Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Finding Balance: Designing a Balanced (and Effective) Assessment System

Any follower of recent education publications intended either for educators or the general public will have frequently come across mention of the notion that it is important for an assessment system used in K-12 education to be balanced. The concept of a “Balanced” Assessment System isn’t new. A quick Google search will show writings dating back to the early 90’s on the first page. While the notion isn’t something that has its genesis in this modern era of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race To the Top (RTT), these initiatives have certainly contributed to the rise in prominence of this idea. My purpose with this post is to discuss what makes an assessment system balanced and, critically, what is needed to make a balanced assessment system effective.

Starting a discussion of a balanced assessment system begs the question about what exactly must be balanced with what. In short, the balanced assessment notion argues that assessment systems have many different purposes and that those purposes must be balanced without one overwhelming the other. The need for an administrator to evaluate the efficacy of a school within the district must be balanced with the teacher’s need to plan based on information about his/her student’s mastery of standards which must be balanced with a student’s need for feedback on his/her work. NCLB and RTT also emphasize the need for state and federal government oversight of schools to be added to the mix.

Balancing all of these different components naturally requires a system that contains different types of assessments. One type of assessment cannot really adequately serve all the different needs. An assessment designed to provide an overview of progress during the entire year must necessarily cover a wide range of topics. The number of items that would be required for that type of coverage would be, to say the least, a bit unwieldy as a tool to provide data for classroom planning. In contrast, informing decision making for the teacher requires an instrument that is targeted to the specific topics that are the focus of instruction at that moment.

When an assessment system involves multiple different types of assessments, each instrument must be specifically designed for its function within the bigger picture. Using an instrument for a purpose other than what it has been designed, while at times being tempting, is a sure route towards making decisions based on data that is invalid. While different instruments are required, they must play well together in order to provide the balance that is sought. This part of the design of an assessment system can be the trickiest as there are many potential pitfalls. One of the most common sources of difficulty is the lack of a common underlying framework dictating the kinds of assessments to be used and the purposes served by each type of assessment. Put another way, it would make little sense for the formative component to be aligned to a different instructional plan that the quarterly benchmark assessments. An administrator who is following student progress by observing results on formative assessment could be in for quite a surprise when state tests are administered. In order for the different measures of student proficiency that are part of a balanced assessment system to present a complete and sensible picture, they have to be aligned to the standards targeted for instruction. It is also important that all components of the assessment system provide valid and reliable results. If classroom formatives aren’t producing reliable results then they don’t contribute to the overall picture in a dependable way and can produce a misleading impression. It should be noted that reliability of an assessment is something that must be evaluated on an ongoing basis. It has been well established in the literature that items that perform one way for a group of students can behave entirely differently for a different group of students.

ATI advocates and supports a balanced approach to the implementation of an assessment system. A complete and balanced picture of student achievement that meets the needs of administrators, teachers, students and parents is fundamental to increasing student achievement. Districts design benchmarks to be specifically aligned to the scope and sequence of their curriculum. A similar process is used to ensure that formatives are aligned to district instructional objectives. Benchmarks and formatives may be assembled together to form a complete picture of student learning that is well suited to determining if students are making progress overall in a school or particular class. Performance of items is also continually evaluated in order to determine how the instruments are performing with the students who are assessed.

How has the notion of a balanced assessment system impacted your district’s assessment practices?

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