Assessment redesign moves school district from good to great

SUCCESS STORY

Assessment redesign moves school district from good to great

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Johnson City School System, Johnson City, Tennessee

 

The Johnson City School System (Johnson City) in Northeast Tennessee is comprised of 11 schools and 522 certified teachers. The district consistently outperformed the state and national averages on the ACT, SAT, and state testing scores, exceeded average attendance rates, and had lower than average drop-out rates. While the the school system was performing well, district leadership wanted to inspire staff to move the district from good to great and ensure graduating students are well prepared for college and career. In 2010, educators and administrators chose to pursue a district-wide benchmark assessment program for grades 2-8 in English language arts and math. This assessment redesign was meant to address what students should truly be learning, how their content understanding would be measured, and what to do if they haven’t mastered the content.

To support this mission, Johnson City wanted to link assessment with instruction to better inform classroom environments. “Our main focus for the past two years has been to develop meaningful and aligned assessments. As a data-driven school district, major decisions focus on results and expectations,” said Dr. Debra Bentley, the Supervisor of Instruction and Communications.

Currently, the Tennessee Education Association advises educators to “teach students; don’t teach to the test.” With this in mind, students need to show deep understanding of content prior to advancing to the next grade level. For a benchmark assessment to be truly valuable, it would have to show both formative information and a student’s ability to apply the learned standards.

Johnson City places a strong emphasis on communication. The district agreed that its schools should be providing expectations for data-driven instruction and creating professional development opportunities through networking, collaboration, and instructional leadership. Part of that initiative required cutting down on what Towne Acres Elementary principal Steve Barnett describes as “excuse-making.” For example, if a class performed poorly on a benchmark, the teacher would justify it by claiming those students always performed poorly or blaming the assessment instead of choosing to learn and adapt from it. Barnett believed this mentality was one of the things holding Johnson City back.

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