Testing, testing: A look at other assessments

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

In Pennsylvania, the PSSAs and Keystones are probably the most familiar standardized tests, in part because of the high stakes associated with them.

But students in the School District of Philadelphia take a number of other assessments each year whose names are less well-known. Some help identify for the teacher that a child is not making sufficient progress in learning to read, and others pinpoint why.

These assessments include the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA2), AIMSweb, the Kindergarten Entry Inventory (KEI), the Writing and Reading Assessment Profile (WRAP), and the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Tests. The Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS), an assessment that measures students’ early reading skills, was discontinued in the District after the 2014-15 school year.

Generally, the purpose of these so-called formative assessments is to give teachers a snapshot of students’ reading performance at a particular moment. They are instructional tools because they determine the level at which a child can read independently as well as the instructional reading level – the level at which a child can read with some support. Teachers can also use these assessments to chart a student’s growth in reading over a school year and entire academic career.

Such tests differ from the PSSA and Keystones in terms of whom and what they assess, when and how they are administered, and how the results are used to evaluate students and schools.

Who and what is assessed and how often?

The PSSA is administered once a year to measure the extent to which students are meeting the Pennsylvania Core Standards for reading and math in grades 3-8. Students in grades 4 and 8 also take the PSSA in science.

High school students take the Keystone exams for algebra, biology and literature. If they don’t pass, they can take them again. The Keystone exams are offered three times a year.

The diagnostic assessments are different. They are given at least twice a year, usually once at the beginning and once at the end, as a screening tool to measure reading proficiency. They are not mandated by the state (with the exception of the KEI). When administered in the early years – grades K-3 – they support the push for proficient reading by the time students reach the 4th grade.

The KEI, an observation-based tool, is unique because it is completed by the teacher only once – in the first 45 calendar days of the school year – and because it measures kindergartners’ noncognitive skills, such as their social and emotional disposition, in addition to their math and reading skills. The KEI is based on Pennsylvania’s Learning Standards for Early Childhood.

This chart identifies the differences among five formative assessments in terms of their purpose, who and what they test, and how results are reported. (Click image to see enlarged version.)

When and how are the assessments administered?

The PSSA is administered in the spring of each school year to the entire class at once. Students may answer a combination of multiple-choice, selected-response (which have more than one part and in which more than one answer can be correct), and open-ended questions. The Keystones can be administered as an end-of-course exam, but all students must take it by the end of 11th grade.

The District and schools decide when and how often to administer the diagnostic assessments. They are often given to monitor the progress of individual students in mastering specific skills, or as benchmarks to measure how the whole class is doing.

For progress-monitoring, teachers administer any of the assessments as often as needed. For example, if a teacher wants to monitor whether a particular reading intervention is effective, the teacher may test a group with AIMSweb once every two months to record student growth. If a school uses any of these assessments as a benchmark, teachers administer it to all students at a designated point in the school year, typically at the end of the first, second, and fourth quarters.

Most formative assessments are given through one-on-one teacher-student conferences. (The exception is the Gates-MacGinitie, which is administered whole-group.) Students typically read a text aloud as the teacher takes notes on the student’s reading behaviors and errors. Students then retell the story and answer comprehension prompts about the text orally or in writing.

How are results used?

The PSSA and Keystone exams are scored by the company that develops the test. Results are reported in the fall of the following academic year. The state uses PSSA and Keystone results to track school progress, identify low- and high-performing schools, and compare student performance across school districts. Results are now a factor in teacher evaluations as well.

Philadelphia uses PSSA and Keystone results to identify schools that need more resources and support and to target low-scoring schools for interventions or even closing. The results also can help the District and schools record academic performance trends over time to determine which instructional approaches and policies positively influence student outcomes.

For formative assessments, teachers usually do the scoring themselves and so get immediate feedback on student performance, allowing them to modify and differentiate instruction accordingly and employ any needed interventions. The results may also occasionally be used to track District-wide reading progress and inform decisions about teacher professional development.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of the formative assessments?

A major benefit of these assessments is that they help teachers identify the behaviors that strengthen or hinder a student’s progress in reading. The results of these assessments can also be shared with parents so they can support their child’s literacy development at home. Over the school year, teachers can assemble a record of each child’s reading development.

But the use of these assessments also presents some issues for teachers and schools. Teachers must be trained to use them effectively, which is time-consuming. Teachers must organize class time around administering the assessments, which require extended one-on-one sessions with students. If the teacher doesn’t have help, such as a reading specialist also in the classroom, it is very difficult to keep the tested student free of distraction while assuring that the rest of the students are usefully engaged.

In addition, most of these assessments are subjective. Teachers must use their discretion to determine what constitutes an error in reading. Different teachers can come to different conclusions; the District tries to address this through thorough training. Oversight for how teachers score these assessments varies by school. Efforts are made to ensure that teachers don’t exaggerate student progress. For instance, if multiple students in a teacher’s class exit a grade reading on a high level, but enter the next grade reading on a low level, this is grounds for a District inspection.