Tom Hierck has been an educator since 1983 in a career that has spanned all grade levels. He has been a teacher, an administrator, a district leader, a department of education project leader, and an executive director.

Assessing When No One is Around…

Many readers of this blog will be familiar with the age-old philosophical question that raises a variety of responses regarding what we see and what we perceive: 

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” 

During our current pandemic—and the resulting closure of schools to typical operation—we have seen a move to remote learning as the standard operation. In this environment, I think the question needs to be modified to “If a teacher assesses students when they are at home, is it still valid?” 

My conversations with colleagues in the first few weeks of this health crisis lead me to believe the answer is quite fuzzy.

Tofu is not cheese, and that’s OK

A recent blog post by renowned professor of education Yong Zhao offers the premise that tofu is not cheese, and neither should we expect online education to be the same as face-to-face education. Rather than worrying about replacing all of the functions of a typical school, he suggests we look at what can be done proactively rather than suffering as a lesser version of what we perceive school to be. 

As it relates to assessment, Zhao is quite clear in stating “it is unethical and unjust to hold students accountable for learning the same things at the same rate and assessed by the same exams because their learning environments are so unequal as a result of their home background.” 

Facing this reality, while also facing the pressure to measure in some format, is the crux of the challenge. It’s a challenge that might require us to let go of the familiar, and often comfortable, to embark on a new course of evidence gathering and information sharing formerly known as assessment and grading.

Proficiency amid a pandemic

Before diving into that, let me share a recent conversation two of my grandsons were having. They are 6 and 7 years old, and are unhappy about this notion of social isolation as they regularly visit each other despite being about an hour apart. We gathered all of our grandchildren to FaceTime, and the two oldest boys were explaining how they need to continue to social distance during this pandemic until the curve was flattened, and then they would be able to hang out together. 

Does anything strike you as odd about that previous sentence? I recognize that as a veteran educator (okay, I am old!), I may be in a unique place compared to newer colleagues. However, we did not FaceTime when I was growing up. The word “pandemic” did not occur in my circle of understanding. If I worried about anything being flattened, it was a spider or some other creepy thing that unnerved me. The point of this is that if I had recorded that conversation and shared it back to their teachers, I think both boys would have been seen to be proficient in a number of learning targets across various content areas at their respective grade levels. 

So, how does this connect to our current struggle? The answer lies in letting go (on some levels) of what we know well (0-100), and embracing a model that focuses on achieving the desired outcomes for ALL students. In the short term, it may also mean moving to an even simpler model than what many educators (including myself) have written books and blogs about: target-based grading. I think the current crisis calls for a move to a “got it/not yet” approach more traditionally referred to as pass/fail. 

Priority No. 1

Tom Guskey shared some brilliant insights on this move in a recent blog post for Education Week. In examining our core purpose when it comes to assessment and grading, Guskey suggests that priority number one must be to “encourage and support student learning.” In the realm of assessment (evidence gathering) this will challenge educators to think beyond providing a number or a letter and look at the feedback they are providing. As Guskey suggests, “It means helping students to see assessments as learning tools that have an integral role in the learning process, rather than as evaluation devices that mark the end of learning.” 

Reflecting on my “got it/not yet” approach identified above, educators must collectively and collaboratively achieve some sense of the criteria needed to achieve the desired outcome rather than trying to rank and sort students through 101 possible levels. When it comes to grading (information sharing) the key has always been accuracy as it relates to what students know or don’t know regardless (to the greatest capacity possible) of time constraints that strictly enforced reporting periods often define. In the “got it/not yet” world, Guskey suggests, “success rests in establishing clear criteria for “pass” and making those criteria challenging, rigorous, and attainable.”

I started this post with a take on an age-old philosophical question: “If a teacher assesses students when they are at home, is it still valid?” 

Let’s aim for better outcomes, not just the norm

Just like the original question, the challenge facing educators is one about observation and perception. History tells us that this current crisis will pass, and we will return to our familiar surroundings and familiar understandings. I hope we won’t automatically return to those things that we did simply because that was “the way we do things around here.” I hope this current pause in some of our structural attributes also affords us the opportunity to see if we can grow in our practice or possibly modify it for better outcomes. 

As Guskey states, “By making student learning our primary focus; helping students share the same focus; ensuring the criteria we establish for passing or earning credit are clear, rigorous, and attainable; and then doing everything we can to help ALL students meet those criteria; we will make the best of these difficult and trying times.” 

More importantly, it may lead us down another pathway that produces better outcomes for our students as we achieve clarity in evidence gathering and information sharing.



    Totally agree, Tom. I actually could hear your voice reading this! This is definitely the time for us to focus on assessment practices that deepen and support all kids learning.


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