Sound Assessment Through Proper Policy

Aligning teacher and school practices to support the system’s mission and goals by Stephen J. Chappuis

If organizational learning guru Peter Senge were to spend time with a school board policy manual and its first cousin at the site level, the faculty handbook, he might tell us that both documents are ripe for the application of systems thinking.

If we approached school district policy as a system of governance and guidance, all district and building policies would be written to support the whole. With such a foundation, we might expect policy to help advance the mission and goals of the district.

It seems reasonable to think that policies developed in this systemic framework would influence sound educational practice, especially if the emphasis on improving student learning were the first consideration in policy review and development. But as Doug Reeves, founder and chairman of the Center for Performance Assessment, reminds us, despite our work to develop standards-based school systems for more than a decade, policies and practices in many schools and districts do not reflect that mission. Instead they show that the bell curve and norm-referenced thinking are still alive and well.

Mission Support
Five years after the passage of No Child Left Behind, we know that sound assessment practice is essential for every school, district and state seeking to establish a model of schooling centered on the mission of educating all students well. Policies can play a role in supporting sound assessment practice, and through that, improved student learning.

For example, what follows is an excerpt from a school district’s policy on teacher lesson planning:

“To maintain continuity of instruction and ensure adequate planning, the School Board requires that every teacher develop lesson plans for daily classroom instruction. To ensure effective instruction, lesson plans should be prepared in advance of classroom instruction. Lesson plans shall be reviewed on a regular basis by the building principal. The plan book must be easily available when a substitute teacher is required in the classroom.”

Maybe your district doesn’t have a policy on teacher lesson planning, but if there is going to be a lesson plan policy, the district should ensure the policy clearly supports the mission of the district, and in doing so, contributes to student achievement.

Although this board policy has some clarity and detail, improvements could be made to more effectively link lesson plans to improved student learning.

If we want students to see learning as a set of goals rather than isolated daily events, shouldn’t the policy consider longer-range planning as well as daily lesson plans? Should the policy address the development of collaborative plans by grade-level or department teams? What about the format of the plan? Are there critical elements of a lesson plan that a school district might want to ensure are part of the planning process? Is there one template, or is every teacher able to select his or her preferred model?

A district policy on lesson plans can specifically support quality assessment by targeting three areas:

• Lesson content: The way the policy is written in the above example, the reader is left to ask the question, “Lesson planning about what?” Whales? The teacher’s favorite activity? Page 23 in the math book? A lesson policy should require teachers refer directly to the state/district content standards when planning instruction, thereby increasing the congruence between the written curriculum and the taught curriculum.

Further, the foundation of all good assessment is clear learning targets for both teachers and students. If lesson plans are fuzzy, with poorly defined expectations about what students should know and be able to do, then the assessments used to determine how well students learned are certain to be equally fuzzy. When that is the case, accurate assessment of student learning is compromised. Sample language that would address this issue might be: “All lesson plans will use the state standards and aligned district curriculum as the foundation for instructional planning and delivery.”

• Assessment: Nothing in this policy on lesson plans speaks to assessing student learning relative to the content. A more complete policy might address how and when the teacher will know that students have attained the desired level of mastery of the stated objectives. This can be addressed by adding: “... and should include how and when the teacher will assess students to gather evidence of learning success.”

• Purpose: Finally, the last line of the sample policy requiring lesson plans be made readily available for substitute teachers may have been intended to address the concern that since lessons plans are not consistently provided for substitute teachers, substitutes spend more time managing classrooms than teaching.

Although substitutes need support and direction when they walk into a classroom, retrofitting an instructional policy to satisfy a different interest compromises the original purpose of the policy and its potential to contribute to student learning.

Policy with Purpose
Our approach to policy is central to our ability to use it as a tool to improve student learning. One traditional view of policy is to regard it as being about compliance and regulation. Certainly an important function of school and district policy is to certify alignment and compliance with state, local and federal regulations, ensuring that district procedures provide personnel the necessary support and the most current guidelines.

But we can view policy in ways that go beyond compliance and regulation, ways in which policy becomes an action arm of the district strategic plans or ways in which it helps communicate and accomplish the mission of the district. Seen this way, policies can be related, coherent plans that help increase student achievement.

All of these policies, as well as many others in the policy manual, are connected to student assessment: lesson planning, promotion and retention, student selection/placement, accountability, instruction, graduation requirements, homework, grading, teacher evaluation and communicating student progress.

Each policy could be written and used to promote the assessment vision, beliefs and practices of the district. Closely related topics should be grouped and considered together when policies are being developed. For example, the grading, assessment, graduation requirements, promotion/retention and attend-ance policies need to be congruent and considered together during policy development. And there’s a logical connection between the lesson plan policy and the homework policy and between the homework policy and the grading policy.

What follows is a section from a school board policy on homework:

“Purposeful homework assignments enhance student achievement and develop self-discipline and associated good working habits in students. Homework must be planned and organized; be an extension of classroom instruction; be viewed as purposeful by students; and be evaluated and returned to the student in a timely manner.”

Certainly homework should be an extension of the classroom, something students see as a purposeful learning aid. Some might applaud the accountability requirement on timeliness in providing evaluative feedback to students and returning the homework to students. But from an assessment point of view, this section of the policy, if left alone, fosters poor assessment practice.

The policy fails to address a central assessment issue: What is the purpose of homework? Is the primary purpose to provide practice in what has already been taught in the classroom? If so, its purpose is to help students improve. Or is the purpose of homework accountability, meaning it joins other summative classroom assessments by becoming another mark for the grade book?

If homework must be evaluated as stated in this policy, it is removed from the formative assessment for learning column, where assessment is used as instruction to help students improve, and is squarely placed in the summative assessment of learning column.

Left as is or revised to support sound assessment practice, the policy makes clear connections among homework policy, grading policy and student assessment policy; all policies must be considered concurrently if they are to operate as a system.

Belief and Policy
Changing the assessment practices in our schools is difficult, especially at a time when NCLB and accountability assessments dominate the testing landscape. Short cycle, benchmark, common and interim assessments are just a few of the names given to more testing spawned by NCLB, added by many districts to help chart student progress toward state stand-ards and federal adequate yearly progress goals.

One obstacle to changing assessment practice is our prevailing belief that assessment is entirely about measurement. That belief limits our ability to use assessment to promote learning, not simply to measure it.

As we adopt more productive beliefs about assessment and student learning, we need to ensure those beliefs are not contradicted in board policy. In fact, we must ensure our beliefs are clearly supported in a system of policies that are focused on sound assessment practice and the goal that all students learn well.

Stephen Chappuis is executive director of elementary and secondary education with the Educational Testing Service, 317 S.W. Alder St., Suite 1200, Portland, OR 97204. E-mail: schappuis@ets.org


Additional Resources

Stephen Chappuis recommends these print and electronic materials relating to his article:

Assessment for Learning: An Action Guide for School Leaders, 2nd edition, by Stephen Chappuis, Rick Stiggins, Judy Arter and Jan Chappuis. Educational Testing Service, Portland, Ore.

Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: Doing It Right-Using It Well by Rick Stiggins, Judy Arter, Jan Chappuis and Stephen Chappuis. Educational Testing Service, Portland, Ore.

• “Targeting Student Learning: The School Board’s Role as Policymaker.” Illinois Association of School Boards, Springfield, Ill.

In addition, the Assessment Training Institute, founded in 1992 and purchased by Educational Testing Service in 2006, operates a website (www.ets.org/ati) with resources for professional development in assessment for learning.