Teachers Learn To Use Data from Formal Assessment

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Introduction

Over the last decade assessment policy makers have reached a promising plateau as there is a renewed emphasis on assessment. Looked upon as a dull subject until recently, assessment is now a very well researched topic. A significant amount of what is written and verbalized about assessment is negative and standardized assessments have been the target of much of the criticism. The voices of opponents of standardized assessments have dominated platforms; shouting loudly the limitations and harm that standardized tests do to progress in literacy assessment and instruction. Only a small number of scholars and practitioners have argued in defence of standardized tests; praising the progress that they have made or the good that they do. Despite the criticisms levelled against these assessments, education policies internationally and locally all integrate the use of standardized assessments within their framework. Therefore, whatever the problems are with standardized assessments they will undoubtedly continue to be employed in most, if not all education systems given their current widespread use and the existing political and social climate. Standardized assessments will not disappear in the future. Given what I consider to be an inevitable conclusion, it is crucial that as educators we reduce the time spent kicking against standardized assessments and that we concentrate our efforts on how to use the data from these formal tests in the teaching and learning process.

The Role of Jamaica's National Assessment Programme (NAP) in Primary Education

As early as 1984 recommendations were made for the development of a comprehensive assessment programme at the primary level (Cargill, 1984). The National Assessment Programme (NAP) was instituted based on the above recommendation. This programme was developed to address the assessment needs at the primary level of the education system and to assist the Ministry of Education achieve its policy objective of better monitoring of the impact of 'Primary Education Programmes.' This objective is aligned to the broader goals of improving the quality and efficiency of the system and reducing inequalities (Policy- objectives- Matrix, Human Resources Development fifth Annual Project Review Conference, Jamaica, May 1993). The basic function of the Programme is to accomplish the goal of creating permanently within the Ministry of Education the capacity and capability to assess effectively the academic and social performances of students at the primary level for the placement, informing, instruction, programme- monitoring and evaluation, selection and, in general for providing accurate and useful data to teachers and other stakeholders. The programme and instruments were developed based on the following principles:

assessment is curriculum based

assessment must focus on providing accurate, valid, and reliable information on students' achievement and on integrating assessment with instruction

teachers, other school and Ministry personnel must be intimately and extensively involved in the design, development and use of the data from the administration of the instruments.

the instruments and activities developed meet the various needs of the system. (Muir Faulkner & Porter,1993)

The National Assessment programme is the Ministry of Education's most methodical attempt to date. It includes standardized assessments programmes such as:

Grade One Individual Reading Inventory ( GOILP)

Grade Three Diagnostic Test

Grade Four Literacy Test (GFLT)

Grade Four Numeracy Test (GFNT)

Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT)

Let us take a closer look at the two instruments that will be explored in this study.

Grade One Individual Reading Inventory (GOILP)

The Grade One Individual Learning Profile (GOILP) was implemented in August 2008. This standardized test measures social as well as academic readiness of entrant to Grade One. It provides teachers with reliable data on student competencies at the beginning of Grade One so that they can plan appropriately for students with different proficiency profiles. In addition, it gives parents feedback on students' entry skills in order to enhance home school collaboration. The test is administered individually, and in small and whole groups. There are twenty seven items and six subtests. The subtests are: general knowledge, number concepts, oral language, reading, writing and drawing, work habits and classroom behaviours.

Grade Four Literacy Test (GFLT)

The Grade Four Literacy Test is the standardized measure of literacy, administered to children in Grade 4 of all institutions offering primary level education. The test comprises three sections; Word Recognition, Reading Comprehension and a Writing Task. Pupil performance is categorized at three levels "Mastery" Almost Mastery', and Non Mastery'. As of September 2009 pupils in the Almost Mastery and Non-Mastery categories will be given three other opportunities to change their status to 'mastery' by re - sitting the examination. This is a part of the Competence - Based Transition Policy. The Competence-based Transition Policy was designed to ensure that students transitioning from the primary to the secondary level are ready to access secondary education. This is based on the ability of each child to demonstrate the skills and competencies that are required on the completion of the Grade 4 curriculum by being certified as literate through the National Grade Four Literacy Test. From the outlook it is evident that the Ministry of Education has expended resources on the creation, and administration of these instruments and therefore expects that the data from such will be used to drive instruction.

3D's - 'Data Driven Decisions'

"Data-driven decisions"-the phrase has become a buzzword in education over the last few years. It is almost impossible to think of this phrase without thinking about standardized assessments. And it has become impracticable to think about assessment especially student assessment without thinking about accountability. In her keynote address at the ACER 2005 Research Conference in Melbourne, Lorna Earl asked the double-barrelled question, 'Why data and why now?' She later answered her questions by explaining that "in the past several decades, a great deal has changed; the 21st century has been dubbed the 'information age. There has been an exponential increase in data and information, and technology has made it available in raw and unedited forms in a range of media. Like many others in the society, educators are trying to come to grips with this vast deluge of new and unfiltered information, and to find ways to transform this information into knowledge and ultimately into constructive action. Accountability and data are at the heart of contemporary reform efforts worldwide. Accountability has become the watchword of education, with data holding a central place in the current wave of large-scale reform.' (Earl, 2005a, p. 6). This new thrust is also evident in our own Task Force on Education Reform which states that accountability for performance is a fundamental issue at all levels of the system. The current policy proposes that teachers and school leaders be held accountable for students' performances on national assessments.

It must be noted that accountability in education has not come about simply because we can collect and analyse data more easily. Accountability has become critical because today's globalised economy means that investors can invest anywhere that is politically stable and that has a skilled and productive workforce. To be profitable, investors must go to countries that provide the greatest synergy of skills and productivity. To keep jobs and to maintain current living standards, governments need to constantly improve the skill levels and productivity of their current labour force. However, to guarantee that future living standards are maintained, those governments must also ensure that today's students are educated to the highest achievement standards possible. Consequently, schools must be held accountable for that achievement if those standards are to be met. In a bid to achieve this complex task schools will no doubt have to use data to support learning.

In 'Using data to support learning', Gabrielle Matters (2005) envisions an educational system built around 'evidenced-based practice', the idea that decisions at all levels should be grounded in data. Some educators are embracing performance data as a useful means for directing school improvement. The ability to track individual student performance, and use standardized systems presents a new host of options for using and interpreting data. Now that such information is available, 'there should be no going back to decision-making styles that rely strictly on gut feelings' (Kililon & Bellamy, 2000, p. 12). For a teacher, the central purpose of analysing data is to improve the learning of one or more particular students; that is, the individual teacher and the school take the students who come to them and seek to improve the learning of those students. (Allen, 2005, p. 87) From this perspective, I am not only concerned with giving teachers the data they need to make more informed decisions about their students, but with all of the decision makers that constitute the educational system and all of the decisions they need to make to facilitate achievement.

Statement of the Problem

The Task Force on Educational Reform Jamaica was commissioned to conduct a study of the country's education system. The fourteen member team undertook and extensive and systematic review of the national assessments. It found that 'in general assessment results are not being used for improvement of the students or the system… The students' records are not transferable from one grade and from institution to another institution." (Task Force on Educational Reform Jamaica, p.53 (2004). Working in the field of education for the past seven years I can concur with the findings of the Task Force on Educational Reform. In the earlier years of my tenure I taught three of the grades that have standardized instruments (grades one, three and four). These instruments were simply administered because they were sent by the Ministry of Education. The results were later filed and sent to the Regional Office or placed in the principal's office. At no time did I or my colleagues at the institutions look with a keen eye at the results to determine how we could use the data, what were the areas of need for student development or send information to the next grade the students were entering. Working as a literacy specialist I see that my earlier experiences are similar to that of many teachers in other institutions. When teachers are asked for the results of standardized tests they complain that they did not complete it, it is lost or bits and pieces are found stacked away in file cabinets. Teachers note that they 'fill out the forms because the ministry ask for them' but they do not employ the results in their teaching and they did not know the results were to be sent to the other grades.

Nevertheless, there has been recent evidence of the government's determination to make the use of data one of the central planks of its 'Accountability System.' National data is to be used in to: generate new 'contextualised value added' performance measures for accountability, to produce a new 'school profile/ star performer' for local information, to provide confidential and detailed feedback to schools on their performance to assist in self-evaluation and hence school improvement (Minister of Education Speech, August 2009). There is therefore, a rapidly changing and dynamic environment in Jamaica and for the discussion of educational data and how it is used effectively in schools. Based on my knowledge and experience however, there seems to be a disparity between the expectations of the Ministry of Education and what is taking place in some educational institutions.

While, the professional literature is replete with studies from United States and Europe that focus on standardized assessments (Popham, 1998; Corbett & Wilson, 1991) there remain a few areas where existing literature requires expansion and enrichment. For example, research that is focused on how results from standardized assessments are used in the schools and how teachers assess the impact of data use on student learning is limited. The purpose off this study is to determine how the results from standardized assessments are used to inform the teaching learning process.

Purpose and Significance of the Study

The purpose of this case study will be to describe the use of data from standardized assessments in the teaching learning process to provide insights that will inform the policies of the Ministry of Education and the practices of teachers and other researchers. It will be of significance to the following:

Education Stakeholders - The information presented will enable stakeholders for example, the Ministry of Education, teachers and principals to make policy decisions as they assess and evaluate the relevance of standardized tests in the teaching learning process. The results will inform teachers practice as they evaluate their readiness, preparedness and knowledge in analyzing data and implementing customized programmes in addressing the needs of the students' in the classes.

Future Researcher - The ideas presented may be used as reference data in conducting new researches or in testing the validity of other related findings. This study will also serve as a reference that will give them a background or an overview of the use of data from standardized tests in making instructional decisions in the Jamaican context.

Research Questions

More specifically this study can be stated in the following guiding research questions:

What are teachers attitudes towards the use of data from standardized assessments?

How do teachers use the information from standardized assessments to make instructional decisions?

How do teachers assess the impact of data use on student learning?

What are some of the recommendations made by teachers in improving the standardized instruments?

Sub- question

How can the Feedback Model help teachers to make data driven decisions?

Delimitations

This study will describe two educators use of data from two standardized instruments - the Grade Four Literacy Test (GFLT) and the Grade One Individual learning Profile (GOILP). It will not extend to the use of data from other standardized tests. It will focus on how one teacher uses data from the GFLT with students in the Grade Five who did not achieve mastery of the said instrument and how another teacher uses the data from the GOILP with her present cohort of grade one students.

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