Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Interim Assessments: A User's Guide; Interim Assessments Are an Important Tool for School Improvement, but They Are Easy to Use Poorly. Mr. Marshall Provides 10 Guidelines for Using These Tests Effectively

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Interim Assessments: A User's Guide; Interim Assessments Are an Important Tool for School Improvement, but They Are Easy to Use Poorly. Mr. Marshall Provides 10 Guidelines for Using These Tests Effectively

Article excerpt

INTERIM assessments are hot in American schools. Also called benchmark or periodic tests, these assessments are given every four to nine weeks to check on students' progress. Small wonder they are popular, since they embody three powerful insights: first, that initial teaching, no matter how good, can't bring all students to proficiency because of differences in their prior knowledge, attention, and motivation; second, that we shouldn't wait till the end of the year to find out who's confused; and third, that if we put our minds to it, we can fix many learning problems before they snowball.

Great teachers, athletic coaches, and drama and music instructors have always applied these insights, and their intuitive sense of how to bring out the best in children is confirmed by three strands of research:

* Benjamin Bloom's work on mastery learning (which found that when teachers look at unit assessment results and work to get all students to 80%-85% mastery before moving on to the next unit, year-end achievement improves dramatically);

* the "effective schools" research (which found that beat-the-odds schools almost always made good use of data from ongoing assessments); and

* Total Quality Management (which showed that factories can produce higher-quality products if they pay attention to input from teams of workers and empower them to stop production lines and fix problems on the spot).

What happens when teachers don't use interim assessment data? The achievement gap widens. As Grant Wiggins puts it, "The more you teach without finding out who understands the information and who doesn't, the greater the likelihood that only already-proficient students will succeed." (1) Unfortunately, this is a very common state of affairs, which is why most schools are engines of inequality. The students who enter with disadvantages tend to be the same ones who don't understand after initial teaching, and they are also the ones who are harmed most when teachers move on without checking for understanding and following up. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

This is not the way we want our schools to be--hence the popularity of interim assessments, which claim to counteract such gap-widening tendencies.

PROBLEMS USING INTERIM ASSESSMENTS

In my work coaching principals in a number of districts, I'm seeing problems. Here are some common glitches in the use of interim assessments:

* Administrators sometimes fail to explain the rationale behind interim assessments, and so teachers see them as "one more thing" from the clueless central office. (All we do is test, test, test. Why don't they just let us teach?) When this happens, teachers tend to communicate their negativity to students, thereby souring the whole process.

* Teachers often fear that interim tests will be used to blame them for student failure. This makes them tighten up and not engage in the kind of free-flowing discussions of assessment data that can drive improvements in teaching and learning.

* Commercial interim tests are often poorly aligned with standards, state tests, and pacing calendars. When students are required to take tests on material they haven't been taught, they get discouraged, and their teachers get mad.

* When interim tests are given only two or three times a year, teachers can't fix learning problems in a timely manner. February is too late to find out about serious gaps in understanding.

* Interim tests that are short and superficial don't give teachers enough information to have useful conversations with their colleagues on ways to improve instruction.

* When interim tests are scored externally, teachers have less ownership and interest and may shrug off the test reports. When teachers have to go online to get their results, navigating through complex websites, few are likely to persist and extract the data they need to improve their teaching. …

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