New school year brings new direction for standardized assessments

Youngsters in Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, Maple Shade, work studiously. This year, new standardized tests will be given three times a year in many of the Diocese’s school grades in an effort to look “at how students grow month-to-month.” Craig Pittelli photo


By Mary Morrell, Contributing Editor

“One of the enduring rites of passage each year in the elementary schools in the Diocese of Trenton has been the annual March administration of standardized assessments,” shared Dr. Jason Briggs, principal of St. Gregory the Great Academy, Hamilton Square.

With a new school year approaching, Dr. Briggs expressed appreciation for “a new direction for standardized assessments,” being undertaken by the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools.

JoAnn Tier, diocesan superintendent of schools, explained, “The Renaissance Standardized Assessment, a computer adaptive assessment that adjusts to students’ skill levels, will be utilized to assess student progress and growth beginning in the 2019-2020 school year.”

Dr. Margaret Boland, diocesan associate superintendent of schools, who is responsible for overseeing testing and assessment, noted  that in past years the paper-based Iowa Assessment or the Terra Nova Assessment were given once a year.

Renaissance Assessment, including Star Reading and Star Math, takes place three times a year, and “really looks at how students grow month-to-month, rather than providing a number once a year,” Dr. Boland explained.

This objective of continuous learning is in line with the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools accreditation by AdvancEd, a nationally recognized school accrediting agency that conducts rigorous on-site reviews of PreK-12 schools and school systems to ensure academic growth, Dr. Boland acknowledged.

Tier explained that in the spring, two schools, St. Raphael School, Hamilton, and St. Gregory the Great Academy, piloted two different standardized assessments being considered by the Department of Catholic Schools. Of those two programs, Renaissance was the assessment program both principals recommended.

Ann Cwirko, principal of St. Raphael School, considers her school fortunate to have had the opportunity to pilot the Renaissance assessment.  She and Dr. Briggs agreed to administer the assessment to third- and sixth-grade students, which allowed them to later dialogue and compare notes. “The children responded very positively,” she said.  With eyes on the future, she added, “I’m looking forward to growth data being provided three times a year. It’s exciting.”

Dr. Briggs explained the experience and insights of piloting the assessment: “The paper-based method is a one-time sampling of student data, which takes many weeks to be scored. By the time scores have been received back by each school, there was very little of the school year remaining in order to apply the data in a meaningful way. By the time the following September arrived, the data [collected in March] was already six months old. 

“The [Renaissance] Star Assessment is given three times per year in both reading and math, with each test taking an average of 20 minutes. As a result, the student experience is an average of 40 minutes of testing three times each year [fall, winter, and spring]. Instead of a ‘testing week’ in March, there is an average of 120 minutes of standardized testing for the school year, divided into three times per year. 

“The Star Assessment is taken on a computer, Chromebook or iPad, and the score data is delivered within a matter of days,” he continued. “Teachers are able to begin to apply the data to their instruction within a week. The types and classes of test items adjust based on the student’s responses as the test progresses. Instead of each student taking an identical test, each student takes a test that adapts to his or her strengths and weaknesses.”

The interim testing throughout the year, stressed Tier, “provides an immediate snapshot of student progress and learning. The time spent on the assessment is minimal but provides information to teachers that is immediately available to assist students in their personal learning. It provides a great tool to communicate progress to parents and provides a baseline and progress data in reports and dashboards to inform instruction for teachers.”

Renaissance also measures N.J. state standards and can compare student progress to that of other students in the state, she noted.

Only students in second through eighth grade, and ninth and tenth grade for high school, will be given the assessment, Dr. Boland said. In addition, she pointed out that “both elementary and secondary levels may use Renaissance assessment results to determine student services, while high schools that use Renaissance may use assessment results in meeting benchmarks for eligibility requirements for honors and Advanced Placement.”

Tier noted that each school will have two on-site days of professional development. The first will be held Sept. 26. Schools will send teams composed of principals, lead teachers and a tech person to attend a rollout of the program. Teams will attend either the morning or afternoon session with a Renaissance trainer.

Dr. Briggs and Cwirko agreed on the benefits of this “new chapter in data-driven assessment for our schools” and expressed appreciation to the Department of Catholic Schools for “supporting this new direction in assessment for our students.”

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