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Rowan-Salisbury Schools moving on to new model of measuring student success

By Carl Blankenship
carl.blankenship@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — It is no secret administrators in Rowan-Salisbury Schools loathe standardized testing. And as standardized testing decreases in importance under renewal or disappears entirely because of COVID-19, the school system is looking at a new way to measure student success.

Superintendent Lynn Moody has repeatedly criticized the ubiquitous education measures for not taking into account mastery and failing to meet students’ individual needs. She referenced standardized testing as a major failure in American education for the past few decades. Moody and others have noted traditional end of grade tests were immediately thrown out at the federal level after the COVID-19 pandemic began shutting down schools.

Moody and principals have become advocates for competency-based education as a model that would replace the way students progress through school. The model fits with the district’s renewal plans. It focuses on tailoring education to the student, “teaching the whole child” and demonstrating mastery of concepts rather than training to take tests.

As the district moves away from the status quo, it has to come up with ways to measure student achievement so it can say a student is ready to move on to the next topic or level; last week, the Board of Education approved partnering with two education companies to create a way for the district to track the progress of students.

The crux of the new system are assessments the district is calling verifiers. These can be completed by a student in 15-20 minutes and are given once a teacher believes a student has mastered a concept.

The assessments are intentionally brief, and they are not something intended to be prepared for like a traditional standardized test.

Students are sometimes taught strategies for maximizing their chances on traditional multiple-choice tests like reducing the number of possible answers Those strategies help students take tests rather than learn important concepts.

RSS Director of Accountability Kelly Burgess said the verifiers can use more than multiple choice questions. Digital tests can now use enhanced questions that incorporate things like drag and drop, or matching and highlighting text elements rather than relying only on multiple choice.

“It’s based on the standards,” Burgess said. “So within a subject there are fundamental standards which have been identified.”

The goal for teachers is to sequence those standards, or a cluster of standards in a way that makes sense. A student could demonstrate mastery by using manipulatives to show they understand fractions, verbally explain it or even take a traditional test.

“We really want to work to put some trust back in to the hands of teachers and empower them,” Burgess said. “They all have four-year degrees, many of them have master’s degrees, many of them are nationally board-certified in their areas and are qualified to make those instructional decisions and diagnose problems as they come about.”

This model means a student who is not doing as well in one area will be able to move at their own pace and not fall further behind the material being taught in a traditional class class. That same student could excel in other subjects and move ahead more quickly than they would be allowed in a model which has every student learning the same material at the same time.

When a teacher decides a student is ready and the child passes a verifier for what they were learning, that student moves on to the next level in a subject. This is how the district will keep track of where students are in different subjects. A student could be at level five in reading but a level three in math, for instance.

Burgess said creating assessments is much more complicated than it may seem, which drove the district to contract with education companies Certica and Instructure to have experts create what the schools need.

The district will be rolling out the new assessment program to schools starting with a pilot program at one elementary, middle and high school. Morgan Elementary School will be the elementary pilot, but middle and high schools have not been decided yet. Morgan Principal Derek DiStefano is a leader in competency-based education within the district and the method is a major part of the school’s renewal plan.

The assessments are only one part of the district’s new accountability model. Another major component is keeping track of student plans when they leave school, with the goal to eventually have all students enrolled in higher education, enlisted in the military or employed when they finish high school.

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