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Will Interim Testing Be More Useful for Accountability, Instruction?

The current version of a bill introduced by top Senate education leaders to reauthorize federal education law would allow states to replace their current once-a-year accountability testing with multiple interim benchmark assessments. Among a plethora of complaints about the proposals, this feature has so far won praise, but a new study suggests that so far, districts' interim assessments may not be any more helpful at guiding classroom instruction.

Researchers Kristen L. Davidson and Greta Frohbieter from the University of Colorado at Boulder interviewed 24 district-level and 14 school-level administrators of seven districts in two states who had put interim tests into place, then compared that information to interviews with 30 teachers. You can see their full results in this CRESST report.

The researchers found 80 percent of district leaders said they had implemented the benchmarking tests for both evaluation and instruction, and half of them said that their main goal in using the tests was to "inform instruction." One went on to say that the interim assessments can help a teacher winnow down a blanket observation about her students not understanding fractions to find the specific parts of the process that students have not mastered.

It sounds great, but that isn't what seems to be happening on the teacher side of things, Davidson and Frohbieter found. Instead, teachers reported that the interim assessments—still mostly made up of multiple choice items—were difficult to analyze and turn around to the district in a limited time frame. They reported receiving very little professional development on how to actually translate assessment results into guidance for their own instructional practice, and little collaboration with other teachers around using interim assessments for more than just basic evaluation.

All of which brings us back to ESEA reauthorization, and the ongoing fight to make the accountability system developed under No Child Left Behind more usable for the folks trying to improve student achievement. This study, admittedly small as it is, suggests that if lawmakers plan to change the number and type of accountability tests, they will need to build capacity on the professional development side, too.

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