By Katrina Schwartz | Originally Published at MindShift. April 2, 2014

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 ownperformance 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.

“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.”

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.