanced assessment system aligning with the philosophy that testing, along with robust curriculum and instruction, plays a key role in the student learning cycle. How can stakeholders best address these apparently competing priorities?

Policy's Effect on Assessment

The script is well known. At the height of NCLB-era assessment, states were striving to develop custom tests designed to ultimately meet accountability requirements. Each state went about this differently. Unfortunately, an unintended consequence was that comparing state test results became nearly impossible and therefore stakeholders turned to assessment like NAEP, ACT, and SAT to draw comparisons across states. Emerging from the state-led initiative to develop Common Score State Standards (CCSS), one goal seemed to be in reach—the ability to compare student results across states.

While we are still in the early phases of testing under a perhaps eroding CCSS framework, states have faced internal pressures on their statewide assessments leading some to take different paths. Further, federal waivers from accountability have resulted in increased pressure on testing for teacher and principal evaluations, which has resulted in even more testing, with NRTs sometimes fulfilling this role. As these changes make their way through the educational assessment industry, it has caused some states, districts, and dioceses to take inventory of what they are assessing and why.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Even as these changes occur, a few key goals seem to remain clear: testing is a necessary aspect of learning, reducing testing time is highly desired, and meeting accountability requirements—often including components of student growth and teacher evaluation—is critical.

Figure 1

It is important that we all work to improve assessment literacy and to help dispel a few of the often-reported myths regarding the need to keep CRTs and NRTs completely distinct and separate. The purposes for testing and the primary uses of the results must serve as the foundation for deciding which assessment(s) to use, and then we must build a body of evidence to support our position. Important works such as the Standards for Educations and Psychological Testing (AERA, APA, NCME, 2014) and the Operational Best Practices for Statewide Large-Scale Assessment Programs (CCSSO, ATP, 2013) provide clear standards and proven practices to assist in guiding a collection of valid evidence. This is necessary to support the interpretation of test scores related to a particular assessment and/or assessment program.

Figure 2

Careful planning and appropriate validity research can allow for multiple important and useful applications of an assessment to be derived.

Watch for additional blogs on this topic in future issues of The Spark. You may also wish to read the latest Spotlight on Assessment, which focuses on this topic.

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