Communicating Student Achievement in a Time of Change: Assessment can Help

  Jean Fleming

Northwest Evaluation Association  

Ward As 2015 begins, most states have more rigorous academic standards in place. This means expectations of what students should know and be able to do have increased, and teachers have, in some cases, been teaching to the new standards for several years. This year, as state accountability systems are in flux, some districts will transition to new assessments such as Smarter Balanced or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).     

For school leaders, this means preparing for an arguably more complex challenge—explaining to parents and the community how to make sense of new student achievement scores. Administrators are right to prepare now, as student proficiency levels are likely to drop in states adopting new assessments. Putting this in context will be essential for managing the concern that arises.     

The key issue in assessments under the new standards is that declining proficiency scores are not necessarily indicative of declining student achievement. In fact, according to the 2014 study, “The Phantom Collapse of Student Achievement in New York,” the drop in proficiency rates in New York after the implementation of new assessments showed a decrease in student performance but reflected an increase in the standard of proficiency. New test scores and the associated drops must be viewed and understood as a starting indicator of how students are meeting a higher bar of college and career readiness.     

This is a trend to which administrators should be attuned, as positioning student performance in these terms will help parents and communities understand the need for high standards, the purpose of new assessments and most importantly, the progress required.     

So how can school and district leaders approach these important conversations? One tool that can help is longitudinal assessment data from high-quality interim assessments. These assessments serve many purposes—from informing instruction to measuring student growth over time. But now, during this time of transition, the information gleaned about where students are in their learning can help tell the story of student progress in powerful new ways. Here’s how.      

What should administrators do?    

Administrators should start by framing the issue around the larger goals of the new standards—to ensure that all students graduate from high school ready to take on college level work, enter the military, or otherwise step into post-secondary life poised for success. This way, when the inevitable question arises about why the proficiency scores decreased, administrators can ask a different, more important question: How did student performance change over time?     

Information from different assessments can provide inputs to answer to this question and provide deeper evidence of whether or not students are learning. Districts using high-quality interim assessments, such as the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment from Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), have been able to articulate a cogent response for teachers, parents, students and other education stakeholders, as the information shows student growth over time, regardless of grade-level placement. Thus, a teacher or administrator can share a student’s starting point, and show how he or she has developed through the course of instruction. In this way, interim assessments can provide an external data point to the new accountability tests, which can reassure parents and community members that students are in fact growing toward new goals.     

Though the data provided by high-quality interim assessments is robust, not all school and district employees will have the assessment literacy needed to effectively communicate the differences between proficiency scores on an accountability test and student achievement and growth information. Administrators must provide appropriate professional development opportunities to ensure all staff understand and utilize different types of assessments to support instruction.     

What should teachers do?    

Teachers, too, must communicate transparently with students and families about the new proficiency assessments. Students and their families need to be guided through the changes in test type, and also set up to understand what a drop in score could mean.  Here, too, high-quality interim assessments can provide teachers with information that helps paint a picture of a student’s learning, showing their trajectory toward college and career readiness.     

When teachers have access to timely information from assessments they can differentiate learning for their students. With specific information about every student’s strengths and challenges, teachers can use innovative approaches to instruction that meet and support every child at his or her optimal learning level.     

With meaningful interim assessments, teachers can play an important role in changing the conversation about student achievement with parents and the community. Education isn’t and shouldn’t be about winners and losers. Focusing on learning growth helps us serve all students. Certainly, part of the conversation with parents will be about proficiency scores on the state test, but teachers can use assessment results to have a richer dialogue about student growth and learning gaps than one framed by a single score from a single test on a single day.     

What should parents do?    

Parents should work closely with their child’s teacher to understand the goals of the new standards, the new approaches to classroom instruction being employed and the different tools that will be used to measure student success. This may mean paying more critical attention to the data provided by district assessments and having an open mind about learning new ways of problem solving with your child.     

Parents have the right to ask questions of their child’s teachers and principals to ensure the data being collected is used to improve their child’s academic achievement and growth. Does the assessment provide timely feedback to teachers to support their child’s learning needs? What different kinds of information are used to determine an instructional plan? What information will I receive to support my child’s learning outside of school? Parents can advocate for efficient assessments that meet teacher, administrator and district needs, and that focus on instructional utility.      


Possible declines in student proficiency levels will signal much debate in districts and around the country on what we teach and how we measure student learning. This dialogue is needed—and can be enhanced with inputs from different assessments, as well as other information a district collects. The key question administrators need to prepare for is not why did scores drop, but rather, how are all students growing?     

The end game—all students graduating ready to take on the challenges of post-secondary life, and achievement gaps closed—is worth the effort to look thoughtfully at the information and communicate clearly about its implications.      

Jean Fleming brings nearly 25 years to her work at Northwest Evaluation Association. She has been a middle school teacher, instructional designer, and reporter for education media.