Nicole M. Dimich works with elementary and secondary educators in presentations, trainings, and consultations that address today’s most critical issues all in the spirit of facilitating improved support of student learning.

Assessment Transformation in Unprecedented Times

Many are predicting larger-than-ever achievement disparities due to the deep inequities in our system that existed even before this pandemic. 

Achievement gaps are the symptom of educational system deficits that do not serve all students well, in particular our black, brown and indigenous children. Knowing this deepening disparity, our planning and design must be intentional, and dramatically different than anything we have done before. Our district and school leadership teams, collaborative teams, and individual teachers can set up the context that will ensure success for all of our students. I believe in educators. 

I strongly believe in the power of assessment as information (not evaluation) to help us deeply understand our students’ learning. Assessment is powerful information when framed to help students and their teachers and teams understand strengths and identify next steps in achieving essential grade level standards and critical competencies. Too often, assessment can be used to cause stress and anxiety. Unintentionally, it can make students feel far behind, and it shuts learning down. 

Some days, I see this global pandemic—both COVID-19 and the incredible light shed on racial injustice and the systemic racism that appears in so many systems, including education—as an opportunity, and I want to kick and scream and say, “no—not now. I need to survive. It’s too hard right now.”

And, yes, it’s OK to be in survival mode. There are moments of deep sadness in realizing things will never be as they were prior to this past March. In the midst of this pandemic, my three children (8th grade, 10th grade and a college junior) and I are navigating their distance learning, moving among and between places as we find our permanent home, and changing our rhythm and routines from in-person to online, back to in-person and back online again. 

I keep wondering “Is now really the time to pause and make these transformations in assessment? 

And then, I breathe and I know it is the right time. It is time to dive deeply into a transformation that we could see, but not feel, in the past. We don’t have time to wait because the inequities that existed before are now even wider and more serious. 

Assessment as information is powerful for students to be able to invest in their learning—to deeply understand their strengths and how to learn, not just to accumulate points, or get the work done. Assessment is central to the pulse needed to create a culture of learning.  Assessment, at its best, provides information that identifies strengths and next steps in relationship to the most essential learning. It is information that educators analyze and reflect on to determine the effectiveness of instruction and the best instructional moves to ensure students learn and grow. 

When bringing up these assessment ideas in the past, one of the biggest pushbacks from educators is time. “There isn’t time to provide that kind of information or have students reflect on their learning,” etc. 

We don’t have time not to make these changes that have had a track record of proving their impact in increasing and accelerating learning (Hattie & Timperely, 2007, Hattie, 2009, Heritage 2013, Prima-Ruiz & Li, 2013; Conley, 2018). Now is the time to leverage the promise and possibility of assessment. 

We start by truly identifying what is most essential and what is most critical for our students to learn. It is not to memorize or recall content. We must shift to diving into a small number of critical skills, standards, and competencies that will provide students the school experience to learn to problem-solve, think critically, collaborate, and communicate in ways that will set them up for success now and in their future. 

Once you have identified those few essential standards/competencies, shift quickly to do the following:

  • Design assessment as evidence of learning.
  • Use assessment to uncover students’ learning strengths and identify next steps. 
  • Communicate qualities of learning instead of quantifying results. 
  • Partner with students and give them power through assessment information.

Assessment practices cultivate a system where students are in positions of power to influence and create their education. This culture is one where students invest in their learning through understanding what their assessment information means for their strengths and areas of growth. Assessment becomes a high leverage practice when students, teachers, and collaborative teams use assessment to identify strengths, determine next steps, and understand the effectiveness of instruction.

Three Practices Set Up The Conditions for Transformation

1. Frame the Future with Possibility

We cannot frame our current state as one of deficit and loss. We must move from crisis mitigation to innovation that will set up our educational system where all students achieve and succeed at high levels. We must not frame this for our students, families and educators as you have to learn it faster because you are behind and you have to catch up. 

Are there inequities? Yes. Are there gaps? Yes—but if we create an atmosphere where everyone feels like they are behind, we will have lost the moment to transform. Increasing students’ and educators’ stress will not increase achievement and confidence. 

We must begin from a place of strength in order to build confidence that will create possibility and an environment where students will learn and thrive. This is the moment to pause and articulate what is really important. And then we move forward to accelerate learning on the most essential standards and competencies. In the absence of this pause and reflection (this move from crisis to transformation), we will replicate school the same systems that did not work before this all began. 

2: Design Relevant, Meaningful and Intentional Assessment Evidence

When we design assessment, we are designing evidence of learning. Standardized tests drove so much prior to this pandemic. It was used as the reason we didn’t have time for more engaging learning. It was used as the reason to design and assess using one or two methods. While the narrative of success was so much geared toward a standardized test, in times of crisis where the most essential things are preserved, it was the first to go. 

This is the moment to design thoughtful assessment evidence that will provide information on critical skills, essential standards and competencies. It’s the opportunity to move away from the rationale of needing to teach something because it will be on the test to teaching essential learning goals because they matter for student success and confidence. Assess in two areas: 

Area 1: Assess Essential Standards/Competencies:

Identify learning goals (standards/competencies) that are most essential. We have been trying to identify essential and priority learning for years. What were the skills that really mattered during our crisis time? What are the big concepts that we want students to take away? What are the standards and competencies that will be essential for their success in future coursework and in this evolving world? Hays-Jacobs and Zmuda (2020) suggest identifying “What to cut? What to keep? What to create?” (p. 5).

Design fewer and more meaningful assessments that accurately provide information on the skills and concepts that are most essential.  It is rarely necessary, nor essential to ask students to recall content. In this new world, it is essential that students learn to problem solve, reflect, analyze, and collaborate. Choose a very few standards that are essential and lean on the side of having students create or produce things to show their understanding or synthesize ideas to contribute to local and global issues. This means fewer assessments and more opportunities to review and increase the quality of what students are producing. Design assessments by standard/competency to ensure that all assessment evidence is providing information on targeted standards/competencies. Put standards/competencies/learning targets right on assessments to signal this shift to assessment as evidence of learning and not just an evaluative number or grade. Ask students to consider not only what they want to study and explore to learn these skills and concepts, but also how they want to or could be assessed.

Analyze student work from the assessment evidence to understand the effectiveness of instruction and to plan innovative and effective instruction and intervention. Grade for communication, not motivation. For centuries, our grades have been used to signal to students if what they are doing is right or wrong, good or not good with the illusion that there is a continuum of quality easily interpreted by a number. Well, it doesn’t work. It hasn’t forever. Now is the time to change from compliance to clearer communication. When grading is about communicating achievement, we will share evidence of where students are instead of threatening them with loss of points or zeros to ensure compliance. This practice of grading for communication will not only be clearer to students and families, it will be more efficient and effective for educators. Gone are the days where educators chase students to turn in an assignment. It is the time to chase students for evidence of learning and when they don’t show it the way we ask them to, we ask them to show us what they know in whatever way possible. 

Area 2: Social and Emotional Learning, or Social Competence 

(Erkens, Schimmer, Dimich, 2019)

Identify the social and emotional learning that is most essential for success. Renowned educator and speaker, Yong Zhao (2016) articulates, “Noncognitive factors such as personality traits, motivation, interpersonal skills, and intrapersonal skills have been found to correlate significantly with educational attainment, workplace productivity, and life earnings” (p. 4) Self-regulation is key to social competence, or social and emotional learning. Often positioned as the skill of “learning to learn,” to self-regulate “is to monitor one’s own thoughts, beliefs, actions, and even reactions in response to given stimuli so the appropriate maneuvers ensure the most successful or preferred results” (Erkens, Schimmer, Dimich, 2019, p. 42). As social and emotional learning is often contextual, identify those learning processes and social and emotional ways of being that are most valued by the communities in which students are learning and living. 

Assess social and emotional skills through various methods of reflection, story-telling, sharing, and empathizing and community building. Consider the following:

  • Ask students about their experiences during the pandemic. 
  • Ask students and families to articulate how they would like to see school change. Ask students to be meaningful partners in making the shifts necessary for all students to thrive. 
  • Ask students to check in regularly at the beginning of class (face-to-face, online, and/or snail mail) and share something fun, a passion or interest, how things are going, what’s causing stress, what’s worth celebrating, and more. Spending time asking students to briefly connect with each other on a regular basis builds community and builds trust. This type of trusting community creates a rich space for students to learn and grow.
  • Ask students to reflect on their confidence level and motivation. How confident do you feel about this learning goal? How confident are you that you could figure something out if you got overwhelmed? What strategies do you use when you get to a question you don’t know or feel overwhelmed? What might you do when you are ready to quit or feel overwhelmed?
  • Ask students to reflect on the ways they learn best. What helps you learn and remember? What gets in the way of your learning? What process do you use when you feel success in completing a project? How do you study? When has studying worked really well? When has studying been unsuccessful? What helps you most in distance learning? What got in the way during distance learning? What did you learn about yourself as a student during the pandemic?

3. Implement Intentional Instructional Agility

Being instructionally agile means teachers use emerging evidence to make real-time modifications within the context of the expected learning (Erkens, Schimmer, Dimich, 2018). Whether at the classroom or school level, the true power of assessment comes when emerging results are used to determine what comes next in the learning.
Question: Identify essential learning and pose questions to probe thinking and learning. Design questions to generate dialogue in order to deeply understand their level of proficiency. 

Observe and Notice: Make observations about student’s learning based on their comments, their work, and their nonverbals. Seek to find the strengths, errors, and next steps for their work.

Provide Feedback: Provide descriptive feedback that requires action. Build action into instruction so the insights from feedback pushes learners forward. Quality feedback leads to students being able to self-assess as they learn to clearly articulate the qualities to look for in their work as they are achieving the essential standards/competencies.

Seeking feedback about any and all aspects of students’ school and classroom experience is a powerful way to inform a teacher’s practice as well as build trust and community in the classroom—something essential for student investment. Once students trust the teacher and the classroom culture to support them, they are more likely to take risks and learn more. “The simple act of asking and listening builds trust—something essential if students are to invest” (Vagle, 2014, p. 97).  

Use an exit slip to get students’ feedback on what part of the lesson helped them learn the most, and why. What part of the classroom activity got in the way of their learning and why? What changes could be made to help them learn and engage more?

Conduct a more formal student survey to learn more about your students’ confidence levels, perspectives on grading, learning, homework, instruction, and collaboration/group work. 

Ask students to create a lesson or generate ideas they feel would support their learning of a specific concept or standard. 

When facing a challenge or problem in the classroom, ask students for potential solutions. The more learners are part of the solution to challenges, the more those solutions will address the root cause and contribute to an improved culture in the classroom.

These three components lead to assessment as a practice that builds hope, efficacy and achievement: 

  • Framing the possibility (not the deficit)
  • Designing meaningful work and 
  • Committing to being instructionally agile through feedback and self-assessment.

And, again, I believe in educators. As we dig into “less as more,” we have a profound opportunity to transform education in ways that capture the joy of learning and ensure high levels of achievement for all our students. We have the opportunity to reflect and facilitate conversations that generate solutions to eliminate achievement disparities and develop the most innovative ways forward. Let’s use this profoundly painful time to tap into the best of our educators and to gather the voices and input of our students and families. 

I firmly believe that the way we design, use and perceive assessment can transform our learning environments (no matter what the medium) to a place where students thrive, families invest and educators use their strengths to ensure all students learn at high levels.


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