The testing landscape has been changing in recent years with the adoption of new college- and career-readiness standards in many states. As administrators review the options, it’s important to find assessments that are meaningful and relevant to students’ learning. We’ve asked experts for advice about what to look for when selecting tests, and we’ve developed the following checklist of criteria. To be effective, meaningful assessments should do these things:
1. Align to standards.
Whether your state is using the Common Core State Standards or your own set of college and career standards, assessments should match the rigor of the curriculum that is being taught in the classroom, according to Scott Norton, director of standards, assessment and accountability for the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington, D.C.
2. Present a clear picture of students’ knowledge.
In its principles for choosing a high-quality assessment, CCSSO outlines the types of content that are expected of students to be ready to excel in college or the workplace. In English, tests should focus on complex texts, analytical thinking, research, writing and communication skills. Math assessments should measure content needed to succeed in later math, focus on understanding and fluency, and include both brief and long questions that connect math content to application.
3. Produce valuable reports on student progress.
The scores should give school leaders detailed and meaningful feedback that shows if students are on track toward readiness by grade and course. “Assessment is one camera shot,” says Paul Weeks, Sr. Vice President of ACT in Iowa City, Iowa. “The purpose is to measure that point in time, but you have to be able to do something with it for it to really matter.” In addition to individual level and state level information, when reports are available by subgroups, skill proficiency, or subject proficiency, district administrators can look across the big picture to improve student achievement.
4. Provide actionable next steps.
The data should inform instruction and be useful to teachers in the classroom. “Look for tests that are going beyond the diagnostics,” says Jane Dornemann, a spokesperson for Amplify, a digital-education-product company based in Brooklyn, N.Y. A good assessment report gives insight to personalize instruction. It provides exact information about where students are struggling and highlights the skills they need to work on to improve.
“You shouldn’t need an interpreter to tell you how to read the score assessment report,” says Weeks. Results should be conveyed with clarity and graphics—and not educational lingo— so any parent can pick them up and understand what they can do to help their student where they are deficient or grow in areas of strength. “If you are really focused on assessments as a learning tool….then you want the score reports to actually be used and not just a checkbox,” says Weeks.
6. Follow best practices in test administration.
To make sure assessments are fair, valid and have integrity, CCSSO underscores the importance of solid security around test items and answer documents.
7. Be accessible to all students.
the proper testing accommodations are provided to students with disabilities as well as English-language learners who need alternative formats or extra time.
8. Be transparent.
Sample questions should be made publicly available so students can adequately prepare. While some criticize teaching to the test, Thomas Guskey, professor in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, says that teachers should be testing what they teach. “I don’t know where we got onto this idea that we should test kids on things that they haven’t been taught,” he says. “The whole idea in teaching and the assessment fields is we have to be teaching things that are really valuable for them to learn and then we need to make sure their assessments match those learning goals.”
Administrators should look for a variety of test items, technology-enhanced questions and mix of questions that are challenging. When the Fordham Institute recently reviewed four standardized assessments, Research Manager Victoria McDougal says they looked at whether tests covered higher-order thinking skills and extended analysis, not just basic recall.
The process of selecting an assessment should be open and involve more than one person—typically with a task force requesting proposals and following a structured procurement process.