Jim Smith is data and assessment coordinator at Twin Cities International Elementary School in Minnesota. Previously, he served as a middle school history teacher for 15 years.

Your Job … Is to “Show What You Know”

Even now, after many years, I can hear these words: “Your job today is to show what you know.”

Following my passion to support learning spaces with quality evidence of learning has allowed me to visit a variety of settings where student learning was being assessed. From quick checks for understanding, to high-stakes tests, let’s just say I have seen it all.

Yet, one day stands out. A third-grade class entered the computer lab where I was assisting with the administration of the state math test, but it quickly became clear that my help was not required. The students filed in quietly and smiled easily as I greeted them. The testing atmosphere had a very different feel to it than any other I had seen. The students sat at their computers while the teacher pleasantly gave the directions for the test. The phrase “show what you know” was repeated over and over again. For the next few hours the students worked intently and confidently to show that they really knew their stuff.

This was not a hand-picked group of math geniuses. While most of the students were assigned randomly there were a few well-known “spirited” students in the mix, intentionally placed with this teacher because she had the experience to handle them. Perhaps they were not geniuses coming into her class, but many of them left that way. How did the students and teacher accomplish this?

“Show what you know” in this class was not just an expression pulled off the shelf for state testing day; it was an embedded reality. It was the ongoing desire of the teacher to know where the kids were on their learning journey. More importantly, she wanted the students themselves to know what they had learned correctly, where they needed help, how to find that help, and, as a result, what to do next. At the center was the practice of using common formative assessments. I intentionally link the “teacher and student” theme in this blog. Often, conversations surrounding formative assessment focus on the teacher answering the question: “Did instruction achieve the desired learning outcome for all of my students?” A noble use indeed. But even more critical for successful learning is for students to understand what they have learned or not learned, and what to do next.

Educators work tirelessly to provide a classroom learning experience where all students thrive. There is also another hope that they will perform well on the state tests of accountability. This is not an either/or proposition, both can be accomplished, yet often what is done to “prep” for the state test only serves the second of these goals (McTighe, 2017). The best test “prep” begins on the first day of school, by providing students with an engaging learning environment and fostering active participation by the student in the learning process. Expected learning targets must be clearly defined, lighting the path to successful learning. Having a clear progression of learning allows students to explore and make meaning of intended standards (White, 2017). Transparency in assessment practice clarifies the strengths of student learning, and the challenges to overcome. The intent of all this is to reduce the anxiety that is historically ubiquitous in the assessment culture and replace it with a calm self-confidence built through purposeful and clear learning success.

“Show what you know” or in the language of assessment, daily small-scale assessment practice used formatively, is embedded during instructional planning. When coupled with clear learning targets, intentional planning and appropriate feedback with dynamic responses, we are looking at the best test prep possible. Ultimately, the year-round goal of “showing what you know” leads to successful, and unbound learning.



McTighe, J., (2017). Beware of the test prep trap. Newsela blog, Notes on literacy blog.newslea.com

White, K. (2017). Softening the edges. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Participate in hands-on assessment training from education experts. August 1-3 in Denver, Colorado.

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