Effectively using the data that we gain from our assessments is always important, and perhaps never more so than right now. There is a reason that accurate interpretation is a tenet in the Solution Tree Assessment Center model, and it is certainly worth taking the time to explore. There are a few definitions of the word “interpret”; some focus on more artistic endeavors, while many others focus on the idea of explaining something. As educators, we must interpret things each and every day—from whether we will be able to accomplish everything in our lesson plan to whether our students are really understanding what we want them to know. We should strive to draw informed inferences in our work, recognizing that doing this requires professional knowledge, skill, and ongoing effort.
In Essential Assessment: Six Tenets for Bringing Hope, Efficacy, and Achievement to the Classroom, the authors identify three criteria for making sure that our interpretations are high quality. The first of these is accuracy, which means that the assessment is able to communicate exactly what the learner knows and does not know. This includes specific information about the misconceptions or errors that the learner is making. It is not enough for the learner to simply discover that they do not know something; rather, the assessment should help identify the next steps to address those learning needs.
The second of these criteria is that the information should be accessible to all stakeholders. This means that the information is available in a timely fashion and is also aligned to the learning so that it can impact instruction. The third criterion is reliability. This criterion can be intimidating to teachers and students alike. A synonym for “reliability” in this context is “consistency.” Do the results of an assessment match other types of evidence for that same learning? Does one item or task yield results that match other types of items or tasks?
If you’re still with me in this post, you may be thinking that all of this is too intimidating or too overwhelming. I understand that, and I can relate. You may even think that you understand these ideas in theory but do not understand exactly what they mean in terms of real actions. Here’s where we get to the title of this blog post: think big and start small. With a few key and focused conversations, you can be well on your way to making these practices part of how you use assessment data on a daily basis and how you help your students do the same.
The first strategy is clarity. Whether you are the only teacher in a certain course or grade level or are part of a team, make sure that there is clarity around the learning that is expected of students and what types of evidence will be used to demonstrate that the learning has happened. Start with an upcoming unit of study that has been particularly challenging for your students. Look at the standards, learning goals, or other expectations, and create a document that clearly describes what the learning looks and sounds like in a way that can be understood by educators and learners alike. This up-front work will help guide not just the assessments and interpretation of results but also the instruction.
The second strategy is focus, and it comes from applying the first strategy of clarity. Once we are really clear about what we are hoping for students to learn and how students may demonstrate that learning, that creates a different level of focus for our instruction. We can target our questions and tasks within a lesson to formatively check on students’ levels of understanding and also to address potential misconceptions throughout the learning process. It makes those teachable moments more likely to happen.
The final strategy is collaboration. Collaborative conversations about clarity and about ways to check students’ understanding are incredibly valuable opportunities for professional learning. Teams should designate time for these conversations both before and throughout the unit of instruction in order to benefit from the expertise of others. Those who are the only teacher of that content or grade level should consider vertical conversations so that the expectations across grade levels or courses align with and build on each other.
Accurately interpreting the information we gain from assessments means that the assessments become the beneficial learning tools that they have the potential to be. Trying to take on this process for all of the many different assessments we experience in our classrooms may feel like too much, which is why starting small—with the classroom or district assessments that can yield the most information—is a great way to begin. As we become more familiar and comfortable with the process, it is easier to expand and broaden our perspective. This also allows us to begin to include students in more intentional and meaningful ways. By starting small in our efforts, we can achieve big things for our students.
Erkens, C., Schimmer, T., & Dimich, N. (2017). Essential assessment: Six tenets for bringing hope, efficacy, and achievement to the classroom. Solution Tree Press.