Assessment shouldn’t be a bad word: A conversation with Amanda McAdams

Assessment shouldn’t be a bad word: A conversation with Amanda McAdams

By Dale Chu

Amanda McAdams, a former practicing attorney and 2011 Arizona Teacher of the Year, is currently the Director of Elementary Education and K-12 Literacy for Lincoln County School District #2 in Star Valley, Wyoming. She is a big believer in the power of assessments and authored a blog post titled “State Assessment Data is a Tool to Help Educators Raise Student Achievement.” I asked Amanda whether she would be willing to share some additional insights here at Testing 1-2-3, and she kindly agreed. To frame our conversation, I used a recent article from Philadelphia magazine that presented standardized testing in a rather unflattering light. I wanted to get an opposing view, and Amanda both provided that and offered some perspective on what might be needed to bridge the gap. Here’s what she said.

Dale Chu: Given your experience and expertise, what’s your reaction to these excerpts? 

Amanda McAdams: I was disappointed after reading the quotes from some of the teachers. It was clear to me that they were not provided the training necessary to be able to make use of their assessment data.

Dale: What would you say to a colleague that actively encourages students to opt-out of annual assessments?

Amanda: My first question to the teacher would be, “Why?” I would want to hear the teacher’s rationale for encouraging an opt-out. Then, I would make sure she understood the ripple effect of what she was doing. Second, I would acknowledge that students are our first priority. There may be a genuine reason for a parent/student to opt-out of assessments. However, encouraging an opt-out en masse is detrimental to students, families, and teachers when looking at the big picture.

Dale: How can we get greater buy-in to the state assessment system?

Amanda: More training for teachers on assessment literacy would be really helpful. Whether it’s reading the data, making use of the data, writing items or writing distractors, having a greater understanding and knowledge base would go a long way towards fostering buy-in.

Dale: I noticed that these comments seem to blur the lines on assessment. That is, the reader is left to think, “What kind of tests are being referred to?” What kind of problems might be posed by this ambiguity?

Amanda: “Assessment” is a broad term.  It can encompass everything from observation and tickets-out-the-door to formative assessments and PLC common assessments, to summative, standardized, and state assessments. Each assessment serves a specific purpose and assesses particular skills. Sweeping comments about all assessments are seldom helpful and needlessly create confusion.

Dale: Do you think it can be difficult for teachers to take a contrary or opposing position to the views expressed here? Why or why not?

Amanda: I have no problem taking an opposing view, but animosity towards assessment is—as I described earlier—often linked to a lack of education and training. Assessment shouldn’t be a bad word. They are tools that teachers can and should use daily in their classrooms. If teachers were better equipped to use their data and more fluent in assessment literacy, I believe there would be less confusion and more enthusiasm.

Dale: No one is saying that there isn’t room for improvement in testing, but how can we get to a more constructive and productive approach to doing so?

Amanda: When I train teachers on how to build a valid and reliable test, they tend to soak up all of the information with excitement. Unfortunately, most post-secondary education programs today have de-emphasized assessment literacy. As a result, teachers often make the comment that they are not professional test writers, and don’t understand how to break down data to skills and standards. Building solid assessments isn’t easy and it takes time. You have to field test items, review the data, and edit when necessary. But when teachers are property trained and invest the time, they can better understand the purpose of the assessment and the skills/standards assessed. They can then access the data without trepidation or loathing.

Dale: How do you approach conversations with parents about annual assessments?

Amanda: I hold an annual board study session where parents, administrators, teachers, and board members come together to break down the state report provided to each student. We discuss how to read the report, what standards are assessed, what a cut score is, and how our district assessment system helps prepare students. I also write articles for the local paper and refer parents to the state website FAQ page.

Dale: Talk a little bit about how you have used assessments in your classroom. What might other teachers, especially those who are skeptical about testing, learn from your approach?

Amanda: I have used standardized state assessments to help me reflect on areas of instruction that need more emphasis. Today, I help teachers break down the data aligned to standards so they can pinpoint, for each student, which skills the student needs more support with. Here in Wyoming, we’re fortunate that our state assessment provides benchmark assessments that help our teachers with instruction throughout the year and not just at the end of the year.

We have also aligned our district assessment in ELA and math to the standards, so teachers have multiple sources of data to help guide their instruction for each studentWhile I agree that students should not be pressured to perform on these assessments, for me it often boils down to the teacher’s attitude. If a teacher simply presents the assessment as one among multiple ways for a student to show what he/she knows, the teacher can do a lot to alleviate the pressure a student might feel.

In my classroom in Arizona, I always encouraged my students to do their best, but I also reminded them they were fully prepared for the assessment. It should be no different than the other opportunities they had throughout the year to show off what they know. I told my students that no matter how difficult the assessment might seem, for them to have confidence in their abilities as they had been prepared to do well. I would also point out that an assessment shouldn’t be used to introduce new material. Taking an assessment also shouldn’t be the first time students are challenged to think critically or to persevere. Rather, these are skills students must develop in the classroom each and every day as part of their learning.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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