How many times have you uttered that same word in these past few months? Pause for a moment. How often has the word “enough” emerged as an emotion or direction toward your children? To your spouse or partner? To your neighbor? To your social media feed?
One word can carry great weight. And great responsibility. As is such with the word, assessment.
It is not lost on me that I am penning this blog as our nation—rather, our world—is in crisis. After months of quarantining in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, my own city (Minneapolis-Saint Paul) has become the epicenter of revolution against yet another global pandemic: systemic racism.
Every corner of the world has been forced to interrupt their current pathways and acknowledge the universal inequities perpetuated by laws, rules, and policies that were fundamentally designed to sideline and dehumanize particular groups and cultures, especially those who are non-white. The magnitude of our next steps as educators has been revealed. Our schools cannot be places that enable such practices. That said, let us begin.
On high levels of learning for all
Starting my career as a teacher in a high-poverty, high-mobility school, I was woke to the achievement gap before anyone named it as such. The disparities were clear from first glance at the data; you didn’t need to spend much time analyzing our students’ performance to notice that instruction in our building was working better for some students than others. Our mission statement included the standard language of “high levels of learning” for every student, but our data was not even close to honoring that declaration of purpose.
When we did find ourselves making gains with students, we had difficulty sustaining them due to limited stability among our families. Challenges with steady employment and the compacted locations of affordable housing in our community promoted a constant shuffling of students between two or three schools each year. Only one-quarter of the fifth-grade students in our building had started Kindergarten with us. Despite collaboration among teachers and leaders across the various schools in the district, we were chasing a version of success that seemed impossibly out of reach. We tried to bring about change, yet ultimately kept bumping up against the inequitable ceilings of policy, organizational history, and tradition.
My experiences as a teacher, instructional specialist, building leader, and district administrator have granted me witness to educational systems that were never designed to allow equal levels of success for every student. My career now affords me the opportunity to work with hundreds of educators across the country each week, and I am equally inspired and humbled by the blood, sweat, and tears that emerge from our teachers and leaders who work tirelessly each day on behalf of students. The fatigue is rooted in a fundamental framework that does not provide teachers and principals with the necessary tools, training, and resources to implement the fundamental reforms that are needed to interrupt the achievement gap and eliminate the marginalization of any student, specifically our students of color.
Our schools can no longer continue to be places where intentional design prevents some students from being able to succeed. This change can start right here. How, you ask? (Re)design of assessment practice.
First, I must honor that we are a bold, fierce, driven, compassionate, and humble cohort as educators. The enormity of our potential for impact is striking. Yet, there is an underlying problem of practice that we must fervently lean in to: we still have adults in positions of influence over our students that do not believe all kids can learn at high levels nor do they believe that each learner carries intrinsic value. These types of belief systems result in adults continuing to pre-determine opportunity and access for each student based on judgments or perceptions, rather than acknowledgments and evidence of who kids are and what they really need.
This is where assessment enters as an essential instructional element for interrupting inequities within school systems and structures. Assessment can be the compass with which we navigate evidence, rather than assumptions, to support the adult directions required for ensuring student access, achievement, opportunity, and growth.
Whether you are in-person, distance learning, or a hybrid model this fall, here are three ways in which you can (re)design assessment to interrupt visible inequities:
Stop using data from assessments to sort and select names into a spreadsheet.
I am all for an aesthetically pleasing system of organization for student information. But if you are spending more time conditionally formatting your spreadsheet or choosing the right font type for your student data notebooks than you are analyzing the actual student work to make informed decisions about what students need next, you are missing the opportunity that assessment provides. Everything you say or do is going to give you information about how students are processing and managing that information. This is assessment at work in your classroom.
Nicole Dimich introduces a “1/3–2/3” model that we love to highlight in our training with teacher teams. Ideally, 1/3 of your collaborative meeting time would be spent discussing the data (i.e. looking for patterns and trends, performance by certain student groups), and 2/3 of the time would be planning your actual response to that data (i.e. What will happen differently—within 48 hours—as a result of what I have learned from student performance? How will I provide it?). If we are not looking at the student work, and planning in response to that work, we are then responsible for creating the very gaps we are trying to eradicate.
Key: This recommendation interrupts racial inequities because it exposes student groups being served well, while also highlighting which students are being mis-served by our instructional efforts. It also inspires hopeful action, rather than feelings of guilt or fatigue, as we guarantee learning at high levels for every child.
Start using assessment to learn what is and is not working with your instruction.
Student performance is a direct indicator of how well students are demonstrating the level of mastery that is desired. This indicator is also an opportunity to celebrate which strategies are making a meaningful impact and to reconsider strategies that are not moving us closer to our collective goals. Albert Einstein boldly claimed the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.” Our professional planning is a humbling reminder that what may work well with one group or cohort of students, may not produce the same results with another. The authenticity of teacher intention is clear. As such, we must be equally as diligent about reflecting on the impact from implementation of those intentions.
Key: This recommendation interrupts racial inequities because it reminds us that there is more than one pathway for students to demonstrate their learning. We have to “listen” to students’ understanding of content—through analysis of their evidence of learning—and respond to what we see and hear.
Before anything else, create a ‘classroom’ climate where students feel safe, heard, and valued.
Most of us recall the times of late spring/summer, when we would pore over spreadsheets, elbow to elbow with our teachers and principals, to analyze and discuss patterns and trends while trying to make valid inferences about what the data was telling us about student performance. We would then surmise why the data might be looking the way it did.
We asked direct and difficult questions:
- Did we know why school was working for some of our students but not all?
- Did we know how to identify and then sustain those practices that were working, in order to ensure we did not mistakenly allocate resources away from those practices in our efforts to improve?
- Did we know how to take action?
- Did our students have enough time to learn what was expected?
- To what degree was formative assessment and feedback part of the learning environments that yielded these results?
- Were students involved as equal partners in the learning process, working collaboratively with their teachers?
We sought answers that would support our attempts to generate solutions for adults to respond.
Yet each of these professional conversations are actually a powerful reminder that the voice of the most important stakeholder—the student—has long been missing from the dialogue. School systems have historically utilized precise, systematic ways in which they attempt to draw a line from point A to point B when it comes to how to “fix” students. But in many cases, our students don’t need to be fixed. Rather, they need to be understood. Their unique learning styles, as well as their unique learning needs, must become visible in our classrooms if we expect to elevate the value of each learner and truly create sustainable transformational change in our schools.
Create space this fall—whether in-person or virtually—to understand your students. Check out these resources as tools to activate your own strategies for learning about who your students are as people and learners first: the Hope Survey and Learning DNA tools from Growing Tomorrow’s Citizens.
Key: This recommendation interrupts racial inequities because we can (and must!) mindfully reshape each of our classrooms to be places that value, inspire, and lift each student to capitalize on their assets and feel safe doing so. Identify and address language such as “I don’t see color” or “If ‘these’ kids would just work harder…” that suggests some students have more potential that others or how some students process and access information is better than others. We cannot knowingly enable any of our classrooms to function beneath this level of profound respect and grace for our learners.
Children will continue to enter our learning spaces with varying skills and experiences—academically, socially, and emotionally—and they also will continue to struggle to find relevance and meaning in the content and delivery of our teaching. The concurrence of these limitations in our current systems enables the racial disparities in student performance to continue, as well as to exponentially intensify.
Every conversation, every lesson, every activity is giving you information on what a child can do with the content you have taught. Everything you are doing is assessment. Use this power to acknowledge and respond to the patterns and trends for your students.
It’s time to stop giving assessment power over kids (and you!). Instead, give assessment its rightful power with students to interrupt racial inequities and mobilize them to walk their unique pathways toward higher levels of achievement.