Navigating the Test-Free Zone

Untested subject areas. They are the Bermuda Triangle of teacher evaluation systems: a mysterious zone where the usual ways of measuring student academic growth either don’t work or lead to testing insanity. Tests in gym or art class? For special ed students? Kindergarteners? Finding a way to fairly and accurately determine how much kids are learning in these areas can seem impossible.  

It’s not. These supposedly insoluble problems not only can be overcome, but are being overcome though a promising approach found in many evaluation systems being implemented in several school districts, some of which we’ve worked with directly: Student Learning Objectives, or SLOs (sometimes also called Student Learning Targets, Goals, or similar names).

SLOs are individual learning goals for student progress set by teachers and principals. They are based on a simple but important instructional concept: schools should measure all students’ academic standing at the beginning of the year and set goals for their academic growth during the year, regardless of their grade or subject or their special characteristics. They are professional judgments informed by high-quality data.

This is not a case of a tail wagging the dog. Yes, SLOs may be a necessary part of teacher evaluation systems, but they also are a critical part of any good teacher’s practice. Creating SLOs requires teachers and instructional leaders to articulate a shared understanding of what mastery means for a grade or subject, which can help set consistently high expectations for both teachers and students.

First, they must evaluate students’ starting points, including the exact areas in which they are underprepared for a particular subject. Then, they must work together to create or select assessments based on design principles such as rigor, stretch and coverage—all of which is fundamental to providing effective differentiated instruction.

In Rhode Island, for example, a high school drama teacher might set SLOs around individual students’ abilities to develop a character. After videotaping initial scenes, the teacher would set baseline data for each student, then guide them through practice and critique toward mastery of six components of character development by the end of the course. She would grade each student’s portfolio and final performance on a rubric that would be adapted to suit the IEPs of special-education students in the class as well. Her goals for the class: 37 out of 39 students will achieve 80 percent mastery or better on the rubric.

A well-designed SLO system strikes a good balance between having consistency and flexibility. It sets uniform measures for all teachers, but accounts for the particular contexts of individual classrooms by providing coherent, clear and commonsense guidance for exercising professional judgment. And early data from our pilots is showing that well-designed SLOs can not only promote best practices in the classroom, they can also show strong correlations with statistical measures.

To promote good classroom practice and measure student outcomes meaningfully, overall, systems should keep the “moving pieces” to a minimum, and be clear in setting high expectations that are shared by all (for example, as Indiana has done). Here are a few guiding principles:

  • All teachers who teach the same grade and content area should use the same assessment across their school and district. No matter whose class a child is in, she should acquire core knowledge and skills. This also makes the measure comparable for all teachers in a system. Ideally, SLOs are generated through teacher collaboration across districts or states (for example, as arts teachers in Memphis have done).
  • There should be one “mastery score” for a given assessment, reflecting what adequately prepared students should be able to know and do at the end of the course. We should have a shared understanding of what level of performance is needed in any grade or subject for a child to become college and career ready. The number of students expected to meet mastery will change depending on how many students are prepared at the start of the course.
  • Students’ starting points should be assessed based on the best available data from multiple sources. Available diagnostic data differs widely between grades and subjects. Simple “pre-tests” should be avoided, since they assess kids on content they haven’t yet studied.
  • Use broad, commonsense categories for student starting points like “underprepared,” “adequately prepared” and “highly prepared.” These categories are meaningful in any context and comparable across grades and subjects.
  • Create one goal that addresses the class as whole. Use intuitive guidelines for setting thresholds for levels of effectiveness based on the total number of students we predict should be able to attain mastery. For instance, an “effective” teacher should be able to get all of her highly prepared and adequately prepared students, as well as some of her underprepared students, to meet or exceed the mastery score.
  • Create another goal that addresses the unique needs of students, which may not be adequately reflected in the goal for the whole class. System flexibility around this goal is important. The needs of underprepared students can differ broadly, and students who are highly prepared and others with unique needs may also need additional, focused goals—such as accelerated timelines or objectives related to behavior.

The research on SLOs is still emerging because they are still very new. As they grow in use, and educators become more confident in using them, their quality will increase, making evaluation systems more useful and, more importantly, promoting student academic success.

SLOs are a good reminder that new evaluations are not pre-destined to increase dependence on rudimentary standardized tests. Good assessment can come in many forms, and that applies to both students and teachers.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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