Cassandra Erkens is a presenter, facilitator, coach, trainer of trainers, keynote speaker, author, and above all, a teacher. She presents nationally and internationally on assessment, instruction, school improvement, and professional learning communities.

Rethinking Pre-assessment: A Pathway to Supporting Learning in the Fall

As we brace for the uncertainties of the fall, it will be important to be as prepared as possible—both for our sanity and our ultimate success. We must adopt a learning stance to find our way through the COVID-19 upheaval. We must find answers to the core questions that ground all learners: 

Where are we going? Where are we now? And how can we bridge the gap between those two spaces?

Where are we going?

To answer the question of where we are going, Friziellie, Schmidt, and Spiller (2020) advise we take a hard look at what comes after the current year before reprioritizing the priority standards for what’s most important within the current year. It will be important to eliminate the highly anticipated academic gaps created by the “COVID slide,” and ensure our learners remain on grade level in order to move forward. The answers to these questions can help teachers figure out where they must end the current school year.

Where are we now?

To answer the question of where we are now, Friziellie, Schmidt, and Spiller (2020) advise we look to the previous year, by asking teachers some key questions:

1. What were your priority standards, especially in the last three months of school?

2. How far did you get in the curriculum expectations?

3. Who was on your radar of concerns? 

The answers to these questions can help teachers figure out where to begin.

Another great way to answer the question of “where we are now” is to engage in pre-assessment strategies. Today, there is much confusion about the design, use, and even purpose of pre-assessment at the classroom level. Should it test everything the student is expected to know and do upfront? Should it be graded? Should it be used as a benchmark data point against which the post-assessment would reveal the degree of growth accomplished? Should students be able to see the actual assessment after it is scored, if it is to be used at the conclusion of the learning?

To put pre-assessment in context, consider it a key tool for teachers to become learners of their students: “The teacher is a persistent student of his or her students, consistently seeking to grow in understanding of the student’s readiness levels, interests, approaches to learning, and background in order to teach more effectively” (Tomlinson and Moon, 2013,  p. 418). 

Pre-assessment, the “textbook” for each child, is a source of critical information to support best first instruction and the agile instructional maneuvers that must follow throughout the learning experience. It is imperative that pre-assessment be used as it was intended. Turning a student’s pre-assessment results into a graded document can unintentionally weaponize or gamify learning.

How can we bridge the gap?

Early in the process, students must know that pre-assessments will not be used for judgment, but rather to help their teachers help them. When this stated purpose is offered in tandem with a clear set of high expectations and an early promise of continued and targeted support, students can adopt an early growth mindset. They are positioned for success, rather than deflated by all the gaps revealed in their pre-assessment results.

Pre-assessment happens before instruction begins. Its results are used as formative data to help teachers make instructional decisions regarding starting points, differentiation groupings, common barriers or hurdles to target, support strategies, and so on.

“Assessments occur before a unit of study begins so that a teacher is aware of students’ starting points relative to both prerequisite knowledge and to knowledge, understanding, and skills designated as essential to a topic or unit of study” (Tomlinson and Moon, 2013,  p. 418). Because the results can help teachers find time by isolating needs and eliminating features that will not be needed, pre-assessment is always an important tool to use following a significant disruption to learning that may have resulted in gaps.

But employing a pre-assessment system does not mean creating lengthy tests that cover all of the content not yet taught. There are healthier ways—for teachers and students—to approach the pre-assessment experience.

Consider the following practices when designing and employing pre-assessments:

Align all questions, tasks, or prompts to the essential standards or learning outcomes of the current unit of study (Tomlinson and Moon, 2013).

Ensure all questions, tasks, or prompts are accessible to all of the learners. Avoid vocabulary barriers or assessment tricks that only serve to identify those with already enriched backgrounds or resources (Hocket and Doubet, 2013).

Know the purpose of the pre-assessment and then create tasks or items accordingly (Guskey, 2018):

  • Prerequisite pre-assessments: used to measure readiness of knowledge, understanding, and skills, often based in prior exposure (previous year or previous unit(s) of study, so as to determine readiness.
  • Present pre-assessments: used to measure current/existing knowledge, understanding, and skills, so as to place students in the appropriate place on the continuum of the learning progression for the standard(s) at hand.
  • Preview pre-assessments: used to measure knowledge, understanding, and skills in the upcoming unit of study, so as to create a benchmark data point (often used in tandem with a post-test to measure growth) and isolate common errors or misconceptions early.

Design smaller pre-assessments by unit (rather than by quarter, semester, or year). Keep the pre-assessment length manageable so that the results are immediate and telling.

Ask questions that expose thinking skills and competency levels. If necessary, provide students with the desired content and ask them to do something meaningful with the information.

If possible, use the pre-assessment to pique curiosity or ignite interest in students about the mysteries that will be revealed or the phenomena that will be explored in the upcoming unit of study (Hocket and Doubet, 2013).

Seek crucial insights into what experiences or preconceived notions students bring to learning tasks. Use the tool to get to know your students (Guskey, 2018).

Consider adding an affective feature to each pre-assessment to gain insights into students’ desires, interests, dispositions, attitudes, or beliefs about the topic(s) at hand (Guskey, 2018).

Consider varying the pre-assessment options to be used throughout the year. Selected response tests are not the only option. Informal discussions, graphic organizers, team-created timelines or diagrams, interest inventories, and thumbs-up/down awareness indicators are all viable options to gather insights into what students—individually or collectively—know or can do already (Hocket and Doubet, 2013).

Pre-assessments do not have to be cumbersome, tedious, time-consuming, boring, or data-drenched. It’s time to use all assessments—including pre-assessments—to put mystery, intrigue, and joy back into the learning experience. 

Done well, pre-assessments should lead to student mastery. They should be used to isolate what students need (Guskey, 2020), so the target becomes clear during instructional planning. Pre-assessment results should help teachers streamline and focus their efforts.  

References:

Guskey, T. (Feb. 2018).  Does Pre-Assessment Work? Measuring what matters.  Educational Leadership 75(5). 52–57.

Guskey, T. (June 22, 2020).  When school is back in session, where will we begin?  ASCD InService.  Retrieved 7/2/2020 from https://inservice.ascd.org/when-school-is-back-in-session-where-will-we-begin/?fbclid=IwAR2sNP_sO6q21EycnqfkATJrEzHSDzZl6C2YXBi5qPRRHI9NqCGHmEay-_Q 

Hocket, J., and Doubet, K. (Dec. 2013). Turning on the lights: What pre-assessments can do. Getting students to mastery. Educational Leadership 71(4).  50 – 54.

Tomlinson, C. A., and Moon, T. R. (2013).  Differentiation and classroom assessment. In J. H. McMillan (Ed.), SAGE handbook of research on classroom assessment (pp. 415–430). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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