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.),
  • 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.)

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.
  • 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 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.

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.

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