02 August 2018

Quality Assessment Part 1: Quality Factors


As I wrap up my service at the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium I am reflecting on what we've accomplished over the last 5+ years. We've assembled a full suite of assessments; we built an open source platform for assessment delivery; and multiple organizations have endorsed SmarterBalanced as more rigorous and better aligned to state standards than prior state assessments.

So, what are the characteristics of a high-quality assessment? How do you go about constructing such an assessment? And what distinguishes an assessment like Smarter Balanced from a typical quiz or exam that you might have in class?

That will be the subject of this series of posts. Starting from the achievement standards that guide construction of both curriculum and assessment I will walk through the process Smarter Balanced and other organizations use to create standardized assessments and then indicate the extra effort required to make them both standardized and high quality.

But, to start with, we must define what quality means — at least in the context of an assessment.

Goal of a Quality Assessment

Nearly a year ago the Smarter Balanced member states released test scores for 2017. In most states the results were flat — with little or no improvement from 2016. It was a bit disappointing but what surprised me at the time was the criticism directed at the test. "The test must be flawed," certain critics said, "because it didn't show improvement."

This seemed like a strange criticism to direct at the measurement instrument. If you stick your hand in an oven and it doesn't feel warm do you wonder why your hand is numb or do you check the oven to see if it is working? Both are possibilities but I expect you would check the oven first.

The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that the critics have a point. Our purpose in deploying assessments is to improve student learning, not just to passively measure learning. The assessment is a critical part of the eduational feedback loop.

Smarter Balanced commissioned an independent study and confirmed that the testing instrument is working properly. Nevertheless, there are more things that the assessment system can do support better learning.

Features of a Quality Assessment

So, we define a quality assessment as one that consistently contributes to better student learning. What are the features of an assessment that does this?

  • Valid: The test must measure the skills it is intended to measure. That requires us to start with a taxonomy of skills — typically called achievement standards or state standards. The quality of the standards also matter, of course, but that's the subject of a different blog post.. A valid test should be relatively insensitive to skills or characteristics it is not intended to measure. For example, it should be free of ethnic or cultural bias.
  • Reliable: The test should consistently return the same results for students of the same skill level. Since repeated tests may not be composed of the same questions, the measures must be calibrated to ensure they return consistent results. And the test must accurately measure growth of a student when multiple tests are given over an interval of time.
  • Timely: Assessment results must be provided in time to guide future learning activities. Summative assessments, big tests near the end of the school year, are useful but they must be augmented with interim assessments and formative activities that happen at strategic times during the school year.
  • Informative: If an assessment is to support improved learning, the information it offers must be useful for guiding the next steps in a student's learning journey.
  • Rewarding: Test anxiety has been the downfall of many well-intentioned assessment programs. Not only does anxiety interfere with the reliability of results but inappropriate consequences to teachers can encourage poor instructional practice. By its nature, the testing process is demanding of students. Upon completion, their effort should be rewarded with a feeling that they've achieved something important.

Watch This Space

In the coming weeks, I will describe the processes that go into constructing quality assessments. Because I'm a technology person, I'll include discussions of how data and technology standards support the work.

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