Posts by Tom Hierck


Responding to Trauma and Responding to Evidence – Both Needed, Both Possible

Responding to Trauma and Responding to Evidence – Both Needed, Both Possible

As regular readers of the Assessment Collaborative blog posts offered by my colleagues and me, you won’t be surprised to read the next sentence. Assessment is one of the most stress-inducing activities educators put students through. Perhaps some of you might even have some uncomfortable reactions when you recall some of your own test experiences. I should qualify this with the notion that I’m talking about assessment done poorly – the type of assessment I define as a number chase, instead of effective assessment which I believe is an evidence chase. But first, let me connect the dots to the title of this post.

In our newly released book Trauma-Sensitive Instruction: Creating a Safe and Predictable Classroom Environment, John Eller and I share a definition of trauma that really stopped us in our conversations because it was so powerful. The definition is from the work of Kathleen Fitzgerald Rice and Betsy McAlister Groves (2005) and states: “Trauma is an exceptional experience in which powerful and dangerous events overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope” (p. 3). The current stress we are all experiencing (and to varying degrees) brought on by the health pandemic far outweighs the stress induced by ineffective assessment practice. However, the combination of these two – poor assessment practice and additional trauma from the pandemic – may combine to negatively impact students to the point that their progress and academic growth might never recover in their remaining school years. It doesn’t have to be that way.

In my work with teachers, I’ll often hear that the constant stress and lack of stability sets up students for difficulties in calming down in order to feel safe, learn, and give their best when it comes time to performing on assessments. Teachers, then, would be wise to invest in assessment design that does not depend on a “one shot, achieve or fail to” test. Instead, formative assessment – the practice before the performance – must be a part of the evidence gathering, not just for students experiencing trauma, but for all students.

The impact of the pandemic was not evenly distributed nor evenly felt. For some of our students (and colleagues) it reinvigorated past traumatic experiences almost incapacitating any opportunity for progress. For some students, the extended trauma exposure resulted in what Jim Sporleder and Heather Forbes (2016) refer to as toxic stress. Toxic stress can lead to issues that can impair students’ normal development and success in the classroom, including their ability to focus and respond appropriately to teacher requests. The potential for assessment to be inaccurate or incomplete is very high. In Trauma-sensitive Instruction we offer many scenarios like this one:

“Laura, a seventh-grade student, lives in a home where her father drinks excessively and comes home drunk. When he gets home, he is both verbally and physically abusive to Laura’s mom and any of the children he sees. Laura normally knows that when he comes home, it’s a good idea to stay out of his way and try to be invisible. She usually withdraws from the situation and tries not to cause a lot of issues.

In her classes, Laura uses similar behavior. Even though she may not understand what she is learning, she is reluctant to ask questions or get clarification. When working in groups, Laura contributes little to the conversation and goes along with the ideas of the group. She is reluctant to make eye contact with people (adults and peers) and appears to be disconnected and isolated.”

Relationships are critical
How might the teacher respond to Laura’s actions while also committing to gathering good evidence to assist her on her educational journey? If Laura is disengaged and disconnected, her teacher may not be able to assess what she knows. Somehow, her teacher has to be able to reduce her stress to be able to get an accurate read on her progress.

Again, the focus on why we assess comes into play. One of the powerful outcomes of a fair an equitable assessment process is the development of a positive relationship between teacher and student. The more assessment is viewed as an opportunity to demonstrate learning and to progress from “not yet” to “proficient”, the greater the view that teacher and student are on a journey together. In our research for Trauma-sensitive Instruction one of the keys that emerged to help buffer against adversity is having warm, positive relationships, which can prompt the release of anti-stress hormones. The choice to have assessment as a stress inducer versus a stress buffer comes down again to how the evidence is used by both the teacher and the student. If teachers can help the student see how assessment data can help them learn, it may cause less of a stressful reaction. If the student thanks that assessment is being used only to label or sort them, it will not be seen as positive or productive, and they certainly won’t capitulate.

We also know that the trauma that came with the health pandemic did not arrive on every doorstep equally. The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) suggests that “COVID-19 exposures were significantly different across race and household income strata, with Black, Latino, and low-income families reporting higher rates of COVID-19–related stressors, which they attributed to systemic racism and structural inequities…” The trauma-aware schools project further suggests, “Symptoms resulting from trauma can directly impact a student’s ability to learn. In the classroom setting, this can lead to poor behavior, which can result in reduced instructional time and missed opportunities to learn.” It’s important then, that educators avoid overemphasizing the importance of tests and exercise caution to avoid overemphasizing the consequences of failure. The messages educators use to communicate about tests matter, and efforts should be made to reduce students’ anxiety and increase students’ self-efficacy beliefs. The message should focus on the role of assessments as a measure of students’ knowledge and ability at this moment.

Know what to look for–and how to react
One of the key body reactions to trauma occurs as a result of the fight-or-flight response. Educators often see this reaction during test time with those students who arrive and seem to “power down” immediately upon receiving their tests. They may quickly do as much as they can and turn in an incomplete exam or they may just put their name at the top and stop there. When this level of trauma is occurring, the body may be releasing cortisol which keeps the body on alert and primed to respond to the threat. It is important to note here that while the body is primed to respond to the threat, the control center of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, is shut down. This is the place for logic and reasoning, key skills needed for assessments.

In a paper that focused on high-stakes testing, the authors (Jennifer A. Heissel, Emma K. Adam, Jennifer L. Doleac, David N. Figlio, Jonathan Meer) found that “Students whose cortisol noticeably spiked or dipped tended to perform worse than expected on the state test, controlling for past grades and test scores.” So, if summative tests unfairly penalize students who are experiencing high levels of trauma, it might be reasonable to conclude those tests aren’t generating the evidence we need them to, and they might not be aligned with the formative evidence we already have. The authors go on to state “A potential contributor to socioeconomic disparities in academic performance is the difference in the level of stress experienced by students outside of school.” This means as educators we have to be mindful that students will react differently to similar traumatic experiences and may need different kinds of support from us.

Let me summarize by going back to the title of this post. It’s important for educators to recognize the need to pair trauma-informed teaching with assessment processes to ensure we are not adding more trauma to our students’ lives. Strategies to consider include communicating the purpose for assessment, providing a calm and predictable classroom environment, building and leveraging positive relationships with students, and recognizing when students are under stress and helping them to relax in order to make assessment a natural part of their learning journey. These and other trauma-informed practices will not only help them do better, but will also help them build the resilience they need to be productive and well-rounded adults. Adults who have the capacity to break the trauma cycle for their own children. By the way, these practices, when fully implemented, will benefit ALL learners not only those whose lives have been impacted by trauma.

https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2021/04/covid-studies-note-online-learning-stress-fewer-cases-schools-protocols

https://traumaawareschools.org/impact

Testing, Stress, and Performance: How Students Respond Physiologically to High-Stakes Testing
https://justicetechlab.github.io/jdoleac-website/research/HADFM_TestingStress.pdf

Sporleder, J., & Forbes, H. T. (2016). The trauma-informed school: A step-by-step implementation guide for administrators and school personnel. Boulder, CO: Beyond Consequences Institute.


Data as a Flashlight: Using the Evidence to Guide the Journey (Yours and Theirs)

My granddaughter was struggling with the latest topic in her grade 3 math class and her recent assessment result validated that she did not fully understand the learning target of patterns and the equations that supported them. Determining patterns is not always an easy process as this example would indicate:

2, 6, 3, 9, 6, 18, 15…

With a big test coming up, my daughter-in-law reached out to me to help get my granddaughter past the block and gain some confidence in her ability to master the concept. We connected online a few times over the days before the test and worked through a lot of questions and strategies. As she grasped the concepts and different ways to get to the solution, I could see her confidence soar. By the time we concluded all of the practice and she routinely got every solution, she was excited to demonstrate her skills on the assessment. As I write this post it’s been well over a week since the assessment was completed and my granddaughter has not received any feedback.  Read more


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Moving Forward to a New Better

In the mid-1940’s, as the end of World War II was near, Sir Winston Churchill was credited with saying, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”  

I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of educators could not have imagined being in a time of twin crises. One brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the second due to the unrest borne out of systemic racism resulting in the loss of black lives.  

So, the question facing us today is:

How can we recognize these current crises, respond to them, and extract the greatest good for our students and ourselves?

As I ponder this question from both instructional design and assessment lenses, I turn to the work I’ve been doing with schools and educators over the last six weeks. A common theme has emerged as I’ve heard colleagues express a desire to return to the “old normal.”  

This worries me as it devalues, on some levels, all of the new learning that has happened during this challenging time. I also don’t think we should be hoping for a “new normal,” as “normal” connotes some limitations as well. I hope instead that we are moving forward to a “new better.”

I believe this “new better” will cause us to embrace the best of what we knew prior to the crises, with the best of what we learned during the time classroom instruction was occurring remotely. I know there is deep concern about all of the learning loss that occurred, as well as challenges driven by how to best assess student progress.  

When it comes to academics some panic has been created in educators by reports that suggest a 30% loss in literacy, and 50% percent loss in mathematics has been the end result of schools closing in the spring, and remote learning being a poor substitute.  

It’s important that we recognize that students are where they are. Spending four weeks, or four months for that matter, on what educators think was missed, is not going to ensure that students learn at high levels, nor will it make up for the lost time. Instead, there is a need to focus on what’s important for the current year and provide small group sessions to address students’ needs.  

I have been advocating that the return to school should focus on the foundational skills of literacy and numeracy, and also SEL (social-emotional learning), as educators determine the baseline levels of their returning students and plan for their growth during the 2020-21 school year.  

I believe educators should also prepare for the struggles associated with breaking some habits that students may have acquired during their additional time at home which may not be in tune with school success. Our students have been away from the routines that are necessary for success in school. Think about this from your own perspective. During your time away from school, has it been easier for you to sleep in, have a second cup of coffee, or only have to dress the upper half of your body for Zoom meetings? We need to extend grace to our students, display empathy for them as they struggle to return to successful school routines, and to ourselves, as we return to work habits that align with successful teaching and leading.  

When it comes to assessing, the same important question has always been there whether instruction was being delivered remotely or face to face:

Did they learn what I taught?

Educators need to use assessments to gather evidence and focus on feedback and learning rather than accountability and grading. By focusing on the formative aspects of assessment and using the results to guide students and teachers in making improvements, there’s a greater likelihood of closing gaps.  

Formative assessment (assessing to gather evidence, not numbers) drives the next steps for teachers and students. It’s the same process whether remote or face to face. Teachers are experts at this checking for understanding with students present. In a remote learning world, teachers need to be similarly collecting regular evidence of student learning before simply moving forward. There may be an adjustment in the remote world. Simple checks for understanding could include choral response or head nodding. It can be as simple as “if what I just said is correct, make a ‘C’ with your hand; if it was incorrect, show that with an ‘X.’”  

As an aside—when it comes to talking about these gaps, I think we also need to remember that when it comes to the current crisis, it’s a global phenomenon, so the question needs to be asked:

“Who are our students behind?”

In other words, if we’re comparing everything now to a non-crisis-filled school year, that point is both self-explanatory and irrelevant. If we’re comparing ourselves to other countries, they are in the same boat. Let’s focus on the current school year, get our students back to the positive thinking and learning habits they are all capable of, and build their skills anew.  

Let me conclude by mentioning another common colloquialism. You’ll all be familiar with the notion of “trying to put the genie back in the bottle.” This refers to the attempt to revert a situation to how it formerly existed by containing, limiting, or repressing information, ideas, or advancements that have become commonplace or public knowledge.  

During the time of remote learning, there were some tremendous new insights gained by colleagues about our sector of education. It has been shared with me that parent engagement increased in many jurisdictions as a result of Zoom (or other program) meetings, telephone calls, and letters home.

In a return to any form of “normal,” are you prepared to abandon this increased contact so we can return to the very stifling, sterile parent-teacher night?

Other colleagues have shared with me the surprise of finding previously identified reluctant learners or introverts who have shined during this time. They have produced high-quality work unseen prior to the move to remote learning. Are we going to forget that and return those students to instruction that did not work for them or result in their best learning indicators?  

I believe a move to “go back to,” when we’ve gained some deep insights, as these two of many examples offer, would be the equivalent of educational malpractice. Instead, it’s time to accept that the genie is out, that we’ve learned some valuable things, and that we should move forward to a new better.



Assessment: Why Bother?

The title of this post is intentionally provocative, and since you’re reading it, there might be some ideas rattling around in your head that might be aligned with that provocation. Let me be clear from the outset, however, that I am not on a rant to eliminate high-quality, effective evidence gathering.  

I do struggle, though, with the pursuit of numbers simply for the purpose of rank and sort, or mathematical computation as per a formula or computer program.   Educators are familiar with the work of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and the four questions originally defined by the DuFours and Eaker. I want to zero in on questions 3 and 4:   Read more



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A Beautiful Noise: Productive Student Talk Time

It’s a beautiful noise
And it’s a sound that I love
And it makes me feel good
—Neil Diamond

I’ve been working a lot lately with educators in developing curricular units of study and the corresponding assessments while talking about the learning skills necessary for students to experience success. As an aside, I’ve deliberately not used the label “21st Century” in front of “learning skills” as I think we all understand in 2017 that we are in the 21st century. It’s lost its cache or novelty. Read more



The Most Important Three-Letter Word in Assessment Practice

Think of any group of thirty people whose only commonality is their age. Would it be reasonable to expect that each member of that group has the same ability in mathematics? That they all read at the same level with the same fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary? They all have the same writing ability and can produce high-level prose on any topic? Would they all demonstrate the same self-regulation in social situations? I think we can readily agree it would be folly to make those broad assumptions. Read more


Engaging Students in Dialogue

One of the most powerful aspects of effective assessment practice resides in engaging students in dialogue about their learning as a result of the information gathered during the assessment phase. Formative assessments are check-ins throughout a unit of instruction to see how students are progressing. The more engaged our students become in conversations with teachers about their learning, the greater the likelihood that they will experience success. Read more