Noteworthy Voices 2-MIN. READ

The Cost of Counting Interim Assessment Minutes

By: Lloyd Jones 07/02/2024
Discover why less isn’t always more when it comes to interim assessment length.
Students are sitting in a classroom talking and reading.

On the heels of the pandemic, teachers and parents want to understand how students are really doing. The challenge is that national assessments, like the Nation’s Report Card from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, don't reflect local progress, and state assessments don’t provide timely information or actionable indicators. As a result, many of us rely on interim assessments—given three times a year—that provide the up-to-date student data we need to drive instruction and address areas of need.

Not All Assessments Are Created Equal

Interim assessments are not new to Grades K–8 classrooms, and not all assessments provide the detailed insights you need to drive instruction. In a recent whitepaper, John Hattie noted: “Assessments that tell you generally if a student is on grade level or in the 60th percentile is helpful if you want to know how the student is doing in general. To use data for instruction, teachers need more specificity.” For instance, the data should inform you that your student doesn’t need to focus on mathematics in general but on identifying types of triangles. When you can pinpoint which skills a student needs to work on, you can help them develop those skills.

Less Is NOT More

While testing fatigue is real, shorter assessments aren’t always better. Hattie says, “What you gain in time you lose in coverage and accuracy.” Shorter tests may appropriately measure reading and mathematics proficiency overall, but they provide less insight into domain-level skills in these areas. Hattie explains that “reducing a test from, say, 60 items to 34 items in order to reduce testing time means coverage of domain content must be sacrificed.” He continues, “Being behind in Geometry is very different than being behind in Number and Operations. The knowledge and skills needed in those mathematics domains are different.”

Understanding individual student needs allows you to pinpoint instruction and intervention for each of them. The domain coverage on your assessment should be detailed enough so the score provides unique information about what each student knows and can do and reliable enough to avoid misinterpretation of student needs. According to Hattie, a longer test—meant to provide more precise instructional information—might take 45 minutes and could have upwards of 60 items, allowing for approximately 12–20 domain-specific questions in each content-area domain. A shorter 20- to 30-minute test may only have a handful of questions in each domain.

Hattie further explains that the detail and quality of information available from five questions versus 15 questions varies significantly. Five questions might allow you to determine that a student needs more support in mathematics, but 15 questions would provide far more information on the specific skills they need to develop. The more precise the results you receive, the more precise you can be in targeting instruction.

For instructional decision making, interpreting what each student needs determines the appropriate instructional support for each of them. When the test is too short, there is a higher likelihood of making false or misleading interpretations about what students need, which may compromise instructional validity. “Shorter tests may win back minutes, but those wins may come at a measurable cost,” says Hattie.

How to Select the Right Interim Assessment

When choosing the right assessment for your students, the critical trade-off between assessment length (i.e., testing time) and precision (i.e., the type and accuracy of the results) is important.

You might use domain scores from interim assessments for instructional decision making, decisions on academic intervention, or routing students into personalized instruction on digital platforms. But you need enough detail to guide instruction with enough reliability to ensure there’s no misidentification.

Deciding on which assessment you need should focus on three things:

  1. Precision of the score: How well does the test tell you how students are doing?
  2. The focus of the test: Is there sufficient coverage of the key ideas, including specific domains?
  3. Actionable insights: Can 1 and 2 provide you with sufficient information to drive instruction for each of your students?

Your role as a teacher has never been more important, but you need the right tools to support you and your students.

Want to learn more? Check out this whitepaper about assessments by Hattie.