In response to: Cancelling interim testing this school year

By Dr. Gene Kerns, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer

Like nearly all children in the 1970s and 80s, I fully embraced the early video games of that era. For many, the only access to these was at video arcades. But if you were really fortunate, you had one of the early home computers—think Commodore 64, Atari, Tandy, or the Apple IIe.

My brother-in-law was a techy person, and we were Atari people. My favourite game for our Atari 800 was called Star Raiders. You piloted your space fighter from quadrant to quadrant encountering the enemy and returning to base when needed for refuelling or repairs. The moment the game started, you did two things: you pressed CTRL-S for shields and CTRL-C for computer.

As the names imply, the shields provided protection while the computer provided navigational information. If it became damaged in battle, navigating was a far less reliable and a far more manual process. If you ran low on fuel and could not make it back to base quickly enough because of your diminished navigational capacity, it was game over.

So, what does this have to do with the 2020–2021 school year? In an earlier blog, I suggested that we’re currently living in a footnote of history, given the disruptions caused by COVID-19. This means that in the future when people look back at student data from this time, there will be a footnote or an asterisk to remind them that the information must be considered through the lens of the pandemic’s disruptions. As we drift through this footnote, I’m now asking whether we have our computers “turned on” to get the navigational information we need.

Confronting the data void

In a profession where the release of high-stakes summative data has been a regular occurrence for nearly two decades, we’re just finding out what it’s like to perform our roles without the flow of information from national exams. There will never be any summative data for the 2019–2020 school year. As we now know, there will be no national exams or SATs for the 20/21 academic year.

If data from these summative tests were the only source of guidance—our only navigational computer— then schools would be totally adrift this year. But they’re not. We have interim assessments that can easily produce normed scores on relative performance, such as percentile ranks (PRs), and on growth, such as Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs). Interim assessments are critical because they provide information that other tools cannot.

Not fully acknowledging the critical role of interim assessments this year, some commentators have focused primarily on the power of formative assessment. They are correct to advance this type of assessment as a critical element because the relationship between student growth and quality formative assessment strategies is well-documented. However, in the same way, various tools allow a master craftsman to produce quality results. Various assessment tools are necessary for teachers to achieve optimal student growth.

Answering essential questions

Formative tools do an excellent job of providing feedback at the instructional level on individual skills or a small set of skills. They can definitively tell you whether a student has mastered a given skill. At the same time, normative data provides different yet equally important insights. For example, formative tools can tell you that across six weeks of instruction, a student mastered 23 skills. However, the normed growth metric of an interim tool can tell you whether, while doing so, the student was progressing at a rate equal to, above, or below her grade-level peers. In other words, was the student maintaining her current overall level of performance, moving ahead, or falling behind during this period?

And it’s not just about growth metrics. There are many questions currently being posed by stakeholders—parents, community members, teachers, boards of education—that relate to overall school and district performance and require normative information to answer (e.g., What has been the impact of the “COVID Slide”? How are our students really performing this year?) Normed scores uniquely allow us to understand each student’s performance and growth relative to that of others.

A definitive case can be made for the use of interim assessments to answer essential questions about performance. The question is whether, amidst all of the disruptions and pressures they are facing, school leaders are making the use of interim assessments a priority. I’m pleased to report that many are.

Supporting learning for all students

Year-over-year usage data for Renaissance Star Assessments reveals that the vast majority of educators continue to use Star as much as they did before COVID-19. For most students, this means a regular cadence of fall, winter, and spring screening to confirm adequate performance and growth. However, a small portion of schools have consciously chosen not to give any interim assessments this school year. Another group may not have made a conscious decision, but have simply neglected to use their interim tools. All of these schools have their navigational computers turned off. They are currently adrift in the void.

I’m amazed at how long some educators are willing to drift without normative information—and curious about their rationale for this. Some view interim assessments’ normative scores as simply a local extension of summative assessments. They’ve asserted that there’s no need to administer interim tests because “there’s nothing to predict”—as if the only role of an interim test is to predict summative outcomes. But the best interim assessments, when used well, do so much more. They support our RTI/MTSS implementations, help us screen students for characteristics of dyslexia, support equitable target-setting, and provide critical information to quantify the impact of the COVID-19 slide.

I remember when I first encountered Star Assessments more than two decades ago. No one really knew what “high stakes accountability” was all about. Summative tests existed, but they were administered far less often. Their results were excessively delayed and barely available to me as a teacher. Star Assessments provided reporting on paper, and even the basic analytic and disaggregation capabilities of today were non-existent. Most teachers now have immediate access to a wealth of data on their students. Not so long ago accessing any normative information on a student was an arduous task that involved getting access to the records rooms and manually going through paper reports in a student’s permanent file. Then came Star.

As a teacher, getting access to Star was the first time I ever had control over a normed assessment. That was powerful. I could administer the test when I wanted to confirm or alleviate any concerns I had about student performance. Star provided information on newly enrolled students on whom we had little other information. It provided powerful reports for parent conferences. Star produced information I could use immediately. It marked the beginning—for me and for many other teachers of that period—of a new era of using assessment information for instructional planning.

Instructional Planning Reports

Instructional Planning Reports

But, as I write this, some schools are coasting along without having administered any interim assessments since last winter, and that have no plans to give any such tests for the remainder of the school year. This is an extremely long time to go without navigational data. It’s like flying a plane for hours without confirming your altitude or direction—simply drifting along without confirming that you’re truly getting closer to your destination.

Now for the good news: the computer can be switched back on at any time. Many scores (e.g., percentile ranks) are immediately generated. While schools that have not tested yet will always have a gap in their data, a new test brings much new information. The longer that schools go without testing, the more prolonged the gaps in their longitudinal data become. 

Also, because more specialised scores, like Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs), require testing within specific time windows, going back online with them is a bit more complicated. Calculating SGPs requires a student testing history. Many schools that had regularly been using Star for autumn, winter and spring screening did not administer the assessment last spring, due to COVID-19 building closures. Once they administered a Star test in autumn 2020, SGPs were generated, because the calculations can still be accomplished even with one testing window missing.

Schools that skipped testing last spring and consciously chose not to—or merely neglected to—administer Star autumn 2020 have temporarily lost access to SGPs, because the score’s calculation cannot be accomplished with two skipped testing windows (Spring 2020 and Autumn 2020). They are adrift without an important growth metric for the first half of this school year. However, they do still have the opportunity to “turn their navigational computers back on” for the second part of the year.

SGP Testing Timeframes

SGP Testing Timeframes

While the autumn window for SGP scores, having run from August 1 through November 30, is now closed, the winter window is currently open. Any Star test taken from December 1 through March 31 is a step taken to begin to bring the SGP “navigational system” back online for second half of the year. With a test in both the winter window and the spring window (December 1 through July 31), a Winter 2021 to Spring 2021 SGP will be calculated, providing a key metric on students’ growth during the remainder of the school year.

To schools that have opted to cancel interim testing this year, I say, it’s clearly time to bring your navigational systems back online.

Looking for guidance on administering Star Assessments remotely this school year? Check out the following:

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