This guest post is written by Michelle Wambach, a principal at Carmichael Elementary School in Sierra Vista, Arizona.
You’d think our understanding of the importance of assessment for learning would make doing it a simple task, but there are many things to consider when turning understanding into action. When planning assessment, we must consider the following questions:
Are our collaborative teams identifying the learning we want students to show to reflect mastery ahead of instruction and assessment?
Are our strategies and instructional practices actually facilitating learning?
In reflecting upon my prior experiences—my time in the educational system as a student, teacher, and administrator—I realized that I entered the profession with many preconceived notions. I had implemented practices that were archaic, because that is what I thought you were supposed to do. For example, I thought giving timed tests would make my students better at their math facts because they needed to know this material going into middle school. I didn’t realize I was simply promoting rote memorization with nothing connected to conceptual understanding. I didn’t know what I didn’t know about the connection between assessment and learning and between confidence and growth.
Katie White (2017) describes assessment practices that have “soft edges”—practices that promote the intellectual growth of students while also nurturing emotional, social, and physical health.
She states, “When the edges are softened, assessment practices blend one learning experience into the next and allow students to feel smooth transitions, growing confidence, and recursive content and skill development” (p. 3).
So how do we go from a “hard edged” system of testing, testing, testing to a system that promotes rich and supportive learning? In order to achieve these softened edges we need to examine five critical things:
- Our school and classroom culture
- Our assessment why
- The importance of backwards planning
- The collection and examination of evidence
- Our commitment to success for all
Our School and Classroom Culture
Anthony Muhammad and Luis F. Cruz state in Time for Change (2019), “The most vital assets in any organization are the human resources” (p. 1). It is those human resources that create the culture of the school. When making an assessment shift of any kind, the staff needs to consider the following questions:
Does the staff believe all children can learn?
Are students learning because teachers are the difference makers?
If the answer to both questions is yes, the school and classroom culture is ready to support assessment change. The next step is coming to understand the why.
The Assessment ‘Why’
Any time we look at changing a practice, it is crucial that we explain why the change is essential. We want to build shared understanding based on action research and best practices. We want teachers and students to embrace effective assessment practices, because the information gathered allows the educator to reflect upon their practice, while building motivation and success for both students and teachers.
“The why” helps develop the vision which sends a school on a journey that is not linear. Everyone needs to be ready for growth that will take many twists and turns. My staff spends time exploring questions like:
Why assessment versus testing?
By allowing ourselves the time to truly explore this question and many others, we concluded that testing means we are measuring learning but often the purpose of the test was lost. Assessment, on the other hand, can be used to support learning by knowing the targets we want students to hit and collecting evidence that shows us the path to success.
The Importance of Backwards Planning
Before we can plan an assessment, teams need to have a clear understanding of what they are looking for when students perform, thus answering the question:
What is the destination?
Learning continuums (progressions, maps) are an essential tool in identifying the “need to know” information as well as clarifying critical steps along the way. This helps us understand, as teams of educators, what we want students to know and be able to do. The continuum is a progression or a roadmap, guiding students to proficiency.
In our school, we spent time building continuums that articulated how to build readiness, how to explore and practice the learning goal, what proficiency would look and sound like, and how we might enrich or extend understanding. This work went a long way in ensuring we had a shared understanding and were ready to support equity for all the students we serve.
The Collection and Examination of Evidence
The next step in our design is the creation of assessment tools and processes, both formative and summative. These are the game changers. When designing assessments, we must be willing to collaborate and take constructive feedback based on evidence. Educators must know it’s okay if the assessment they built is not perfect the first time around. As they do the work and collect the data, the process becomes fluid and one of continuous improvement.
Most importantly, when assessing proficiency, the questions or tasks we are asking our students to complete need to be relevant and align with the targets identified. Students are risk-taking every time we assess their learning. They are counting on us to analyze, problem-solve, and provide feedback to guide them to mastery. This is where we build trust, perseverance, and confidence.
Commitment to Success for ALL
When I began teaching, I gave my students a test, graded it, and returned it. Never did I look at the evidence of student work to guide my practice until much later in my career. If anything, I hope you understand this is a process and not one we explore alone. By working together, we access our richest learning. Katie White (2017) explains:
“We need to honor the whole needs of our students and ourselves anytime we embark on an assessment process. We must ask ourselves: Does this tell me something I need to know? Does this give me enough information? Will it result in further student learning? Will it help me instruct more responsively tomorrow? Is it respectful of students’ time? Is it respectful of my time? Does it nurture my learners and me emotionally? Physically? Socially?” (p. 96).
Assessment is how we affirm that our students feel worthy of learning. Through effective assessment, we develop their hope so they will share their story, and we can celebrate their success together. We want students and teachers chanting Captain America’s mantra: “I can do this all day.”
Muhammad, A. & Cruz, L.F. (2019). Time for change: 4 essential skills for transformational school and district leaders. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
White, K. (2017). Softening the edges: Assessment practices that honor K-12 teachers and learners. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.