On June 3, Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, presented an assessment plan for the 2019-2020 school year to the District 65 School Board. The plan was also detailed in a 13-page memo prepared by Dr. Beardsley and Donna Cross, MTSS Coordinator, that was also presented to the Board.

“We are working to improve the overall assessment tools and the assessment experience and impact for our teachers and our students,” said Dr. Beardsley. “This has been a collaborative effort with Board colleagues, with DEC [the teachers union] colleagues and with District administrators.”

Board President Suni Kartha and Board Vice President Anya Tanyavutti – “representing the School Board” –  participated in the meetings to develop the assessment plan.

The Long-Term Goal

Dr. Beardsley said the long-term goal is to “Develop an assessment framework that is an integrated, systematic process that can determine the nature and extent of student learning and social/emotional development and the effectiveness of the learning experiences that lead to these outcomes.”

The memo detailing the 2019-2020 assessment plan is a “very strong, virtually final draft,” said Dr. Beardsley, adding that the “assessment information is still in process and may have some minor revisions before we finalize it.”

To be effective, the memo says, an assessment system needs to meet 16 criteria, including that it must be aligned with learning standards, inform educators where they may need to modify instruction to increase student learning, monitor student growth, measure student learning on a summative basis, determine who is and is not meeting grade-level expectations, inform why students are not meeting grade-level expectations, limit cultural bias and be culturally relevant. 

Dr. Beardsley said the committee reached “an understanding that we’re looking at assessment at three different layers.”

First, she said, “We want to measure students to our standards, which tend to be an external standardized assessment.” This type of assessment should provide District 65 educators and parents “a clear understanding of how a child, class, school or District is performing relative to national peers at the grade level,” says the memo. An example of this type of assessment is the MAP Growth assessment, which the District uses “as a universal screener to identify students who may be in need of academic opportunities or intervention. This assessment provides information that educators can access and use to inform instruction for all students in the classroom.” 

Second, the District uses assessments designed by the organizations or people who have designed the curriculum taught by the District. These assessments are “used to measure students’ ability to master the skills in the instructional unit or units, and this assessment is generally given to all students,” says the memo. Dr. Beardsley said, “We want to use our curricular assessments in order to inform day-in-day-out our Tier 1 instruction,” which is the instruction provided to all students.

Third, “Diagnostic assessments are used to learn more about why a student may not yet be achieving grade level skills,” says the memo. “We need to have diagnostic and progress monitoring tool to support our formative work and our interventions,” said Dr. Beardsley.

Some Key Changes in Assessments

“One of the primary things we wanted to do with this work is to decrease the amount of assessment time, and there are some pretty significant shifts in the work that we were able to agree on,” said Dr. Beardsley.

ISEL and DRA – K to 3

The Illinois Snapshot of Early Learning (ISEL) has been administered to students in kindergarten through second grade to assess literacy skills. ISEL will be eliminated in all grades except kindergarten, said Dr. Beardsley. The District will administer the KIDs assessment in kindergarten classrooms next year. The KIDS assessment focuses on four domains: Approaches to Learning and Self-Regulation; Social and Emotional Development; Language and Literacy Development and Cognition: Math.

The District is searching for a new 1:1 literacy assessment to replace the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA), which is a 1:1 assessment that has been given two to three times a year to assess literacy skills in kindergarten through third grade. The memo says the DRA is not fully aligned to Common Core State Standards, lacks critical thinking and inferential comprehension questions and has other drawbacks.

The District piloted University of Chicago’s Strategic Teaching and Evaluation of Progress (STEP) Assessment at three schools – (Lincoln, K-5), Washington (K-5), and Bessie Rhodes (K only) – during the 2018-19 school year, as a possible replacement of the DRA. Dr. Beardsley said some teachers at two of the schools do not want to continue the pilot, but some educators said it is worth giving it another try.

Dr. Beardsley said they have modified the pilot and are continuing it for another year to determine if STEP, as modified, has the ability to inform instruction in a manner that will strengthen literacy instruction with a specific consideration for accelerating achievement of students of color. If the pilot is not successful, “then we’ll move onto piloting another assessment,” Dr. Beardsley said.

MAP – Grades 2-5

The Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) is the District’s primary method of assessing student academic performance. The MAP test in math is given to second through eighth graders, and the MAP test in reading is given to third through eighth graders. With a change implemented last month, the MAP test would be given, with some variations, in the fall, the winter and the spring.

One important change in the assessment plan for the upcoming school year is to stop giving the MAP test to students in the fall of a school year, if the student took the spring MAP test at the end of the prior school year. In that case, “We will use the spring MAP assessment data,” said Dr. Beardsley.

Dr. Beardsley said that educators will be provided a conferencing protocol that they can use if they want to have a conversation with a student to assess a student’s reading ability and see if the spring test data is still valid. If not, the educators will have the option to give the fall MAP test to the student.

In addition, the math MAP test will not be given in the fall to second-graders and the reading MAP test will not be given in the winter to third graders.

Measuring SEL

The memo says, “The District is committed to developing a comprehensive plan for assessment of social emotional learning competencies. SEL competencies are essential knowledge, skills, attitudes, and mindsets that individuals need to succeed in life.”

Last school year, Dr. Beardsley said, the District piloted SELweb, a web-based system for assessing social emotional comprehension. “SELweb measures emotional recognition, perspective taking, social problem-solving, and self-control through games and interactive stories,” says the memo. The District piloted SELweb in kindergarten and first grade SEEL classes. Dr. Beardsley said there were challenges using SELweb at those grade levels, adding it would be more feasible in grades three through seven.

The plan going forward is to determine the SEL competencies that the District wants to assess and review possible assessment tools in the 2019-2020 school year, and then pilot an SEL assessment or assessments in 2020-2021, with a goal to fully implement an SEL assessment system in 2021-2022. 

One key factor is that any assessment selected to assess SEL must be free of cultural and implicit bias. In addition, the information obtained in the assessments should be able to be used in a “strengths-based and developmental manner as opposed to a diagnostic manner,” says the memo. 

Dr. Goren added that the District needs to be careful that students are not being “labeled” through the use of assessments of social and emotional learning.

Spanish Literacy Assessment

The District’s Dual Language and ESL Department has been prepared to go forward with a pilot of Las Links since April 2019. Las Links is a research-based Spanish language proficiency assessment that measures the speaking, listening, reading, writing and comprehension skills of students. The test is also approved for awarding the Seal of Biliteracy. The District plans to administer the assessment twice during the school year as part of the pilot.

Comments About the Plan

Meg Krulee, the President of DEC, thanked Dr. Beardsley for listening to the educators’ voice around wanting to protect student instruction and also their social, emotional experience at school, “but also honoring that we do have to have a way to measure students’ growth and achievement.”

Board President Suni Kartha said, “This memo represents months of intensive work, and I think you captured it so well – everything we discussed.”

“Anya and I were there along the way. I think this is a tremendous start.”

Board Vice President Anya Tanyavutti said, “I think this is an excellent capture of the conversation and the months of work and the many different perspectives that were shared, but I just want to highlight it’s representational of collaborative work centered on children’s experience in the classroom.”

Dr. Goren said, “If we could figure out a way to switch some of our assessment schedules so the beginning of the year is focused on relationships and grounding in the classroom and the joy of being in the classroom, … then it’s a better day. We found some light at the end of the tunnel at this stage, and we’ll continue to do that.”

Board member Sergio Hernandez said, “Triple thank you for thinking of our English learners …” He added assessments can be relevant to a 21st century model, and focus on growth, social and emotional learning and the arts. He suggested that the District create a measure for fine arts.

Ms. Tanyavutti asked how the District is ensuring that parents are getting information about how their kids are doing.

Dr. Goren said the District could craft communications for parents that explain the purpose of the assessments and what the District hopes to gain from the assessments. He said the assessment memo provides a good starting point.

Ms. Tanyavutti, said, “While we know that assessment tools have historically had a biased purpose, there are some of us in the world who have constantly been told by those tools that we’re inferior, right, whether it’s us as individuals or us as a group. So the performance on these do matter to us. We want to know how our kids are doing. We know our kids are brilliant, and we want to see them having the opportunity to demonstrate it – some of us.

“So I guess I wanted to highlight that recognition of the fact that these tools have historically been used to perpetuate untruths about individuals and groups of individuals does not mean that we don’t want to be communicated with about how children are doing according to these tools.”

District 65’s 2018 Achievement and Accountability Report said the Northwest Evaluation Association, the vendor of MAP, has convened bias and sensitivity panels in an attempt to eliminate having racially and socioeconomically biased content in the test. Yet, it is possible that some bias may persist in the measurement, said the report.

In the debates leading up to revamping the No Child Left Behind Act in 2015, there was a discussion about whether to require standardized tests as part of the new law.

On Jan. 30, 2015, 27 major civil rights organizations and education advocates, including the NAACP and the National Urban League, urged Congress to require as part of the new law: “Annual, statewide assessments for all students (in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school) that are aligned with, and measure each student’s progress toward meeting, the state’s college and career-ready standards.”

On May 5, 2015, 12 civil rights organizations, including the NAACP and the National Urban League, announced their opposition to a movement urging that parents be allowed to “opt out” of taking tests. In a joint statement, the civil rights organizations said, “Our commitment to fair, unbiased, and accurate data collection and reporting resonates greatest in our work to improve education. The educational outcomes for the children we represent are unacceptable by almost every measurement. And we rely on the consistent, accurate, and reliable data provided by annual statewide assessments to advocate for better lives and outcomes for our children. These data are critical for understanding whether and where there is equal opportunity.”

Eliminating the assessments, they said, would allow schools to “sweep disparities under the rug.”

Other civil rights groups, however, opposed standardized tests, arguing they were culturally biased, students were over-tested, and teachers spent too classroom time teaching to the test.

On Dec. 10, 2015, President Obama signed into law the “Every Child Succeeds Act,” which revamped the No Child Left Behind Act. The new law requires that States administer standardized tests in reading and math annually in grades 3-8, and at least once in high school. Science tests must also be administered.

In the Spring of 2018, the NAACP issued a statement that it opposes “High-Stakes Educational Testing.” While recognizing that “high stakes” tests “serve an important role in educational settings,” the NAACP opposed using a single examination to determine whether a student may graduate from high school or be promoted to the next grade.

School District 65 does not use tests in that manner, but rather to inform instruction, to identify students who need supports, to assess whether students are being prepared for college and/or a career, and to assess whether the District’s programs are making progress in closing opportunity and achievement gaps.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...