Dublin School District’s Director of Assessment Walter Lewis on Standardized Testing
DUBLIN, CA–The role of standardized testing in assessing student, teacher and school district performance is a topic of controversy and misunderstanding. Making the situation more complex is the transition from STAR to SBAC testing with the introduction of the Common Core Curriculum. To help make sense of these acronyms and how they relate to your child’s education, we recently spoke with Walter Lewis, Dublin Unified School District‘s Director of Assessment, Accountability and Education Technology.
OneDublin.org: What was your path to Dublin?
Walter Lewis: “I’m originally from California, and received my teacher training here, but spent a long time in North Carolina due to rapid growth in Wake County at the time. I was a teacher for five years and then had a scholarship opportunity to go back to college enroute to becoming a principal, as a principal fellows, much like our teacher fellows program.
“I moved back to California, to Castro Valley, where I was an elementary and then a middle school principal. My experience in assessment at the district level, even as a principal, led to the opportunity in the Dublin Unified School District starting last year. I’ve truly enjoyed my experience in Dublin so far.”
OneDublin.org: There is a lot of controversy about standardized testing, the perception by some that teachers are forced to teach to the test. Is there any truth to that perception? What are your views regarding the role of assessments in education?
Lewis: “I believe in a balanced assessment approach. There are a lot of definitions about balanced assessment, and one of the truisms about that approach is that balanced assessments recognize that different assessments serve different purposes. There are SBAC assessments for external assessment but there are other assessments that are as vital and important: benchmark assessments for measuring our progress for essential standards as a District so we can allocate resources appropriately and in-class, or common formative, assessments to drive instructional programming for individual students. Each of these assessments have a different purpose but are all connected through our standards.
“You’ve asked an important question about whether or not we are teaching to the test. The goal of SBAC was to create a test that encourages the types of things we’d like to see going on in classrooms, and the standards we need to be teaching in class. We’d like to see students participating in more group work, we’d like to better respond to the feedback we are receiving from colleges and universities about student readiness. Our goal is college and career readiness and the idea behind the assessments is to help achieve that goal.”
OneDublin.org: How do you believe the transition to SBAC assessment will change how teachers approach instruction in the classroom?
Lewis: “What I hope happens is the the results from assessments will be used to drive improvements in instructional programming. If we have a strong alignment between Common Core State standards, and State assessments, then upon receiving results of State assessments we’ll be able to identify changes in our programming. If the assessments identify an area of high need, the District is able to target resources to areas of need.
“The instructional benefit really comes from the results of assessments. Common Core standards are a huge shift and assessments are really about how to allocate resources and assistance. While I don’t believe we’ll ever get away from accountability, I do believe the State is trying to incorporate other indicators beside just State assessments. We used to have an API score that was based primarily on STAR testing, the State is looking at different ways of measuring school climate beyond just State testing. A really good school is made up of many different components.
OneDublin.org: At what age is it appropriate to introduce high stakes, stressful testing?
Lewis: “I do believe STAR testing in the second grade was way too young. As an elementary and middle school principal I understand students have a lot of anxiety around testing. I find that it is our attitude and approach as educators, and as parents, that makes a difference on whether students feel that anxiety around testing. Often times parents will talk to me about anxiety around testing and my first approach is to bring in a counselor and provide assistance. Messaging to students in-class by the teacher is an important component to reducing student anxiety around testing. Students do pick-up on the importance placed on testing in the media, and how we did as a District, and as educators and parents we need to be aware of that environment and mitigate that pressure.”
OneDublin.org: The connection of standardized tests to teacher pay or employment has led to widespread cheating scandals from Atlanta to Chicago. Should assessments play a role in teacher employment and/or compensation?
Lewis: “In my opinion, because it’s beyond my scope of influence, I’m more interested in how we can use the data from assessments to benefit students, and not for evaluating teachers. I don’t believe this data can be used as an evaluative tool. I came from a state that was based more on a growth model than evaluation and I’ve seen that work. North Carolina had an incentive model that was not punitive and I’ve seen that work. I think there are better ways to evaluate teachers than this data; this data is best used for assessing student and program needs.”
OneDublin.org: How have you seen the data from standardized testing have a positive impact?
Lewis: “Utilizing standardized tests as one of our measures is a good idea. It’s one measure, and a summative measure, as a part of a balanced assessment program. Aligning our in-class and benchmark assessments can provide an earlier indicator than the State external assessments. When making individual student decisions about course placement, one measure will not be enough to make a good decision. State data will be helpful for certain decisions, whereas reviewing in-class work will be better for other decisions.
“The CSU and Community College systems have also used 11th grade assessments for its Early Assessment Program. In the past the student would opt-in to the EAP and use selected items from STAR to determine CSU and community college placement after being admitted. Now a student’s Math and English/Literacy holistic results can be used to determine if a student needs remedial classes upon starting in college. This gives us an early indication if students are indeed college ready in the 11th grade, and can help us decide course work for a student’s senior year in high school that will help a student be ready. 11th graders have a direct benefit from taking the SBAC.”
OneDublin.org: While most students take the standardized tests as scheduled, is there a choice in this area for parents that, for whatever reason, would prefer their students are not tested?”
“Education Code in California specifies that parents do have the option to opt-out their child, and the details are on our website [editor’s note: see below. Parents send a note to their principal or assistant principal requesting an exemption. The reason we ask parents to send the request to a school administrator is that ideally the decision is a conversation with an administrator to talk about the drawbacks of opting out, such as how 11th grade scores are used by CSUs and community colleges. In the past, we were required to test a minimum of 95% of our students, or our District accountability measures were impacted. I expect student participation will play a role in District accountability assessment. Most importantly I do believe these assessments help improve our student programming and support our goal of making every student college and career ready.”
PARTICIPATION IN STATE ASSESSMENTS AND OPTION TO REQUEST EXEMPTION (EC § 60615, 5 CCR § 852):
Pupils in applicable grade levels will participate in the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) except as exempted by law. Each year, a parent may submit a written request to excuse his or her child from any or all parts of the CAASPP assessments for that school year. If the parent submits the exemption request after testing begins, any test(s) completed before the request is submitted will be scored; the results will be included in the pupil’s records and reported to the parent.
School district employees will not solicit or encourage any exemption request on behalf of a pupil or group of pupils.
Parents may submit written requests to their child’s school Principal or Assistant Principal.