Beyond the Scantron: Former Dallas Superintendent Mike Miles on Why Testing Is Essential to Know Where Students Are At — and Is a Key Tool in Preparing Them for the 2030 Workforce
This article is part of a series called "Beyond the Scantron: Tests and Equity in Today’s Schools," which is a collaboration with the George W. Bush Institute. The series aims to explore the importance of high-quality exams in serving all students equitably. Read the other articles in this series as they are published here. You can also check out our previous series on accountability here.
Mike Miles, the founder and CEO of Third Future Schools—a charter school network in Colorado and Texas—shared his insights on how his schools assess students through daily demonstrations of learning. As a graduate of West Point and a former superintendent in Dallas and Colorado Springs, Miles understands the significance of reliable, comparable, and valid state exams in determining students’ grade level knowledge. He believes that these exams are crucial in preparing students for the future and ensuring they receive the necessary resources to succeed.
The role of high-quality assessment in teaching and learning is vital. However, it is important to first establish what is meant by testing and whether it refers to formal or informal assessments. Miles suggests that understanding tests as demonstrations of learning may help parents and teachers appreciate their value more.
At Third Future Schools, they require a daily demonstration of learning. When you walk around their schools, you’ll notice lesson objectives and demonstrations of learning displayed on the walls. These demonstrations, whether conducted in-person or online, take about five to ten minutes in every core subject each day. Interestingly, no parent has complained about this level of testing. It provides the teachers with valuable insights into students’ proficiency levels and the extent of their learning.
Returning to the original question, there are four reasons for testing. The first is to determine student proficiency, particularly in critical subjects like reading and math. Parents, teachers, and society at large have a vested interest in knowing whether a student can read and at what level. However, to ensure objectivity, it is essential to have some form of assessment that is not dependent on subjective evaluations.
Another aspect to consider is assessing students’ reading growth. Where were they at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the year? Assessments help in tracking this progress.
Teacher assessments alone cannot provide accurate data on these matters. They may lack calibration and subjectivity can creep in. Therefore, a nationally or at least state-calibrated formal assessment is needed. Such an assessment would help students, teachers, parents, and everyone involved in education understand a student’s current level.
The second reason for assessments is to evaluate the effectiveness of different approaches. How can you determine whether a reading program, a reading interventionist, or a teaching method is genuinely making a difference without some form of assessment? Assessing students is crucial for providing valuable insights into what works and what doesn’t.
The third reason for assessments is to allocate resources effectively. School districts and states need to identify the knowledge and competencies they want students to acquire. For example, if reading is considered a fundamental skill at a particular level, then it is essential to invest resources in that area. This might include funding teacher training or providing resources specifically for improving reading skills. By prioritizing certain subjects or interventions, resources can be used more efficiently.
Lastly, assessments are necessary for accountability, although this can be a controversial topic. However, accountability should not be a divisive issue. It is essential to hold people accountable to improve performance and ensure progress for students. However, it is crucial to have a fair accountability system that provides support alongside expectations.
Considering the disruption caused by the pandemic, assessments can provide valuable information to educators, policymakers, and parents as schools reopen this fall. Parents and educators will want to know the current proficiency level of their students and whether there has been any significant loss in learning. Rather than assigning blame, understanding students’ current standing is the first step towards addressing any learning gaps.
In conclusion, high-quality assessments are integral to education. They serve various purposes such as determining student proficiency, evaluating the effectiveness of approaches, allocating resources, and ensuring accountability. As we navigate the challenges presented by the pandemic, assessments can help provide important insights into the current state of education and guide efforts to support students effectively.
When it comes to accountability, I understand the challenges that kids and teachers faced during the last quarter. Therefore, it may not be fair to hold them accountable in the same way we usually do, especially considering the sudden shift to synchronous live teaching. I believe we should give last year’s results a pass in terms of accountability.
Testing accountability is just a small aspect of overall accountability. It shouldn’t be the sole focus; perhaps just one-third of it.
In my network, we have been able to hold teachers somewhat accountable because we consistently prioritize the quality of instruction. The quality of instruction is likely more crucial in terms of achieving ultimate success.
It’s easy to say that we will increase our scores by four percentage points. But how do we actually make that happen? It’s more effective and rigorous to set a goal for teachers to provide high-quality instruction, and that means implementing X, Y, and Z strategies.
What do you believe more teachers should understand about assessment? And how has that impacted your approach to hiring and recruiting faculty?
I wish more teachers understood that the key to improving student achievement lies in daily assessments and demonstrations of learning. By focusing on these aspects, there’s no need to solely rely on the end-of-year state test. Tools like district common assessments can monitor progress, but they are not as significant as the daily insights gained within the classroom.
Improving teaching practices is another crucial aspect. If we have high-quality teachers, the scores will naturally improve. Our schools don’t conduct extensive testing beyond demonstrations of learning. We leave periodic exams to teachers. We do, however, have a quick reading assessment for students in grades K-8. We also use the interim Measure of Academic Progress test provided by Northwest Evaluation Association, but we do not prepare excessively for it. Additionally, we take the state Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test in the spring.
Yet, we don’t place excessive importance on PARCC because we know that the results from the MAP exam are correlated. If we achieve almost two years’ growth on the MAP exam, PARCC will take care of itself.
What we prioritize above all else are demonstrations of learning and high-quality instruction. Our teachers are dedicated to these aspects.
What do you wish parents understood about testing?
Firstly, I wish parents understood that our network of charter schools does not subject students to excessive testing. Although some districts may do so, we do not have practice exams. Teachers may incorporate some PARCC examples in their coursework as the exam date approaches, but we do not have three days dedicated to PARCC practice tests or anything similar.
Secondly, I wish parents would understand that the assessments we do have in place are intended to identify their child’s progress and growth. None of these tests are punitive for students, and we do not include the PARCC or MAP exams in their final grades.
How do validity, reliability, and comparability factor into state exams? And why are they important?
Our mission, which should be everyone’s mission, is to consider the year 2030 and the skills required in the future workplace, especially in a society that is constantly on the move.
When we say a student is proficient in reading, it must truly be the case. It’s not enough for a parent or teacher to claim a child is proficient without valid evidence. States can establish the standard for proficiency, but I believe there should be a national standard.
This is why the MAP test is vital for us. It allows us to compare our students’ performance to that of students across the nation. As a highly mobile society, we should be able to confidently say that if a child can read in Colorado, they can also read in New York, Florida, or Texas.
A national standard would also assist in prioritizing resources, whether for schools serving underprivileged students, those with special education needs, or any other areas of focus.
Proficiency cannot be considered reliable or valid unless it can be compared to a state or national exam. Moreover, the exam must be administered consistently and reliably to ensure the results are trustworthy.
Let’s delve into how tests can help ensure equitable resource allocation. Based on your experience, how has this been implemented and why is it important as we work towards our vision for all children in 2030?
One effective approach to promote equity, although it may not resolve all issues, is to assign the most skilled teachers to the students who are struggling the most. Alternatively, implementing a policy where underprivileged students are not taught by teachers who lack proficiency could also be beneficial.
Merely claiming to be a great teacher is not enough to convince me of your proficiency if your students are not making academic progress. Identifying which students are not making academic progress and understanding their specific needs is essential.
For this reason, assessment plays a crucial role in allocating resources, whether it be human capital, additional reading interventionists, or a new digital curriculum for students who require extra support at home or through remote learning.
As we look towards the future, particularly 2030, what advancements in assessment intrigue you? What do you believe will be significant?
One common complaint about state testing is the extensive amount of time it takes. The PARCC test, for example, is administered over a two-week period, which translates to several days for most students.
However, the MAP test can be completed in just 90 minutes. While it may not be as comprehensive as the PARCC or STAAR tests in Texas, leveraging technology could significantly speed up the process.
There are also rapid, adaptive assessments available in the form of software or electronic curricula. With these technologies, we could eliminate the need for unit exams, mid-year exams, or district level exams. Instead, we could use these tools to assess where students are at.
In the future, we might even be able to rely on technology to replace demonstrations of learning. By briefly assessing a student online, we could accurately determine their current level of understanding.
Of course, there are drawbacks to removing assessments from the hands of teachers, but it is a challenge that we can overcome.
Now, we must approach assessments differently depending on what we want students to know and accomplish. While math, reading, and science will remain vital in 2030, we need to broaden our assessment methods.
There are other skills and abilities that we must also assess, and we need to move away from solely relying on multiple-choice or open-ended tests. This year, we are focusing on more comprehensive assessments for our Art of Thinking class. We are developing project-based or performance assessments where students are presented with a problem, required to solve it, discuss it, and apply their logical reasoning and critical thinking skills. These assessments are being designed for students in third through eighth grade.
Determining proficiency levels leads us to the concept of cut scores. What factors should we consider when establishing and adjusting these scores?
The controversy surrounding cut scores stems from their politicization. When a cut score for reading proficiency is set and proves effective, some individuals attempt to lower it to give credit for effort, even if the cut score is not reached.
It is important that the cut score is transparent and universally understood. For instance, if proficient reading on the Texas state exam does not align with proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, we should analyze the reasons behind the discrepancy and establish a genuine cut score. If there is a desire to lower the cut score for political reasons, it is crucial to be honest about it. Alternatively, we can adjust the score to provide more points for growth.
This is a difficult task.
Indeed, it is challenging. Our focus should be on the growth of communities facing poverty or language barriers. The progress made in reading ability and proficiency is more significant than the starting point or the initial proficiency level. While it is important to eventually catch up, if a student is making more than a year’s worth of progress in a year’s time, they will eventually reach their academic goals.
Politically, this approach is easier to defend. We should not penalize a teacher or student if they have shown two years’ worth of growth in one year but are still not proficient. In such cases, flexibility and understanding should be emphasized.
Is there anything else you would like to add that we haven’t covered?
We have an opportunity to use the current crisis as a chance to reevaluate and help people understand how testing or demonstrations of learning can contribute to closing the opportunity gap. In Colorado, assessment and accountability have received negative attention, and it is crucial that we change this perception.
Anne Wicks holds the esteemed position of the Ann Kimball Johnson Director of the Education Reform Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.
William McKenzie, on the other hand, serves as the senior editorial advisor at the same institute.