Promoting activity that supports student learning is often on the forefront of conversations in school systems today. Asking questions about the diversity of learning opportunities opens doors for a menu of instructional strategies and assessment work. Pressures to improve student achievement are felt even more as educators struggle to advance students in an age of information toward college-ready expectations and higher levels of learning.
The world of education also acknowledges that student learning and student achievement are not exactly the same; therefore, assessment systems must be broader and deeper in order to promote true student learning. Within this culture of accountability for student learning, transparency of data collected and instruction performed is an everyday reality. We have moved from traditionally closed-door and silo mentalities to “open concept”—a sharing of space and time. This work is complex and demands leadership to help establish a focus on high-quality instructional decision-making. This leadership must also account for organizational direction and alignment of curriculum, assessment, and instruction.
In this culture of data immersion, there are some key players in school reform. One of these players is an assessment leader. The role seems redundant considering this “work” is embedded in every teacher’s and administrator’s daily activity. However, this individual must understand assessment as a field of its own and be able to coach others through the application of key content and processes.
The ‘Critical Face’
An assessment leader must be willing to be the “critical face” of a school or district assessment plan, establishing communication with stakeholders to provide clarity on the plan and its relationship to student learning and well-being. This key player needs to know how to set urgency around assessment and must exist as a credible source of assessment knowledge for the teachers. We realize how important the assessment leadership role is to a learning system when we review the research that school leadership has the power to strongly impact quality teaching and, indirectly, students.
School leaders often evaluate teachers. Principals create coaching or mentoring programs to support teacher capacity; they help lead teams in larger systemic change as a response to data. Assessment leaders align resources to address the focal point of schooling, which is student learning. To do this work effectively, the leader has to expound the very beliefs of high-quality assessment decision-making. This includes beliefs in the importance of creating measurable student learning goals; aligning those goals to assessment tools and processes that will inform instructional practice; appropriately analyzing data in valid and reliable ways; and communicating results to stakeholders in accurate and effective expressions.
Research on Assessment Leadership
I defined the assessment leadership position through the already existing school leader role of principal and the assessment activity they engage in through the lens of promoting student learning. Through a survey of a random sampling of K–12 public school principals in a Midwestern state, school leaders were asked if they considered themselves assessment leaders. Survey questions asked administrators about their training levels in assessment work and how training was gained. The principals were asked to rank their training on a scale from mastery to none. What rank do they report on levels of assessment training? The breakdown of the participants’ self-assessment of reported training levels is outlined above.
Out of the top three highest levels of training (mastery, good, and adequate), 89 percent of the “mastery” group agreed that they include assessment leader as their role. The self-proclaimed overall “good” and “adequate” groups followed suit and reported the acceptance of the assessment leader role at 83 percent equally. Principals were taking on the assessment leadership role whether or not they had substantive training. These statistics also inform us that only 10 percent of the overall surveyed group considered themselves trained to the level of “mastery” in assessment.
Mastery was defined to the population of survey participants as, “very complete. Including significant training in assessment tool choices and use, assessment analysis, and assessment communication, and alignment with student-set learning goals. Understands well classroom, program, and institutional levels of assessment for learning.”
Another finding suggested that more than one-third of the principals surveyed really had self-reported marginal training of assessment for learning leadership.
Digging deeper into survey results, data were collected about where each participant received knowledge and training for assessment for learning leadership work. The most commonly stated place for school principal training of assessment leadership was reported at conferences or workshops, according to survey respondents. From the literature on professional development, we know these options likely exclude the implementation step of learning, which is key, since the lens of leadership is also important. Professional opportunities that encourage collaboration, such as coaching, offer scaffolding and reflection in the field. These processes of learning engage the learner in more sustainable and well-understood practices.
Looking to the future of assessment leadership, it would behoove educational systems to consider the impact of well-prepared leaders in generating work to support high-quality teacher assessment practice. We also have to ask who might be taking up the torch of this leadership and who are trained to do so? The next steps in this work would be to consider others who might lead this work and redesign possible new resource positions in schools.
Tonya Hameister, PhD, is assistant professor and outreach director in the Department of Special and Early Childhood Department in the College of Education and Human Services at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.