Think of any group of thirty people whose only commonality is their age. Would it be reasonable to expect that each member of that group has the same ability in mathematics? That they all read at the same level with the same fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary? They all have the same writing ability and can produce high-level prose on any topic? Would they all demonstrate the same self-regulation in social situations? I think we can readily agree it would be folly to make those broad assumptions. However, this is what teachers routinely do in classrooms. They expect every fourteen-year-old to be able to handle all grade 9 content and behavioral outcomes when clearly this will not be the case.
I do not intend to suggest that educators should not have expectations for certain levels of knowledge or requisite behaviors. We can establish need-to-knows across all these areas and recognize readily that in order to function as adults, all citizens need to know how to read, write, do basic computation, and have some self-regulation. The challenge is when we expect everyone to hit the marks at the same time and in the same way.
The question really becomes, “How do we know when a student has achieved proficiency in the intended outcomes?” and this can only be responded to based on the evidence gathered from high quality assessment practice—both formative and summative. In a previous post on this site I asked about the why of assessment and suggested, “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 of those broader goals.” But what do we do when a student has not reached proficiency?
When the evidence indicates a student has not achieved the desired outcome, teachers need to employ the most important three-letter word in education—yet. Students have not met proficiency—yet. This indicates there is still the possibility for them to achieve that goal and that teachers are committed to helping them achieve it. This is an absolute requirement for anything a teacher describes as essential learning, priority standards, guaranteed viable curriculum, or “need-to-know.” There are no other options available, and holding students and teachers accountable for achieving the desired outcomes has to be part of every classroom. However, the achievement does not have to happen all at once.
The successful achievement of the desired outcomes for all students is within the reach of all educators. Gathering evidence using varying levels of formative assessment from informal checks for understanding through to more formal paper and pencil assessments will set students up for success on the formative assessments that follow. However, Carol Ann Tomlinson suggests, “There is little point in spending time on formative assessment unless it leads to modification of teaching and learning plans. In other words, formative assessment is a means to design instruction that’s a better fit for student needs, not an end in itself.” Keeping this thought in mind while using that important three-letter word will ensure that students achieve proficiency and reach the desired outcomes.