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What Is Assessment Really, Anyway?

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

Introduction

Why does assessment seem like a bad word? In a lot of ways, we have done this to ourselves and our students. We have made it so that students are ultimately defined by how they do on their standardized tests. It stresses out teachers, administrators, and has created anxiety amongst students as well. Often when I help schools implement something new such as SEL, PBL, CRRP, or Restorative Systems, teachers will resist because they worry about impacting their student's bottom line of how well they do on their state assessments. I completely understand the hesitation, given the pressures of having students perform well on a single standardized measure of success. So the real question is, how do we change it? Well, the first essential step is for assessment to return to its roots.


Where Assessment Comes From

The word assessment comes from the Latin word assidere, meaning “to sit beside”

I remember watching my friend and author Cheryl Dobbertin deliver a PD, and it completely changed my thinking on assessment. In that PD, I learned that the word assessment comes from the Latin word assidere, meaning “to sit beside.” In an educational context, the teacher takes on the role of observing learning, monitoring progress, and gathering information to develop an understanding of what students can do to help them improve over time. If this is the root of assessment, why isn't this what we often think of? How can we return to assessment’s roots in our classroom?


My Favorite Teacher

I started to reflect on my K-12 schooling, and I could only think of one teacher that truly sat beside us as she assessed, and it was my Global History teacher, Mrs. Karen Ross. In New York State, we have Regents exams that all students are required to pass to graduate. The final exam for her class was the only class I got 100% on during my high school career. When I think of why I did so well, it comes down to her philosophy as a teacher. Mrs. Ross was a constructivist teacher at her very core and viewed assessment as a means to understanding her learners, not a means to an end.

Mrs. Ross was a constructivist teacher at her very core and viewed assessment as a means to understanding her learners, not a means to an end.

What did Mrs. Ross do, exactly? Well, first off, I never took a single unit exam for her. For the Global Regents Exam, you had to take 50 multiple choice questions and write two essays. It is not that we didn’t practice taking quizzes or tests- it was just always not a big deal in her class. They weren’t THE thing we knew we were working toward. On some days, she would simply say, "let's see where we are! Can you answer these questions?" When we got the results, she would put us in different station activities to learn what we were not grasping, enrich our understanding, and hold one-on-one conversations. I always had a clear grasp of what I was learning, where I needed to go, and why.


When it came to taking that final exam, she reminded us that we have been doing this all year, and now it is just time to show others what we know. Mrs. Ross was right. I never felt more prepared to take a test. Unsurprisingly, she had the highest test scores in not only our school but the whole county during that time. It shouldn't shock anyone that when I decided to be a teacher, I became a global history because of her.


What Assessments Should Include

When I break down Mrs. Ross' assessment practices, it aligns perfectly to what Laura Greenstein stated in her book Restorative Assessment: Strength-Based Practices That Support All Learners of what assessments must include, which are:

  • Coherence with intentional learning outcomes

  • Varied methods and pathways

  • Participation of the learner

  • Focus on growth

  • Reciprocity between teacher and student

  • Formative processes

  • Responsiveness to evidence of learning

(Restorative Assessment, p 15).

At the time, all I knew was that I loved her class. Now I can see how intentionally she had planned to ensure the success of all her learners. Ultimately, she created opportunities to demonstrate not only were we learning at that moment but that we could apply it in multiple situations over time.


I did a little exploring into this idea, and the work of Jay McTighe and the great and late Grant Wiggins comes to mind. When you think of it, it’s so simple but complex in how it reframes the conversation around student performance. McTighe and Wiggins advocate for the use of “transfer goals,” meaning how will students actually be able to use their knowledge to approach new and complex situations? What do we want students to truly be able to do with their learning across time and situations?

McTighe and Wiggins advocate for the use of “transfer goals,” meaning how will students actually be able to use their knowledge to approach new and complex situations? What do we want students to truly be able to do with their learning across time and situations?

This idea of "transfer goals" connects well with the Profiles of a Graduate that schools, districts, and states are creating. For example, If we actually want students to be “lifelong learners”, which I’d say is a transfer goal, then what are the academic experiences we are creating for students? Do they truly spark that love of learning and that curiosity that will promote a desire to continue it all their lives? Then, we can use assessment to help students along their journey, just as Mrs. Ross did for me.


Planning Assessments For Transfer of Learning

This all seems magical and probably overwhelming at the same time. How can we all be more like Mrs. Ross in our everyday teaching practice? I promise you don't have to be a magician to transfer learning goals, just intentional. Using the list above, we have expanded upon what this looks like in practice when planning assessments so that you can to truly sit alongside your students and help them transfer learning long-term. As you read these ideas, consider what you are already doing and what you could start to do more of.

  1. Coherence with intentional learning outcomes: Create assessments aligned with desired learning outcomes that help students transfer or apply their knowledge or skills in and outside of school. Ensure that assessment strategies are transparent to your learners from the start and illuminate students’ knowledge and understanding of the learning goals in multiple ways. Nothing should be a surprise. Just as Mrs. Ross would say, "Let's see where you are!"

  2. Varied methods and pathways: Create multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate proficiency in the ways they learn best that supports and encourages higher levels of thinking. We all don't learn the same, so we need to consider how students can show us what they have learned through various modalities.

  3. Participation of the learner: Assessment can feel like something done to learners, so change that by encouraging learner agency. Empower your students as collaborative planners, explorers, and assessors of their learning through choice, relevancy, and ownership.

  4. Focus on growth: Create a learning environment that embraces mistakes so that students know it is among the most impactful strategies for improvement. Share with students that you believe that they all are capable of growing no matter their starting point. As you plan, create time and space to ensure students know what is expected of them throughout the unit and how they will be assessed along the way so they have opportunities to set their own learning goals and means for achieving them.

  5. Reciprocity between teacher and student: Share power with your students. View assessments as feedback opportunities for teachers and students on how the learning is going. Collectively, work together to identify the next steps after an assessment, and adjustments are made collaboratively based on the data. If students feel a sense of shared power and control, they are more likely to identify, reflect, and advocate for their needs.

  6. Formative processes: Provide time and space for quick assessments that inform the next steps in learning, centering your students within that. Allow time in class for students to identify their own learning goals and create space to thoughtfully and regularly reflect on their goals.

  7. Responsiveness to evidence of learning: Make assessments an integral element of teaching and learning to gather information about student progress along the way. Use assessments to help guide curriculum design and potential scaffolds needed for learners to achieve their goals. Your assessments are only as good as the actionable next steps that occur afterward.

What to Avoid When Implementing Assessments

I always plan with the best intentions, and then life happens. I have to recenter myself in those moments because I can easily revert to my old habits. After all, that is what comes naturally and feels the easiest. To avoid that, we want to offer you some don'ts of assessments and what you can do instead to help you guide during implementation.


Concluding Thoughts

When I was reviewing what I wrote above and think of Mrs. Ross, it makes me smile because in many of the schools I coach, I’m beginning to hear some promising conversations that are truly reframing how we measure student success. Teams of teachers are collaborating to ask, “What is it that we really want our students to know, understand and be able to do and how can we define what those skills are that we want them to apply across contexts?" These conversations give me hope that we aren't far off from returning to the root of assessment.

And finally, I want to leave you with a quote from Grant Wiggins to help you sit beside your students in learning and assessing “Learners need endless feedback more than they need endless teaching" (Less teaching, More Feedback, ASCD Inservice). Challenge yourself on what that looks like in your classroom daily.


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