Assessment & Grading Family Engagement

How Would You Feel If District Assessments Were Optional?

SFUSD Discusses Changes to its Common Assessment System

[This post originally appeared on Medium.]

Earlier this month Board of Education Commissioners Sanchez and Cook proposed a resolution which would make changes to SFUSD’s interim assessment policy. Most notably it would allow teachers to opt out of district assessments. The current assessments affected by the resolution would include:

  • PALS a screening for early literacy skills in TK-K (letter recognition, rhyming, etc.),
  • Fountas & Pinnell (F&P) in grades K-2, and at some schools K-5 (gives student reading levels on an A-Z scale ),
  • the Reading Inventory (RI) given grades 3–10 (gives student reading levels in Lexiles)
  • The Integrated Writing Assessment (IWA) given grades 3, 6, and 9 (gives students a leveled score of writing ability using a district writing rubric), and
  • Math milestone tasks embedded in the district math curriculum.

Currently, all SFUSD teachers are required to give the aforementioned assessments at specific times each year. If the district approves the proposed resolution teachers could decide not to give district recommended assessments. For anyone interested, this is the current draft of the resolution under consideration.

At the Board of Education meeting, the resolution was referred to the Curriculum Committee for further discussion. I attended the Curriculum and Program Committee Meeting this past Monday, October 16, 2017 to learn more about potential implications if the resolution is approved. (If you are interested you can listen to a recording of the discussion.)

How Would You Feel If District Assessments Were Optional?: Lots of talk… But, where is parent voice?

The district has focused much of its discussion on impacts to educators at various levels: educators working at the central office argued strongly against the resolution, while site-based teachers and union leaders argued strongly in favor of it. Meanwhile, parents have largely been left out of the conversation. I was one of only a few parents at the Curriculum and Program Committee Meeting. I wondered why no district parent leadership groups seemed to be present, i.e. African American Parent Advisory Council (AAPAC), Parent Advisory Council (PAC), Community Advisory Council for Special Education (CAC), District English Learners Advisory Committee (DELAC). These groups are important because they are charged with representing the needs and concerns of traditionally underserved families in our district. In addition, I didn’t see representatives from community-based parent organizations such as Coleman Advocates, Second District PTA, or Parents for Public Schools.

To be completely transparent, I tend to side in favor of keeping our current assessment system in place. As a teacher and instructional coach, I love data, and have appreciated getting results from these assessments. So have my kids. Since kindergarten, they have enjoyed seeing their reading progress using a common system, both throughout the year and year-to-year. (Their school used F&P through grade 5 and they were super excited when they finally achieved level “Z” on the F&P reading scale!)

That said, I am just one parent, and I may not be aware of all sides on this issue. Ultimately, it’s important for ALL families to inform decision-making in our district and schools, and specifically families of historically marginalized students.

A cartoon created by the SFUSD showing how assessment results can help students learn.


How Would You Feel If District Assessments Were Optional?: Some initial thoughts…

With that disclaimer in mind, I’m interested in exploring how students and families may be affected if individual teachers are given the power to “opt out” of reading screenings and other assessments.

How Would You Feel If District Assessments Were Optional?: How the Proposed Resolution Could be POSITIVE for Students and Families:

  • The resolution claims kids feel over-tested and “demoralized” by assessments. I have not seen this in my girls’ schools, but I am a very small sample. If teachers are feeling targeted by administrators or parents, that could create a toxic learning environment for both teachers and students. No one benefits from blaming or shaming teachers, students or parents, so that would definitely rule out any information gleaned from assessments.
  • The resolution also claims students would benefit due to increased time for instruction. Reading Inventory (RI) assessments given grades 3–10 don’t require any teacher prep and only take up one class period, up to two times per year. As far as the Reading Inventory goes, I don’t see much time lost, and the benefits of knowing where students are at and being able to group them accordingly could actually save time and increase a teachers effectiveness.
  • Fountas and Pinnell (F&P) Reading Assessments on the other hand are very time intensive, requiring K-2nd grade teachers to do one-on-one assessments of students 2–3 times a year. This work can’t be outsourced (to a reading coach per se) because the whole purpose of the assessment is to give teachers a detailed understanding of where each child is in their reading development. This is arguably very time consuming. Yet, many teachers will tell you the time spent is worth it, especially in 1–2nd grades. The district provides subs to support teachers during this time. But it goes without saying, instruction with a substitute is not going to be the same as instruction from a regular classroom teacher. Additionally, I am hearing from many teachers, (especially those kindergarten teachers) the sub coverage provided doesn’t fully cover the time it takes to properly do the assessment.

How Would You Feel If District Assessments Were Optional?: How the Proposed Resolution Could be NEGATIVE for Students and Families:

  • If individual teachers opt out of using district assessments on the district recommend ed schedule, families might not have get concrete information about how their kids are performing as compared to grade-level norms. Each teacher could choose to assess students in their own way, whenever they see fit. Parents and students might have to learn to interpret different assessment reports year to year, which could be especially challenging for English Learner families. If teachers use only assessments they design themselves, children would not get any formal (read: research-based) assessment. Additionally, if teachers within a school use a variety of assessment systems, it could also be harder for schools to support students moving between classrooms or schools.
  • Students with early learning difficulties might not get identified until standardized testing starts in 3rd grade. Highly functioning students (e.g. well-behaved) who have subtle forms of dyslexia for example, might not stand out enough in a class of 20 to merit support until they are already well-behind their peers. (Research shows early identification and intervention before 3rd grade is key!)
  • On the flip side, high performing students might not get the concrete feedback they need to help their teachers and families to identify more challenging work. Without quantifiable “evidence” parents would be dis-empowered in partnering with teachers and administrators in setting expectations and getting differentiation for their kids.

How Would You Feel If District Assessments Were Optional?: Where things stand now

Rachel Norton proposed continued discussion on the resolution at the upcoming Curriculum Committee Mtg. on November 20th. These meetingsare open to the public. All parents interested in this conversation should attend and share their input during Public Comment. (Click here to see upcoming meetings.)

In the meantime, with parent conferences coming up, I encourage parents to ask how interim assessments are currently being used by teachers at their child’s school. At the very minimum, parents should know how assessment results are being used to support their children‘s learning. At a school site level, it is also worth knowing how student results on these assessments are used to create site-plans (e.g. Balanced Scorecard) and planning budgets. It has been my experience that some schools do a VERY good job of sharing this information with families, while others share very little.

If you want more information about the assessments themselves, I recommend calling the District Achievement Assessments Office at 415–241–6400. Or visit their district website. If your school or parent organization requests it, district staff can also come out to do parent presentations and answer questions.

How Would You Feel If District Assessments Were Optional?”

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What do you think? What do you all think about the above assessments? Are they helpful? Harmful? How would you feel if the district made them optional?

If you found this post informative, can you please share it? Thank you!


9 thoughts on “How Would You Feel If District Assessments Were Optional?

    1. Thank you for this question. To be more clear, I should have written, central office staff (I was thinking district office staff as vs. site staff). I meant district to refer to teachers on special assignment and administrators (e.g. those working in the curriculum office or in the assessment office) who coordinate and support district literacy and math initiatives. As opposed to site staff, namely teachers who directly teach and assess students.

      From what I am hearing, by and large, district staff support the current assessment plan. Conversely, I am hearing there are site staff (e.g. classroom teachers) who may or may not like the assessments, or feel that decisions about what, how and when students are assessed, should be made by solely by teachers.

      I made the edit. Thanks for helping make that distinction more clear. 🙂

  1. I am a parent of a kindergartener, so I am new to this.

    Do you know whether or not district staff tried to get buy-in from the classroom teachers and the union before mandating the assessments? Did the teachers or union have any input on which assessments they thought were best?

    1. These are good questions. From what I hear, it’s probably a mixed bag and reactions differ assessment by assessment. At my daughters’ elementary school teachers brought in the assessment because it they wanted it as a core element of implementing the Reader’s Workshop model of teaching reading which has subsequently been adopted by the district. Jean Parker and other elementary schools don’t just do F&P to 2nd grade, but do it all the way to 5th. Schools that do this usually provide subs for teachers out of their budget. So, here is an example of teachers advocating for MORE assessment, even though at other schools I hear some don’t like it as it’s a VERY time intensive test.

      I don’t hear much complaining about the Reading Inventory because it doesn’t require much other than one class period and a laptop cart. The math milestone tasks are built into the district created math curriculum (read: created by district staff AND teachers). Again, I don’t hear much controversy over these tests either. But, then who is to say? There are over 100 schools in our district and within that 70 are elementary. I’m sure even among teachers there is a wide range of opinion, including some who don’t much care. (One thing we can ALL agree on is, teachers need a raise!)

      I’m curious, what are teachers at your child’s school saying?

      1. You’re right in that there are a lot of variables, Ali. I’m not sure how the teachers at my son’s school feel. I’ll ask them when I come volunteer at our school’s Fall Festival this Friday. It will help me make up my own mind on how I feel about this. I think that both viewpoints on this topic have merit.

        I’ve been meaning to write to you some time now to thank you for all of the amazing work that you do to advocate for equity in our district. I have been reading your blog and tweets for a while, and I am so glad that there are parents like you who are not afraid to speak truth to power.

        I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s with a brother with autism, and his experience in schools ranged from sublime to devastating. By the time he left school, he was self-injurious to the point of banging his head through the walls in our house. My school treated him so horribly that my parents filed a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights.

        I am brand new to SFUSD, but I am so glad to be a part of a district that is committed to equity and social justice. There is a long way to go to make sure that all our schools are committed to this vision. But I’m glad that that vision exists.

        I know you do so much to lift up the voices of students and parents who don’t have much of a voice in our school system. I’m committed to lightening the load where I can.

        1. Thank you so much for your kind words. I appreciate your story and would love to learn and share more about experiences of students who receive special education services. I know we’ve come a long way since the times we relegated kids to “the bungalows” (as they did in my schools growing up). Nonetheless, I hear many parents lamenting the IEP process and find advocating for their children’s social, emotional and learning needs can be daunting. I am so glad you are an involved SFUSD parent!

  2. The sub time provided for the F&P is inadequate – and that’s without getting into the lack of subs, particularly subs willing to work at high-needs schools. I like the F&P assessment battery and was choosing to use it several years before it was mandated. I have F&P administration down to a science. I still can’t finish in one day. The district is aware that this presents a budget issues at schools that buy more time for teachers and also that some teachers use personal days to finish – but they decline to offer additional time. It makes me feel like my professional experience is disregarded, and it means I have to sneak in assessment after school or by making my students work independently while I test for longer than I think is best.

    Similarly, the math assessments have been extensively revised, were subject to a widespread boycott at some grades, and at some schools are either not administered or are site-specific (revised to meet site needs/revisions to the math curriculum – for instance, subtraction is taught in January in Kindergarten and many K staffs find this schedule doesn’t meet their students ‘ needs). Moreover, this assessment is tied to a curriculum that was rolled out without a full pilot and has been extensively revised every year. It’s hard to see this as a well-planned assessment that provides useful information when teachers are struggling to implement a curriculum on the fly, with little prep time, few provided materials, and constant changes. My students aced the math benchmark they recently took. I also spent hours on the weekends writing my own lessons to teach the content when it became clear the math program wasn’t going to cut it. (I mention all this because I know that my experience is common to many teachers and schools – if you’re not hearing about the math it may be because your school has made the program work for them. Which is awesome but has costs!)

    I have a lot of issues with the assessment program, particularly with assessments administered solely to see how children are likely to perform on the SBAC. I have concerns about the SBAC itself, the pressures that push teachers to skimp on non-tested subjects, the amount of district money spent on technology used almost entirely for assessments, and the lack of a conversation around the validity of these assessments and their general value.

    So I see the value of the resolution being that we might be able to have that discussion as an entire community, as opposed to schools being handed an assessment calendar to institute, with no serious feedback from school communities.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I know for a fact that sometimes central office decisions, while often mad with good intentions, are not always informed by teacher input. And even teacher input can vary widely site by site. May I post this as it’s own blog post? I think teacher voice is really important and want to ensure your (and assuredly) other teachers’ voices are elevated in this important conversation.

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