How Would You Feel If District Reading Assessments Were Optional?

SFUSD Discusses Changes to its Common Assessment System

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.),

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.)

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.

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 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.

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.

Where things stand now:

Rachel Norton proposed continued discussion on the resolution at the upcoming Curriculum Committee Mtg. on November 20th. These meetings are 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.

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?

Ali M. Collins is a San Francisco-based organizer and public school advocate who has worked in the field of education equity for almost twenty years. She is an independent agent of change and active blogger on SF Public School Mom (http://sfpsmom.com), where she writes about education policy, parenting, and race.

mom of twins. education nerd. public school warrior. reformed cat-lady. amateur urbanist. social justice addict. BLERD. & most recently Board of Ed Commissioner