The Assessment Conundrum

There are a few words in education that can charge emotions, spark visceral reactions, and cause heated debates… Assessment is one of them.  I have been thinking about assessment a lot, especially since our #satchat/#satchatwc conversation last month where several educators came together one Saturday morning to discuss it.  What was clear in the Saturday morning dialogue was the following was missing for us as a group of educators:

  • A common definition and understanding of assessment
  • A  common sense of purpose for assessment

There are two recent experiences I have had that have pushed my learning and helped me refine my thoughts about assessment.  The first was an introduction to this assessment cone by Margaret Heritage:

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What this visual so nicely represents is that there are many types of assessments students might take.  They take annual State assessments and most likely quarterly district assessments.  Potentially students take weekly assessments designed by teachers or teacher teams. Individual teachers weave in their own assessments throughout the day and students participate in minute by minute assessments as teachers collect data while they observe and gather evidence of student thinking and learning throughout the day.  What I love about this cone is that it shows the types of assessment in relation to the impact it has on student learning.  Teachers take in data about student learning all the time – “minute by minute” -and if they are using this data to make decisions about how to support individual learning, then THIS is the most powerful assessment practice.  All of the others serve a  purpose, but the further away you get from the student, the less impact the assessments have on student learning.

The second experience I had was just yesterday when I had the pleasure of spending the day with literacy rockstar Stephanie Harvey (@stephharvey49).  Our team has been learning a lot from her as we continue to move forward with our literacy initiative and our implementation of the Common Core State Standards in English language arts. During our time together the topic of assessment came up.  Stephanie shared with us that the reason some of us might struggle with assessment is that we often confuse assessment and evaluation.  Stephanie has many talents, and one of them is her ability to take complex concepts (like assessment) and make them elegantly simple, so she said this…

“Assessment tells us what kids can do.  Evaluation is putting a value on it.”

We assess students all the time…  we listen to them read, we drop in on their conversations to hear what they have to say, we read the annotations they make on a text,  we pay attention to the tracks they leave of their thinking and their responses to thought-provoking questions.  We confer with students; we read what they write.  We pay attention and gather data all the time in our classrooms.  She also explained that as we are gathering this data, it informs three things:

  • Our assessments inform our students’ progress,
  • Our assessments inform our future instruction,
  • And most importantly… our assessments inform our past instruction

I think as an education community we have increasingly honed our skills at using data for the first two purposes… I am not convinced, though, that we have used data as thoughtfully as we could to reflect on the third.  Stephanie helped all of us in the room better understand that when we are assessing kids, we are really assessing our instruction – the work the students produce reflects what we have taught more than anything else.  If the work does not meet our expectations, it is not the child’s problem to solve, but ours as their teachers.

She also shared that assessment becomes evaluation when we place a grade on it.  So… Do we grade or do we assess? In traditional education we often grade, we don’t often assess.   Stephanie challenged us all to think about the amount of time spent grading and the amount of time spent assessing in our schools and classrooms. We need to assess constantly and grade occassionally.  She further emphasized this:

“We should ONLY grade kids when we have taught something well and given plenty of time to practice!”

There is no reason to grade without this!  If we do, we are only grading what they already knew.   We have to have  “taught like a PIRATE” or “taught like our hair was on fire” and provided ample time for kids to practice and receive specific feedback – Until we have done this, we should not be placing a value on their work.

Assessment is a practice we should embrace in our schools and our classrooms… it is essential to improving student learning and it is essential to improving our instructional practices.  Part of embracing it requires understanding what it is, what it isn’t and what role it plays in our schools and classrooms.  As instructional leaders we have to commit to building a collective understanding of assessment and sound assessment practices, and we need to figure out ways to respectfully challenge practices that may be hindering student learning rather than helping it flourish.

3 thoughts on “The Assessment Conundrum

  1. Assessment conversations are always interesting and this one brings up some very good points I’d love to discuss with my teachers.

  2. Stephanie Harvey’s take on assessment really made sense. Although the idea is simple, establishing new assessing habits and abandoning old evaluating ones will be the work ahead of us. Like everything else we just have to try it and keep practicing knowing our students will be better for it.

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