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Measuring Success


  • Written by: Kimberly Wiggins
  • Photos by: Kerri McDermid

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A St. Vrain story about how assessments are shifting mindsets around student achievement...

Before we move to the educational realm, let’s think about assessments in a different context: your yearly physical. When you go to the doctor, the first thing you typically experience is an armband, a thermometer and a scale. These benchmark indicators are a small part of your visit, but provide important clues. They are written down and logged. The nurse continues, now with questions: Are you sleeping? Eating? How is life? Then the doctor comes in, examines the clues, and begins to ask deeper questions, puzzling together a picture that, with your help and with the evidence, outlines a story.

This evidence collection varies in order to serve the whole person. The metrics themselves serve as important context. Some are relevant, at one point in time, and others are the sum of their individual parts, reflecting a picture of your daily habits in one summative number. A number like your weight is better examined on longer intervals rather than day-to-day. Your temperature, however, will likely fluctuate in a day if something is not right – and should be measured regularly and more often when needed.

Different metrics are used and applied within their own context, reasonable to their intended use. The care provider also takes your story into account, compares it to the data, and uses their professional judgment to construct a narrative and a plan that matches your physical and mental experiences. You leave the office with some next steps and often a goal.

Through this, both you and your care provider evaluated evidence of your health, reflected on it and made a plan to take action – just like how we use assessments and data. A personalized picture of you emerges from the mosaic of information.

Erie High student, Lily Kurz applies that approach to her learning: “When you take a test and see what you have done well and what you have not done as well, you can start working to make a plan so you can be better for everything you do in school. When you set goals and achieve to work on them, it works for all your life.”

When you typically hear the word “assessment” in the education realm, your mind might summon images of sharp #2 pencils, sweaty palms and sitting in a hard chair for hours. If you have facilitated a training at work, you might have thought to a time you hawkishly watched to see how many participants were on task, asked questions and engaged in the material. For those of you who have studied for a certificate or degree, the word might evoke images of flashcards and catchy mnemonics.

For all scenarios, assessments are a part of our body of evidence. The evidence may vary in meaning, depending on audience and purpose, and rarely provides a full picture. But each metric along the way, when gathered with additional data, creates a path toward best serving our students, teachers and community. Teachers assess minute-by-minute, they monitor student behavior, check for understanding, help those “a-ha!” light bulbs illuminate, or even watch as productive struggle manifests itself in restless squirms.

When we combine all those observations, we have data. Good data includes qualitative and quantitative, feelings and numbers, and the emotional healthy behaviors alongside the academic healthy behaviors.

Teachers are constantly diagnosing a situation. This process requires various types of data from various sources, and requires expert skills that are continuously refined through research and experience to best serve our schools.

Regardless of the format the assessment takes, we are all looking for an answer to the same, student-focused question: “What was learned?” When students are exposed to this process, they find it invaluable. Chris Tempel of Erie High School summarizes it well: “[Assessment] is a valuable part of my learning experience. I look to improve in what I didn’t do well on, and think of ways to concentrate on that in class.”

And when we start that process in early grades and focus on turning the scores into clues about a student, we can make life-long changes in how our students engage in independent learning tasks, life challenges and reflective behaviors.

Through iReady, PARCC and the SAT suite of programs, St. Vrain and the State of Colorado have identified assessments that will give our families, teachers, students and community meaningful, college and career-aligned data.

Helping students to better know themselves as learners – to better engage in their own educational process and develop agency – includes three primary components that are pivotal to quality assessment of any type: reflection and analysis, meaningful goal setting and taking action.

I like iReady because you can learn more and you can practice your math and reading. It helps me with my reading because it asks you questions about what you read and what you learned. It makes it more fun!

- Daniel, Grade 2, Northridge Elementary

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Summative vs. Formative

In education, we use two terms to define assessment: Formative and Summative. Summative assessments are those end of the year tests that take stock of what students are able to do in an independent, standardized setting. They’re measured on a large-scale, objective basis. The state of Colorado administers PARCC to all students grades 3-8, and the SAT Suite of Assessments for students grades 9-11 (PSAT 9 starts 2018 spring, PSAT 10, and the SAT). It’s a small percentage of the total time spent in school (less than 1% of the instructional time of the school year) but, as the assessments provide an objective point of measure, can be a very meaningful piece of the larger puzzle. Most summative results are thoroughly investigated to identify large-scale trends as well as individual student performance, and evaluated to reflect on instruction from the past year in order to constantly improve for the upcoming year. District data, school data, subgroup data (like gifted/ talented performance, English Learning performance etc), and individual student data are all evaluated to provide insight to the well-being of the system as a whole.

Formative assessments range from the formal to the informal - any assessment of a situation provides data to the teacher during the learning process that the teacher can then use to more immediately modify learning activities to improve student outcomes. A formative assessment could be a unit test, exit tickets, or head nods. More formal examples in St. Vrain are iReady Reading and Math, ReadyGen Performance Based Assessments (ELA), and the behaviors section on report cards.

Reflection at Erie Middle School

“Empowering students to reflect on their own progress helps reinforce a mindset in the students themselves that everyone can grow and achieve,”said Kim Watry, Erie Middle School Principal.

Watry and Assistant Principal, Ruby Bode, work intentionally to add reflection to students’ current perception of assessment.

Watry explains, “The data is for students to personalize and reflect on, not just for an achievement level, but to see how much growth they’ve made.”

At the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, Watry and Bode gave all the students access to their previous PARCC scores. Students explored why they did or did not meet their goals around their learning skills, and then applied their understanding from the process to future learning. The school believes this level of reflection and meaning makes a difference in how students approach their learning and changes engagement in the everyday school setting. They know that the behaviors students exhibit in class and during work time are often behaviors that manifest themselves during assessments and other work that students want to do well on. Bode and Watry do not want to separate assessment performance from everyday performance.

“Our students are building life skills that will help them be successful in high school and beyond in that they are learning to set goals, reflect on progress, and come up with a plan,” said Watry.

“I wouldn’t be as reflective without assessments,” said Emma Maiocco, as an eighth grade student at Erie Middle last year. “The tests help to see how much you actually took in during the year, and they help you know what you need to do. Without them, there would still be gaps in my learning.”

Goal Setting at Northridge Elementary

Once you have reflected, it is important to set goals. Principal Lorynda Sampson of Northridge Elementary believes that if students set meaningful goals for themselves, they begin to take collective ownership of the learning and outcomes.“Students are more encouraged, and they work harder and smarter after setting goals.”

Research backs her experience. When motivated by progress, students are more likely to be “challenge seekers” than “challenge avoiders”.

Emily Fiebig, a fifth grade teacher at Northridge, has students reflect on formative assessments and then set goals to manifest the changes they wish to see in themselves. “It’s important for students to take ownership of their learning and know what they are working towards,” says Fiebig.

Meaningful goal setting involves personalizing the assessment process so that it is tailored to the student’s needs. At Northridge, even students in first grade set personalized assessment and learning goals with the help of their teachers.

As second grader, Stephen Mathews said, “Every time I take a test, I think about what I’m going to do on math problems and with words. We set goals and it makes testing easier.”

Helping students identify positive behaviors and then monitoring and reflecting on those behaviors leverages the control they have on the assessment and helps them identify behaviors that help take them further.

Action at Erie High School

Walking through Erie High School, the first thing you notice are the posters with university names, freshman GPA’s and the average accepted SAT scores floating above smiling students. “The school encourages us so much,” said senior, Jadon Lucero.

Current senior Caleb Humble actually started to see his possibilities open, “I started paying attention to the posters and I couldn’t believe I could get into some of those schools! It was encouraging.”

Students at Erie High saw first-hand how deliberate practice, reflection and goal setting helped them meet stressful challenges, build confidence and attain learning targets. Across the district, staff at various high schools administered practice exams on late start days and even on Saturdays, to a good turn-out.

“I had a lot of stress before I took my first practice test,” says Lucero. “I wanted a basketball scholarship – I had the grades, but I needed a higher SAT score. It was really stressful for me.”

After deliberate practice on his weaknesses, Jadon says, the practice tests boosted his confidence and overall knowledge of the particulars of the exam. This year, all high schools plan to continue providing this experience for students to help them refine their skills.

Preparation for the SAT has to be built on skills, test-taking practice should just be a refinement. Because SAT skills are all aligned to Colorado Academic Standards, when students seek help on questions, they are really seeking help on skills that will set the stage for success in their future endeavors.

“The practice tests, and specifically working on my reading skills, helped me a lot on the actual test date,” said Faith Chatten, senior. “These skills will continue serving me in the future.”

Many St. Vrain Valley students plan on attaining some sort of postsecondary degree. That will play a large role in the jobs our students can apply for. By 2020, 74 percent of all jobs in Colorado will require some postsecondary education, and 41 percent will require a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Our job, as a district that truly believes in academic excellence by design, extends far beyond the PK-12 years of a student’s life. We believe that every student who wants to extend their education further not only has that option, but is prepared for success.


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ST. VRAINNOVATION was produced in-house by the St. Vrain Department of Communications.
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