Assessment Conversations

Assessment is the hardest thing you do.  You need to think about myriad of things all at the same time:

  • What do I assess? Content?  Process?  Everything?
  • What is fair? Is it fair to have questions ahead of time?  Is it fair if I think some kids can’t do the assessment?
  • When do I assess? Are they ready yet for a summative?
  • How do I assign a level/mark/grade? Do I assign a level/mark/grade?
  • What do the students get out of this assessment task? What do I learn out this task?
  • How do I communicate assessment results with students? Their parents?
  • What did I learn from the assessment? What will I do next?

At this point you are probably hoping that I will give the answers to all of these questions and you can then have a great weekend.  The problem is that assessment is really hard and I am not sure that there are always hard and fast rules that you can use.  However, it is important that we are always asking these questions.  This week I had a lot of conversations about assessment. Teachers were asking some great questions.  They were reflecting on their practice.  When we take the opportunity to ask these questions we deepen our understanding, even if we don’t come up with all the answers.

A math teacher was puzzled because her students had not done as well on an assessment as she had thought they would.   Over the last few days they had been demonstrating a solid understanding of the concepts.  Why had they not done as well on the test?  We discussed whether tests need to be long.  Could the questions of a test be given out over the course of a few days?  Would that work better?  Did her students not have the stamina to do the test well?  Did they get nervous because it was a TEST?

A group of English teachers were meeting to discuss the “end-of-the-novel” questions.  There were four excellent questions.  Do we give all the questions?  Do we give students a choice of questions?  Since it is still early in the school year, do we allow the students to do some practice questions, deconstruct them, and then give them a question to do?  We talked about how assessment needed to be both fair and tell you something about the students that was true.  If they weren’t sure how to answer the questions, would it mean that they didn’t understand the novel or just that they weren’t good at writing down their answer?  Teachers left the discussion ready to try a number of different strategies with a promise to meet up later and look at student answers.  Which strategies would prove to help students be successful?

A number of reading teachers knew from a reading comprehension assessment that some students struggled in reading.  But, that didn’t really help us know enough about the students to plan appropriate interventions.  So we needed some assessments that would pinpoint the difficulties:  was it decoding, fluency, comprehension, motivation, vocabulary, stamina?  Unfortunately, the results of some assessments require us to delve more deeply before we understand where a student is struggling.

A number of teachers are experimenting with giving no levels or grades on work submitted.  Instead they are giving descriptive feedback either through written comments or individual conferences.  It is a bit trickier for the teacher because you really do need to identify just a few things for the student (strengths and next steps) or the kid will be overwhelmed.  It is tricky to identify strengths and next steps instead of just editing or identifying errors.  And some of our students are feeling a tad uncomfortable.  They are used to evaluating themselves based on a mark.  Feedback forces them to think about their work in a deeper way.  Teachers are wondering how this will motivate and engage students.  They are experimenting with the types of feedback that result in the greatest gains.

These are the conversations of professional teachers.  They recognize that when thinking about assessment a variety of factors are at play.  Although there are no easy answers, we if we don’t keep asking the questions, we won’t get close to the truth.  And in the assessment of students, the truth is what they can really do.  When we really know that then we know what to do next.

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