How do our assessment practices help us avoid optimizing the measurable at the expense of the immeasurable or hard to measure?
What and how we assess signals what we value. Much of the current school reform rhetoric advocates adopting higher, better standards accompanied with frequent testing to assure the standards are met. Policy makers treat students as sources of data to be mined to evaluate teachers and rate schools. This approach pushes schools to optimize the measurable at the risk of neglecting the immeasurable or hard to measure.[i] While Christian schools enjoy more freedom that public schools in the scenario characterized above, there is a subtle or not so subtle pressure for us to prove that we are as good as if not better than the school down the road because we are standards-based and data driven and our test scores prove it. If we want our assessment practices to bend toward blessing, we must avoid a preoccupation with letters and numbers to the neglect of other ways of learning?[ii] Letters and numbers are important but so too are the less bookish avenues to learning such as ‘free play’[iii], hands-on project or problem-based learning, place-based studies, and interest- and passion-fueled learning. Rather than signaling a primary occupation with informational text, assessment that tackles the hard to measure will value the effort of young people to figure things out for themselves, which includes hypothesizing and creative, imaginative, divergent thinking.[iv] There are many hard to measure facets of learning for young disciples-in-training. Have we identified these facets? Have we made a collective commitment to account for them in our assessment practices? Have we identified the kind of data we need to help potential disciples-in-training to thrive in their learning? How can we help each other avoid an assessment approach that majors in the measureable at the expense of the immeasurable or hard-to-measure?
How does our approach to assessment prevent us from intruding on or interrupting learning too soon?
While we may distinguish between assessment for and of learning in our assessment practices, too often assessment of learning is far more frequent than assessment for learning. Research indicates that frequent, formative assessment improves the learning of each student and, when practiced by the learning organization as a whole, facilitates school improvement as well.[v] Blessing-oriented assessment practices need to flip the pyramid making assessment for learning far more frequent than assessment of learning. Overuse of summative assessment can promote deficit thinking, causing anxiety, depression, and a sense of helplessness all of which inhibit learning.[vi] Rushing to judgment or intruding on learning before learners have adequate time to engage in the learning, to become proficient with new skills and processes, and to learn from mistakes and missteps can compromise the safe space that learners need to continue to grow, robbing them of the joy and love of learning. [vii] What is the ratio of formative to summative assessments in our actual practice? How do our grading practices protect the important role of assessment for learning? Do we recognize those times when we need to withhold assessment (formative and summative) to avoid intruding on or interrupting learning such as during ‘free play’ and states of ‘flow’?[viii] For our assessment practices to bless, we need to remind each other that the point is not assessment. It is learning. Sometimes it is a blessing to withhold or delay assessment.
elaine brouwer, Director of Alta Vista
[i] Richardson, Will. (2012). Why school: how education must change when learning and information are everywhere. NY, NY: TED Conferences LLC. 15/35.
[iii] Gray, Peter. (2013). Free to learn: why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. NY, NY: Basic Books.
[v] Stiggins, Richard J., Arter, Judith A., Chappuis, Jan, and Chappuis, Stephen. (2012). Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: doing it well-using it right, 2nd edition. Portland, OR: Educational Testing Service. P. 22-23.
[vi] Gray, Peter. (2013). Free to learn: why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. NY, NY: Basic Books.
[vii] Gray, Peter. (2013). Free to learn: why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. NY, NY: Basic Books. P. 165-166, 294.
How does an overriding concern for student learning shape our assessment practices?
Teaching is important, but learning is primary. Our assessment practices should signal that we are primarily concerned with what and how well students are learning, not just with what we taught. If we are committed to helping every student grow, we will seek information prior to planning and implementation about what our students already know and can do in relation to the area they will study, as well as what they feel and believe about it. And during learning, we will gather a wide range of data to assess progress toward learning targets and use that data to modify instruction and learning activities. The important assumption is that we must be intentional about using the information we uncover to modify our teaching and learning plans while the learning is taking place so all students can be as successful as they can and choose to be. How are our assessment practices designed to further learning? Can we show each other how we use the information we gathered prior to and while teaching to modify our learning plans so every student grows? Do our lesson plans indicate that we made adjustments based on the information we gathered? Have we updated our curriculum maps to capture important instruction and assessment strategies that we employed to help the struggling learner as well as the learner who is well on the way?
How do our assessment practices give students a prominent role in assessing their own learning?
It is the learner’s responsibility to learn. To foster a sense of competency, self-confidence, and anticipation of growth, we need to allow our students to take an active role in assessing their own learning. Self-assessment encourages growth in self-monitoring and self-management and makes student thinking visible, open to examination and redirection. When students are becoming true partners in assessment and, therefore in their learning, they will be able to describe in their own words the purpose of their work, how it connects to prior work, how they will demonstrate their learning and the criteria they and the teacher will use to evaluate the work. Assessment as learning reminds us that students are important educational decision makers in the classroom, perhaps the most important.[i] They are always thinking and deciding. That thinking and those decisions could be naïve or sophisticated, constructive or destructive, on track or misdirected. To maximize the learning of each student, we need to find a way to make that thinking and deciding visible long before the summative assessment. Can we provide evidence that we truly honor and respect student efforts to assess their own learning and that we are helping them to grow in that ability? Are our students setting goals for their learning based on their self-assessment? Can we identify the benefits of on-going self-assessment? Do our curriculum maps show a spiraling, increasingly sophisticated approach to self-assessment as students progress through our programs?
elaine brouwer, Director of Alta Vista
[i] Stiggins, Richard J., Arter, Judith A., Chappuis, Jan, and Chappuis, Stephen. (2012). Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: doing it well-using it right, 2nd edition. Portland, OR: Educational Testing Service. P. 8.
Assessment conducted as a careful, caring inquiry designed to encourage, support and celebrate
learning can be a blessing for our students and can contribute to the well being of the whole learning community. Assessment serves a number of purposes in our learning spaces, but how do we know if our assessment practices actively contribute to blessing and wellbeing?
There are approaches to assessment that can make blessing more likely than others. The work of Richard Stiggins Et al. is one such approach.[i] Classroom Assessment for Student Learning calls for a judicious use of assessment for (formative) learning and assessment of (summative) learning with formative assessment being much more frequent than summative.[ii] In assessing for learning, we seek information about where our students are in their learning journey prior to and during the course of a unit or lesson in order to make day-to-day or even moment-to-moment instructional decisions. This information is also fed back to the learners in the form of rich, timely descriptions that reveal potential next steps in learning. This enables learners to self-assess and set goals for further learning. The goal is to maximize the learning of each student. The much less frequent use of summative assessment is designed primarily to gather evidence of current student achievement – a snapshot taken at a certain point in time to communicate information to those who make large-scale educational decisions. While summative assessment is frequently used to rank, compare or assign a grade or mark, the goal of assessment for learning is not comparative judgment or gathering scores to contribute to a final mark. Research indicates that frequent assessment as[iii] and for learning that is used to modify the learning plan to meet emerging needs results in improved student learning for all, but especially for lower achieving students.[iv] The neediest in the classroom receive the greatest blessing and the overall achievement gap in the classroom narrows.
Even though this approach bends toward blessing, blessing is not an automatic outcome. If we want our approach to assessment to be oriented toward blessing for the individual learner as well as the whole learning community, it is important that we conduct a careful, periodic, and communal inquiry into our assessment practices. I offer the following handful of essential questions to guide that inquiry:
- How does an overriding concern for student learning shape our assessment practices?
- How do our assessment practices give students a prominent role in assessing their own learning?
- How do our assessment practices help us avoid optimizing the measurable at the expense of the immeasurable or hard to measure?
- How does our approach to assessment prevent us from intruding on or interrupting learning too soon?
- How do our assessment practices strengthen the bonds of the learning community?
- How do our assessment practices reveal thoughtful decisions about what learners need to understand, know and be able to do to thrive in their futures?
elaine brouwer, Director of Alta Vista
[i] I wrote an article about this approach for the December 2007 issue of the Christian Educators Journal – “Assessment that Supports and Encourages Learning: a blessing for our students”
[ii] Stiggins, Richard J., Arter, Judith A., Chappuis, Jan, and Chappuis, Stephen. (2012). Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: doing it well-using it right, 2nd edition. Portland, OR: Educational Testing Service.
[iii] Rethinking Classroom Assessment with Purpose in Mind, http://www.wncp.ca/media/40539/rethink.pdf “Assessment as learning is based in research about how learning happens, and is characterized by students reflecting on their own learning and making adjustments so that they achieve deeper understanding.”
[iv] Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998). “Inside the Black Box: raising standards through classroom assessment.” Phi Delta Kappan, (80) 2, 139-148.