Cassandra Erkens is a presenter, facilitator, coach, trainer of trainers, keynote speaker, author, and above all, a teacher. She presents nationally and internationally on assessment, instruction, school improvement, and professional learning communities.

Achievement—It’s More Than a Number

Post 1 of 4 on Using Assessment to Improve Achievement

A person who never made a mistake, never tried anything new.

The primary mission of schools is to help kids learn. That’s it. That’s the bottom line. It stands to reason, then, that the primary indicator of success will always be achievement scores. But our work with making decisions about learners must remain far more humane then making decisions about learners based on a set of cold, calculated scores (and it doesn’t matter if those data come from the grades in our gradebooks or external test scores). The measure of achievement should never mask the face of the learner. This is personal. And, it’s very serious work.

Parents send the best kids they have to our schools to learn. They have the highest of hopes for their children as they enter the system. They expect their kids to learn and they want their kids to be wildly successful in and out of school. And, young impressionable learners arrive filled with hope and enthusiasm. They want—indeed, need—to be successful. Even learners who seem disenfranchised in the upper grades return (albeit begrudgingly) to school craving better days.

Unfortunately, as early as the primary grades, some students begin to lose hope and disengage—a direct result of classroom assessment practices that may be dull, that may miss the targeted needs of the individual learners, that may result in calculated scores without corrective feedback, that may label or track learners by ability, or any other type of activity that destroys hope and neglects to build efficacy. To support each learner with making achievement gains, we must 1) create systems that enable learners to persist through errors, 2) provide corrective feedback, and 3) offer targeted, instructional support.

Persisting through Errors
It would be easy to think we just need to teach our learners to be motivated, maintain hope, and activate their personal vision of success. That puts all of the work of persisting through errors squarely on the learners’ shoulders. In truth, the issue at hand is a reflection of a greater assessment and evaluation problem. The most inspired learner will not maintain those desirable learning attributes when functioning in a system that evaluates often, penalizes mistakes along the way, and reduces the opportunities for mastery early in the learning journey. Certainly, teaching our learners about motivation, hope, and vision will be beneficial, but they will only operationalize those features when they can be certain there will be a return on their investment. To support persistence, assessment and evaluation systems must align with motivation theory:

  • Scores, marks, or grades during the formative phases (if recorded at all) can only be used for instructional decision making by the teacher and the learner.
  • A far more accurate representation of learning can be reported when teachers use the mode (most common number representing the level of proficiency) found in the students’ later samples of work. The popular alternative of averaging scores conceals a learner’s highest level of achievement by incorporating the less proficient work that occurred while the learner was trying to attain proficiency.
  • All learners, all of the time, must know they still have an opportunity to achieve the highest marks at the conclusion of the learning. Without that opportunity, learners will reduce their effort the moment they realize their best efforts will not ‘save’ them.
  • All assessments, both formative and summative, must continue to develop and refine mastery over time. ‘One and done’ assessments or units of study discourage persistence because the learning is over too quickly and cannot be refined with continued practice.

Human beings, by nature, are success-oriented. When we want to learn to walk, talk, ride a bike, or drive a car, we may fail early and maybe even often, but we don’t just give up. We persist because we believe success is still possible. Our assessment and evaluation systems must allow for that same possibility if we want persistence in the classroom.

Providing Corrective Feedback
All learners, all of the time, need both success feedback and intervention feedback (Chappuis, 2014). And feedback must generate productive responses on behalf of the learners, so whether it’s success or intervention based, it must continue the learning. There is an art to providing instructional feedback to both right and wrong answers in a manner that deepens the learners’ thinking. In general, there are a few strategies teachers can use to respond to both right and wrong answers:

  • Establish a culture that supports risk taking.
  • Create guidelines to support classmates in sharing the responsibility of keeping everyone safe as they answer challenging questions.
  • Solicit a collection of answers before designating the right or best one, then let the group argue the merits of various answers on their way to identifying a quality answer.
  • Leave every discussion and/or each learner with a correct answer to avoid continued or future confusion.
  • Circle back to the learners who gave incorrect answers to they have a new opportunity to get another question correct and can leave the lesson on a successful note.
Responding to Student Responses when they are incorrect: Responding to Student Responses when they are correct:
  • Will you change, keep, or modify your answer if I add/remind you of x (add in anything missing from the learner’s response)? Or, if that’s correct, how might you explain this?
  • Ask a follow-up question that leads the student to understand the error in the answer.
  • Do you have any evidence to support that answer? Any evidence to the contrary?
  • Take us through the steps that lead you to that conclusion.
  • You are partially correct in that x is x, but what about adding the notion of y—what might that do to the second part of your answer?
  • What I heard you say is x (rephrase to buy thinking time and gain clarity). Is that what you meant?
  • Thank you for those ideas. If you were to approach the concept from a slightly different angle, you might notice …
  • That’s the answer to the next question I was about to ask! You’re way ahead of me.
  • Withhold affirmation of student response and ask others to argue its merits.
  • Why?
  • Prove it.
  • Do you agree?
  • Can you tell me more?
  • What evidence do you have to back your response? Is there any evidence to counter your response?
  • If you were teaching a younger student this concept, how would you explain how you got to that correct answer?
  • Can anyone tell me what makes X’s answer correct?

Note: it is important to use these same kinds of answers with consistency, even with right answers, so that they don’t become code for wrong answers.

When soliciting evidence about learning during instruction, teachers must do so much more than find a few right answers to key questions. Even the most successful learners who answer correctly should be asked to dig more deeply into their understanding, provide rationale for their thinking, defend their stance, and challenge their own preconceived notions. In that case, ‘corrective’ doesn’t fix erroneous thinking, but rather drives thinking to deeper levels. Corrective feedback is a powerful form of formative assessment and all learners can benefit from it.

Offering Targeted Instructional Support
When learners aren’t successful, teachers must intervene—as early and as often as possible. Intervention, like correction, needs to be targeted and immediate if learners are to achieve at high levels. Targeted in this case means tied to the learner’s exact need. It is a waste of teacher time and it is disrespectful to learners if intervention involves a wholesale repeat of the initial instruction (Kramer, 2015). In the fall of 2015, a 4th grade team from Waconia Public Schools in Minnesota was examining student work from a task in which the learners had to read a fable, identify the theme, and then use text evidence to support their identified theme. The team identified several different types of errors (found in the table that follows). As you can see, each error requires a different instructional response and simply re-teaching what theme is or how to support claims with evidence will not help the learners who are making specific types of errors:

Errors for Theme Errors for Using Text Evidence
  • Restate something from text instead
  • Summarize the whole text
  • Guess the theme by over generalizing with other broad, popular themes (e.g. ‘be kind’)
  • Offer single word answers that are topic based and too general (e.g. “Honesty”)
  • Retell parts of the story
  • Offer ideas as evidence, but do not use exact links to text evidence
  • Offer some text evidence but not enough
  • Provide text evidence that does not support theme identified

When learners have specific and timely support, they can close their own achievement gaps, especially when they can see the possibility, and even the probability of success before them. Our interaction with learners and our evaluation of their work is serious. There is an expression that says what you think of me, I’ll think of me; what I think of me, I’ll be. Achievement is personal.

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