The question of “Why Assess?” is one that is posed in schools and districts everywhere. It’s important to challenge educators to think about their assessment practice and how they derive information about student progress. If the purpose of assessment is merely to rank and sort, then little needs to change from the assessment practices of previous generations. If, instead, the purpose is to focus on student learning, then educators need to examine whether their current practice is aligned with that outcome. In “Teacher As Assessment Leader” (2009) I suggested that the teacher’s role is to “make frequent environmental scans to collect formal evidence such as assessments, exams, or homework, and informal evidence such as the questions students may ask, their comments during group work, or even their confused expressions” in order for a productive exchange of information between teacher and student as part of an ongoing, seamless assessment and instruction plan. Analysis of this evidence allows educators to plan next steps and adjust instruction going forward.
Assessment data are only effective when they’re instructionally actionable. It’s no longer acceptable to limit assessment analysis to determining what’s wrong with students. Teachers must use the evidence of student learning to collaborate with colleagues to identify either teaching strengths to share, or areas of concern for which to seek new instructional strategies. The purposes of assessment ought to be framed around diagnosing student learning difficulties and setting individual teacher, and team goals for student improvement.
Professor John Hattie (2012) in “Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning” offers the flip side to the question when he states, “There are certainly many things that inspired teachers do not do; they do not use grading as punishment; they do not conflate behavioral and academic performance; they do not elevate quiet compliance over academic work; they do not excessively use worksheets; they do not have low expectations and keep defending low quality learning as ‘doing your best’; they do not evaluate their impact by compliance, covering the curriculum, or conceiving explanations as to why they have little or no impact on their students; and they do not prefer perfection in homework over risk-taking that involves mistakes.” While this encompasses more than the assessment conversation, it equally serves as a compelling support for the broader discussion schools and districts ought to engage in.
“If you’ve been teaching for more than two years, then you have experienced the very humbling phenomenon of roller coaster results from one year to the next. In a culture of collective responsibility, instead of placing the burden of expected achievement on uncontrollable factors, teachers focus on the collective expertise of the people inside the school. They no longer analyze common assessment data out of compliance. They see the process of engaging in this type of dialogue as part of the promise their school has made to students, parents, and staff.”
The answer to the question of “Why Assess?” is rooted in these actions that committed educators take as they continue to work towards improving the life chances of every student. Regardless of the initiative you and your colleagues are engaged in, the quality of your assessment practice will be the lynchpin to success.
As you read this and think about your next lesson, also think about a next first step in assessment. Wherever you currently are in your assessment practice is where you are. That next first step could involve student analysis of their assessment (reviewing it for errors and then structuring a learning plan before getting re-assessed), it could involve you changing the instructional design and re-teaching a content piece students were not as successful with (an intervention plan that presents content with a new instructional strategy or more time), or it could involve a new format of assessment (do all learning outcomes need to be assessed with paper and pen?).
Gathering high quality evidence, using that evidence to guide next steps, and then gathering more evidence of the efficacy of the strategy, will provide educators and their students the opportunity to focus on the reaching those broader goals. At the end of the day assessment is too valuable to waste by leaving it as an end product and too significant as a daily routine to ignore the evidence that could strengthen the teaching-learning connection.