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Why One District Added Another Test

It is the end of the school year and thus testing season is coming to a close. While it seems that everyone from parents to teachers to John Oliver are talking about reducing the testing burden, the Bellevue School District actually added one. Superintendent Tim Mills explains why.

By guest blogger Tim Mills

Located in a suburban area fifteen miles from downtown Seattle, the Bellevue School District in Washington serves 19,500 students in 28 schools. Once a district with little racial, cultural, or economic diversity, the demographics of the community and our students have shifted significantly. While the number of children from economically challenged homes has risen, so has the racial and cultural diversity. Today, we are an international school district with students from 115 countries. The community is highly supportive of public education but also has very high expectations for a quality education system.

Yes, Another Test
Last year, we made the decision to add one more assessment to our already full assessment schedule, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Test for Schools, based on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). While we recognized that adding another test bordered on the absurd, the OECD Test for Schools is proving to be highly valuable in informing our work. This assessment requires our students to demonstrate higher critical thinking and problem solving skills, giving us insight into where our students perform within six proficiency levels. This allows us to think more deeply about our support of students who have already exceeded state performance standards. Besides the testing of knowledge and content, student survey questions have led to a better understanding of student perceptions about their relationship with teachers, the relevance of courses in math and science, and the impact of the school environment on learning. 

Additionally, as members of the Global Learning Network (a network of districts, organized by America Achieves, who have also taken OECD Test for Schools), we have access to school leaders throughout the United States and other countries. This is providing the opportunity to learn about the successes and best practices in schools whose students are demonstrating outstanding academic performance.

Results from our first year of testing were better than we anticipated. Our students outperformed most of the students in the comparison groups, especially in science and math. This affirms our approach to using a rigorous common and articulated curriculum aligned to preparing students for success in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses. Like high-performing countries around the world, we find that pushing students to challenge themselves leads to increased student engagement and results.

While we were pleased to see our students demonstrate performance at levels similar to students from the highest performing schools internationally, we also recognize that we have much more work to do. We are learning where our curriculum is strong and where it can be improved. In Bellevue, we have curriculum developers for every subject area. They work closely with teachers to continuously improve our curriculum and common assessments and collaborate with each other about student learning. We use our early-release Wednesdays for teachers from across the district to come together to look at student work, calibrate our common assessments, and learn from each other. Our strengths lie in utilizing the expertise of our professional staff. One area we continue to explore is providing instructional materials that are relevant and culturally responsive to our student population.

We are also gaining insight into where our instructional pedagogy is creating critical thinkers and where it is not. For instance, other schools, both in the US and abroad, are purposely embedding 21st century skills into curriculum and professional development. We have acquired some tools, including rubrics and performance tasks, which are now used by teachers to deepen critical thinking and problem solving.

The effect of school climate is another area we are looking more closely at. Our principals and teachers will analyze school data from several sources, including a belief survey conducted with all staff, a student perception survey related to school and classroom climate and culture, and the OECD data related to expectations and disposition. The school teams will consider the data as part of their goal setting process this summer in an effort to improve school and classroom climate and encourage a growth mindset in teachers and students.    

While meaningful assessments are a critical part of good teaching and learning, there needs to be a balance restored between the number of tests taken, the amount of time devoted to the testing process, and the value of the tests to advance student learning. The OECD Test for Schools is an example of giving a high-quality assessment that provides rich information without the need to test every student, every year (beyond the formative and embedded assessments teachers use to inform instruction).

Follow Bellevue Schools, Asia Society, and Heather on Twitter. 

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