“I can see why I should probably do this assessing all the time! You really learn a lot about your kids!”
The words of this teacher, new to the profession and new to reading instruction, were music to my ears. Our collaborative time together had been initiated because deadlines were looming on the reading assessment required by both our district and our provincial government. However, I had asserted that we were actually learning about it because it was essential for reading instruction and great for students. The young teacher initially seemed skeptical so, after practicing a diagnostic assessment with two of her first grade students, when she came to see the true value of the assessment to inform her instruction immediately, I knew we had made a breakthrough.
The skepticism of the power of assessment is not uncommon. While facilitating a workshop on formative and self-assessment, a participant stood up and asked, “How can I fit this kind of assessment into my day and not take away from the instruction my students need?” On another occasion, I was working with a group of administrators, when one wondered, “How is it fair to ask teachers to assess young learners on a one-on-one basis? That is so much time taken away from teaching.”
Admittedly, when I began teaching, I also believed that assessment was a “thing” we did after or apart from learning. Often, it was quite unpalatable and very time consuming, and, for a long time, my understanding of how it should function within my class relegated it to something I did when I wasn’t teaching. So, I understand this perspective. I know where it comes from and why it persists.
I also know that as soon as a brand new teacher feels the power of assessment to truly impact decisions she makes and conversations she has with learners, there is no going back! In our brief time together, this teacher and I witnessed learners expressing their hard-earned skills. We saw them approach a text with confidence and we saw them hesitate. We witnessed the application of strategies and we recognized gaps. By making time to assess her young learners, we unlocked both their potential to share and develop their learning and our potential to create new experiences that would support continued growth.
Here’s the truth as I now know it: Assessment is instruction. It is all those moments, big and small, when we make the time and space to notice learning as it unfolds and to make decisions that redirect, reinforce, celebrate, and imagine learning in relation to goals. It is not separate from instruction; it cannot be separate. Without it, we render ourselves incapable of precision, flexibility, and engagement. We need assessment as a process, through which we equip ourselves to respond to learner needs and to invite students into our thinking and planning.
Once we deeply understand assessment as an essential component of the learning cycle (and not apart from it), our paradigm shifts and we begin to imagine how we might unlock the incredible potential of assessment. We can access diagnostic assessment as a powerful process for teachers and learners, from which rich differentiated lessons can flow. Formative assessment can happen throughout the learning cycle, from start to finish, and we can leverage it to engage and refine learning. Self-assessment can empower students to own their growth as part of classroom life every single day. One-on-one assessment can provide the gift of relationship that builds self-efficacy and belonging. Without assessment, you have no real instruction and you assuredly short-change learning.