Flickr: Renata Ganoza

The focus on scoring well on standardized tests has wedged educators into a difficult spot. Teachers are concerned that a poor showing on the tests will jeopardize school funding, or even their jobs, and often feel they have to suspend everything else in order to focus on test prep. Putting so much energy into one assessment — one that doesn’t give teachers and students any granular, actionable information — takes resources, time, and energy away from other kinds of rich learning experiences.

One school district is trying to change the game completely, and could possibly serve as a model for other districts. Douglas County School District outside Denver is hoping to prove to the state education department that the alternative assessments it has developed convey just as much useful information about students’ progress as the standardized tests.

District officials helped write and introduce legislation at the state level to create a waiver system for schools that regularly perform well on state standardized tests. If districts can produce a body of evidence proving they are meeting the expectations of the state for student learning, they could self-report progress. The state would check in to make sure schools are continuing to perform well by testing students once in elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school. The Colorado bill hasn’t passed, but legislators commissioned a study to investigate the topic further.

“Comparability now is more valuable to us in society than performance rigor and having the diversity of opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning,” said Syna Morgan, chief system performance officer for Douglas County Schools. The government wants one number to represent each students’ learning so it can compare across schools and states, easily identifying schools that lag behind or perform well.

While many agree that schools should be accountable for student learning, reducing the measurement down to one score, once a year doesn’t help, Morgan said. The school ends up learning that, on the whole, it got better at reading, but nothing about individual skills like fluency of reading, higher order thinking skills, or the ability to tell the difference between fiction and non-fiction. To get that kind of granular feedback, Douglas County has turned to performance-based assessments.

Douglas County started developing its own performance assessments in 2011 to try and measure the kind of thinking and doing students would need for the real world. Teachers now require students to demonstrate knowledge and skills they’ve learned so that they can pinpoint the specific elements of a nuanced learning goal and be able to tell how a student is doing.

“If you have a set of criteria and you have a clear delineation of what the learning outcomes need to be, then you could measure them in very different ways,” Morgan said. There’s no need to standardize if each student can prove he or she knows the information and can perform the skills.

“Our schools are caught in a tough spot because they still have all these mandates that are tied to standardized tests, and yet they really value the feedback they’re getting when students are doing these kinds of performance tasks,” Morgan said. Right now, teachers in the district are working towards two sets of assessments. They are preparing students for state tests while simultaneously using their own assessments, even though it requires more work for teachers.

“One of the issues is how much time is taken from instructional time when a school is in test mode,” Morgan said. In Colorado students are tested in five areas: reading, writing, math, social studies, and science. Time spent on taking tests adds up to multiple days per student — and because they’re spread out, it takes weeks of prepping and the energy of the whole staff.

“We’re very committed to trying to sway the conversation because I feel like it’s Groundhog’s Day,” Morgan said. While she finds the Common Core State Standards promising as an outline of the skills students should learn, she worries that if the implementation boils down to focus on how schools do on the assessments, then all the effort will end up looking a lot like the last 14 years of high-stakes testing.

One big push against the waiver bill Douglas County is proposing is that it excludes lower-performing schools. It’s inequitable to allow high performing schools to opt out of state testing and yet require the schools that might benefit the most from alternative teaching practices to remain beholden to a test that doesn’t provide teachers any information about how to improve or where students lack knowledge.

“We’re holding all schools accountable to systems designed to police struggling schools,” Morgan said. But many of the country’s struggling schools haven’t improved under the current testing regime. Instead, she’d like them to be included in the waiver program if they can show growth in performance.

As the district experiments with performance based assessments, it’s finding it an easy transition in elementary school, but much harder in the older grades. “The poor middle school and high school students have already been acclimated to this way of thinking, so to give them a performance test is agony,” Morgan said. Those “remedial thinking skills” are what Douglas County hopes to prevent for the next group of students.

  • Monty Neill

    Great idea! It is certainly possible and desirable to gather information/evidence/data on how well kids and schools are doing without relying on standardized tests. See http://fairtest.org/fact-sheet-better-way-evaluate-schools-pdf, http://fairtest.org/fact-sheet-multiple-measures-definition-and-exampl; and a real-world successful example in the U.S. at http://www.performanceassessment.org. The latter are public high schools in NY that have a waiver from all state tests but English, enroll low-income youth mostly of color, who demonstrate success by high grad rates, college entrance rates, and success in college.

  • Will

    That school doesn’t seem so pretty as it sounds I took a look at the many comments on https://www.facebook.com/DCSDK12 and it looks like something is wrong there…
    I just wanted to share where you could find opinion’s from some people.

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  • Mom in DCSD

    The district developed assessments were so bad that the schools threw them out and teachers are writing their own for their classrooms. Legislation demanded assessments be done by every school district in Colorado. DCSD chose to spend taxpayer dollars to develop these “assessments” and a data collection system that is so poorly developed (along with a horrible salary band and pay for performance system) that they are driving great educators away from teaching in a once thriving school district.

    The cost in instruction time, funding and teacher energy to upload “data” to prove their effectiveness is diverting much needed authentic resources away from the children. What sounds good in theory is a miserable (but quite profitable for some) failure that is at the expense of students education.

    As a parent that has watched what these “reforms” have done to diminish classroom success and the negative affects on teachers and children, I can tell you this system should not be copied by any other district. It is NOT working.

    • John T Smith

      It is not even 3 years old and you want it scrapped already? Really? Using that mindset, nothing, in an industry, would even be developed, evaluated, and refined in this country.

      • Kevin

        Yes, I agree that we need a mindset of innovation and growth
        in education as well as industry.
        However, in industry much of the development, evaluation, and refining
        is done during product testing long before it becomes available to all consumers. Focus groups, beta testing, limited market
        testing, etc. are typical. If an
        industry put out a flawed product prematurely, and then it bombed, the product
        would be yanked off the shelves and somebody would probably lose their job. Should be the same for education in this case. Not sure what “product testing” was done, but
        if the assessment and data collection systems in question were implemented with
        the entire demographic prematurely, then it seems like the complaints and
        criticisms are valid.

        • Akira Bear

          Absolutely no product testing was done. And the chaos that resulted ion schools was of epic proportions.

      • Andy

        This experiment directly involves the education of children, not a new Apple watch. Do you want your child to be the guinea pig of such a project and lose 3 years of his or her eduation!?

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  • Dawn Carrico

    “If you have a set of criteria and you have a clear delineation of what
    the learning outcomes need to be, then you could measure them in very
    different ways,” Morgan said. There’s no need to standardize if each
    student can prove he or she knows the information and can perform the
    skills.” (quoted from article)

    So, what would this criteria be? How will you know if a portfolio is, indeed, showing proficiency? What rubrics, accountability tables, or ideals will the portfolios be judged against, since you’re the first district to pursue this? Or will it, too, along with so many other things DCSD has instituted, be developed by the teachers (who are teaching!) on the fly, in fear of retribution if they don’t? Where are the specifics to your plan, DCSD? You can’t just “announce” a different plan without also announcing the comparison information. That might cause some to doubt your intentions . . .

    • John T Smith

      That wasn’t a post about the specifics of the plan. Google it, will ya.

      • Dawn Carrico

        John, you don’t have to be snide. I asked valid questions that most people would have after reading this article.

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  • Kelli

    While I agree that the emphasis on state testing is detrimental (at best) to students who are forced to perform in the system, I also see some test validity issues with a district creating their own method by which they would remain accountable. It is natural for a district to want to look good, and the temptation to skew the data would be great. I think that testing from an outside source gives a district lots of good data to allow them to make changes accordingly. I do wish, however, that there was not such an emphasis placed on testing that students become terrified to take the test, educators make themselves sick over the results, and parents feel that they have no choice other than to keep their children home on that day in order to “opt out”. There should be a system in place that measures individual student growth rather than a pass/fail mentality. Not every student is capable of the same thing. They all have gifts in different areas. That should be taken into consideration.

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  • An actual teacher

    I like the idea of local assessments. Teachers know their students best and this method allows an element of personalization into the classroom. If anyone here is a teacher, I’m sure you’d agree that you have a “specialty” area or at least an “area of true interest” that could really engage students and given the opportunity, these lessons would be some of your best and make the most effective impression on students.
    High stakes testing has turned teachers into robotic, unapproachable, “adults” (in a bad way) in the perspective of students. These intangibles and truisms are going unnoticed and unappreciated in the classroom. To many, it’s what makes education memorable for both teachers and students.
    Accountability is necessary and the disconnect between the classroom teacher, building leaders, home, state, and federal bodies of government is absolutely inexcusable with modern technology.
    In my opinion, it is too easy to have a teacher in the classroom that under performs, but assessing their ability to teach can’t be judged by a high stakes test. If that ideology makes sense to you, please, leave the classroom and find somewhere else to go.
    Wouldn’t it be great if schools had REAL leaders, even at the departmental level, that peer reviewed local assessments to make sure they meet standards and even Common Core ideas but are still personalized and NOT multiple choice? Sure, it is extra work but if you’re not willing to do it as a teacher, again, find somewhere else to go. Right now students need teachers that work hard to turn this situation around. You’re either in it 100% or you’re not.

  • J Cardwell

    Standardized testing has many problems that need to be addressed. Testing anxiety, a form of performance anxiety, effects at least eighteen percent of students. This anxiety causes many physical an emotional symptoms, and as a result, for these students, testing does not show their true capabilities. The National Assessment of Educational Progress has studied score results, and students who qualified for free lunch tested twenty-five percent less on tests than their more privileged classmates. Students supported by a higher income have more resources at home, than a student who is less advantaged and has limited resources at home. Standardized testing cannot work if there is not a level playing field, and allocating funds, or firing teachers, based on these tests is not fair.

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  • Akira Bear

    Design one assessment that does it all. And start demanding that those doing the (lousy job we see now) assessing of schools and teachers get their fat you know what’s out of their seats and do authentic assessment based upon the things that matter – parental feedback; instructional quality; the arts; enrichment programs; degree of teacher innovation (grants, etc); and classroom instruction. You know – the kind of assessment we used to have that actually worked.

    I am tired of my tax dollars being wasted on Pearson testing monopoly’s mystery tests. No one is ever allowed to see these “assessments” of Pearson’s. How do we know what is actually on them? When students fail the assessments in a school, the school is then pressured to buy Pearson curriculum to help them pass. I can certainly see why Pearson would be financially motivated to make sure that students fail. It means more money in their bank account. In addition, Pearson testing monopoly has a long history of being sued over spurious and incorrect test items and answers. How is it that with this shady history, Pearson was chosen to lead the way on Common Core?


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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