By Reuben Benzel

As a teacher, one of my central philosophies in each course that I teach it to tell my students what exactly they need to do to be successful in my course. I tell my students that I am crafting their knowledge by giving them tools (or what we call skills) that they need to demonstrate mastery in the course. Each year, our students enter our classrooms knowing that they need to demonstrate mastery on a clear set of standards. They effectively, through the skill list, see what they need to master on the final exam.

As a high school teacher in the trenches, I am setting forth a state assessment system that is in alignment with my own classroom assessment vision. It is my hope that my proposed system accomplished the following:

· Minimizes time and money used.

· Is planned with “the end in mind.”

· Uses innovative assessment strategies that are becoming best practice in assessment.

In this blueprint, not only do I outline my recommendations but I also discuss how each of these recommendations can be put into practice in my classroom and positively impact the learning of ALL students.

**Planning With The End in Mind**

The biggest problem that I see among education policymakers today is that they do not have a clear definition of what “college and career ready” means. It is eye opening that there are many stakeholders that throw down the term “college and career readiness”, but seem to not have a clue what it means. When I bring up the new SAT and ACT college and career readiness standards, I am often greeted with wonderment. After all, College Board (through ACT) and ACT have done decades of work in “college and career readiness” through their entrance exams.

The SAT and ACT have come up with college readiness benchmarks. The ACT college readiness benchmark for math is around a 22 and for English is an 18. The college readiness benchmark is defined as the score that a student needs to have a 75 percent chance of earning a passing grade in a non-remedial freshman course in that subject. I think it is fair to say that someone with a 22 on the math ACT (or the equivalent of a 530 on the math portion of the SAT), will possess functional number sense skills and Algebra skills.

It seems to me that a worthwhile end to the state assessment system (and what we want our high school students to produce) would be as simple as the following:

“Students will be defined as college ready if they meet the ACT college readiness benchmark of a 22 on the ACT (or 530 on the SAT). Students will be defined as career ready if they receive a vocational certification or a passing score on a workforce readiness exam.”

To achieve this end, I propose the following recommendations.

*RECOMMENDATION 1: Use the NWEA twice a year to measure growth and overall performance for grades 3-8- Growth to Proficiency*

Using the college and career readiness definition, it should be left up to the state to develop an assessment system that is aligned to the end goal of the definition of college and career readiness that is outlined. Recognizing that our students are works in progress, I think it is important to view primary and middle school assessment as more formative towards the end goal than summative. Data should be quick and robust to make instructional decisions.

The test that is most conducive for the 3rd-8th and even 9th grade is the NWEA test. This is a computer adaptive test that is aligned to Common Core standards. The NWEA is even looking at aligning their tests to specific state standards. The test is computer adaptive and each question is rated on difficulty. If the student gets the question correct, they get a more difficult question. If the student gets the question incorrect, they get an easier question. The NWEA has 53 multiple choice questions. After the 53 questions, the student is assigned a performance level.

As teachers, the NWEA is useful because it tells within an hour, the EXACT skill level of my student. In addition, I can see what percentile they score nationally. On the mathematics assessment, I can see how they perform in Algebra, Geometry, Data Analysis and Number Sense. One concern that policymakers have about the NWEA is the lack of summative nature of the test. However, there have been recent studies linking NWEA performance with ACT college readiness. This year, the NWEA now has ACT college readiness benchmarks at each grade level. Through the ACT college readiness benchmarks and percentiles, it seems that a state board can easily arrive at cut scores for Not Pass, Pass, and Pass + (Although, I would encourage my state of Indiana move to the 4 performance category system of other states of Below Basic, Basic, Proficient and Advanced).

Given that the NWEA uses the same consistent RIT scale every year, growth can easily be measured. Additionally, one can even use a report that computes growth percentiles across NWEA test takers nationally. This is in contrast to states that continuously change their assessment systems of use different tests for different grades. The fact that the NWEA has a consistent scale and students move up the same scale makes for measuring growth much easier. Teachers can use this data real time and be able to track student progress throughout the year.

In my own classroom of predominantly 9th and 10th graders, I even craft questions depending on the students’ RIT score. To illustrate, I’ll provide a few sample questions of what I would ask:

Struggling Student (<230)- These students have serious issues with number sense and struggle with basic computations. When I am doing computations, I will often say to my students: “I’m a bit slow on my mental math today, would you help me compute this?” In my Geometry course, I often emphasize visualization/classification questions with these students.

Mid Level Student (230-245)- These students are on grade level and generally are sound with vocabulary, number sense and can solve one and two step problems with ease. Where these students break down are with with multi-step problems. I often ask these students questions like: ” explain to me why I am setting up the problem the way that I am setting it up?” What properties am I using to get to my final answer?

Strong Student (245-260)- These students are comfortably above grade level and are college ready. They are able to solve multi-step situations with ease, have a strong number sense but are unable to think outside of the box. For these students, I strive to add depth to my lessons. I often ask these students to “defend their answer and justify why they are correct.” I push them to show me on their exams how they checked their work. I also put multi-skill questions on their exams. For instance, my Algebra 2 Honors students last year had to solve a polynomial by doing the rational root theorem, synthetic division and factoring.

Gifted Student (260+)- These students often will get bored if not properly challenged. These students are extremely strong at being able to solve problems out of context and have an “intuitive” understanding of the concepts. For instance, in my Geometry class, I may ask a student at this level a question like: “explain to us how you used the substitution property in this proof and the thought process that you used.” I try to encourage “next level” thinking with these students.

*RECOMMENDATION 2: Administer either the PLAN/ACT or the PSAT/SAT for high school.*

Given that the end goal is to have a college readiness score on the SAT/ACT, 10th graders should continue to take the PSAT or the PLAN (if the state chooses the ACT as a better assessment). The PSAT is aligned to the same scale as the SAT and growth can easily be measured each time the student takes a College Board SAT/PSAT assessment. When the student takes the PSAT, they receive an online score report that is linked to Khan Academy SAT prep. Through this collaboration, students get a customized study plan. On questions that they get wrong, they get easier questions over the basic concept and instructional videos. On questions that they get right, they get more difficult questions. This will allow schools to tailor preparation plans that are customized to students’ abilities.

In 11th grade, the state will spend the money that is normally spent on a state test in subsidizing every student to take the SAT or ACT assessment. Suppose that in my home state of Indiana there are 60000 high school juniors. If Indiana were to adopt the SAT as its high school test and subsidize for every high school junior to take it once at the rate of $53 per student, Indiana would spend 3.2 Million. This is a small fraction of the cost of developing an entire assessment like ISTEP. Additionally, the SAT/ACT are nationally normed so there would be no need to align questions or go through the complex process of cut score setting.

Adopting the SAT/ACT would reduce testing time and encourage students to prepare for a test that will actually help them get into college. Given that a majority of high school students want to go to college, students will feel incentivized to study for the SAT/ACT and have an interest in doing well. Additionally, preparing for the SAT/ACT will likely increase other college and career readiness measures in schools such as the percentage of students accepted into colleges/universities or preparation for Advanced Placement courses.

College Board and ACT for years have dominated the national testing market for high school students. These assessments are quality rigorous assessments that test purposeful skills actually used in colleges such as writing an essay with a thesis statement, reading a scientific article, comparing/contrasting two points of view. They exist to identify and define “college readiness.” States should not waste their time and money developing “their own” separate high school tests. The only that high school level state tests accomplish is adding more unnecessary testing time for high school students.

*Recommendation 3: Provide an Alternative Route for “College and Career Readiness”*

Students have different learning styles and interests. This is to be celebrated! States like Ohio have done a very good job offering multiple pathways to graduation qualification. Ohio’s system is to offer the option of end of course assessments, SAT/ACT, AP exams OR career readiness/certifications. This seems to be a really good approach because it makes an effort to meet students where they are at. Students performing above the high school level in high school can substitute AP scores instead of having to sit for a state test. Students who are academically deficient can make up for it by becoming certified in a career field and passing a workforce readiness exam.

The thought of this type of system is to move towards a “differentiated” approach that “meets students where they are at.” To illustrate the need for this approach, I think of one of my good friends from school. While he didn’t have the best GPA or SAT score, he attended a career center to learn about journalism. He ended up going to school for journalism and is now a successful free lance journalist doing what he is passionate about.

To me, our schools need to produce passionate people of the future. We are producing more than just ACT scores. We are producing more than just people who are doing math and reading REALLY REALLY well. Rather, we are teaching skills but it is ultimately up to the students to determine what they want to do with these skills. Some may go forth and write a killer Document Based Question essay on an AP exam. While others, may learn welding and build something. This is to be celebrated and is instrumental in our future economic success. This is the case for why we need “multiple pathways”.

This recommendation also allows for states to experiment with innovative assessment methods. A few months ago, I read about New Hampshire adopting a portfolio system where students submit the portfolio to a project and the portfolio is graded by teachers from across the state over the summer. I also heard about Pennsylvania a few years ago proposing that all seniors complete a senior thesis at the end of their high school careers. Come to think of it, the world renowned IB program (which I am an alumni of) uses this sort of project/portfolio system extremely well.

**Conclusion**

This is a pivotal time in the education profession. Unfortunately, state education systems are facing a sort of an identity crisis because they do not have a full understanding of what they want our schools and our classrooms to be producing. Until there is a more in depth understanding of what we want our schools and classrooms to produce, our students will be wasting their time taking pointless test after pointless test while not learning anything worthwhile.

As a teacher, I have a choice of either giving up and saying “it is what it is” or “this is how education works.” Or I can use my experiences as a high school math teacher with an economics degree to brainstorm possible solutions. Every teacher and educational policy maker has this choice too. Rather than pointing fingers, maybe this is a time to look into innovative assessment systems across different states and learn from each other. And this can be an exciting time to make education that much more enriching for us teachers and ultimately the students.

Author: Mr. Reuben Benzel is a math teacher at Herron High School in Indianapolis, Indiana. Mr. Benzel’s passions in education are centered around curriculum and assessment and are motivated by his background as an undergraduate economics major and teaching mathematics in both a turnaround school and an “A” rated school.

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