I use more formal assessments as tools to gauge mastery in many different areas. This is where the garden begins forking. I am looking for so much data that is not directly reported in the scores for these assessments. Do students know what is going on in the book? Are students able to communicate their answers clearly in standard English? Can they unpack challenging prompts and apply their knowledge? Can they extend the ideas of the text beyond the text? Can they work in a time-sensitive fashion toward a goal?
I am constantly looking to these questions to see where I can push students to the zone of proximal development. Where can they be pushed? Where do they need to be left alone? Where am I asking too much? As you can see, we are starting to get below the surface to the assessing that I do.
With many of the questions, I am assessing myself and my assessments in addition to assessing the students. Add to this mix, the everyday informal assessments that happen during Do Nows and Exit Tickets, during our group work and our guided practice, and in their homework (which I assess for thoughtful completion, and we go over on the board as a discussion starter and a forum for note-taking). I am assessing their engagement in discussion. Their stamina in focus and attention. Their willingness to ask questions and much, much more. Is the assessment garden forking enough yet?
As you can see, the forking path becomes dizzying. Add to this list even further below the surface the soft skills that are so important outside the classroom, such as the current mood of an inherently moody bunch (teenagers), when to compliment students, when to–ahem–encourage them firmly, when to relax, and when to change course to talk about something outside the lesson plan — like this week when Terence Crutcher was killed by police.
My goal as a teacher is to be in a constant state of assessment and adjustment. I am also always assessing my own lessons, my own practice, my own pacing and pushing. I expect my students to get better every day, and I want to model that for them.
Finally, I want to say that assessment sometimes gets a bad name because it seems like a final product. We use grades to determine whether students pass or fail and where they can matriculate to college. Tests help determine whether our school is Tier 1, 2, or 3, and sometimes whether we teachers get bonuses or raises. But assessment data is just a snapshot; it is not the whole picture. Something doesn’t feel 100% right when we do this.
Sometimes we get into a rut of thinking that assessment data is an end-result. As a teacher, I think of assessing as a chance to measure what needs to improve and what is going well. Data from these assessments does not have inherent value. It is not good or bad. Value is what outside institutions put on the data, and that is not necessarily a concern of mine. At the end of the day, if I have worked hard (by all my assessment data) and my students have followed my lead, it has been a good learning day. And if we string more than a few of these together, then we are going to really make progress as a community.
In Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall, he compares relationships to sharks swimming in the water. Like sharks, relationships, he says, must constantly move forward or they will die. They cannot stand still. This is what I think about assessing. We must constantly do it. We must use it to move forward. If we don’t, our efficacy as educators will cease to exist.
Onward to more assessment. Onward to using it wisely. Don’t stop moving forward and getting wiser.
Last week, Teacher of the Year Topher Kandik shared Part 1 of his Theory of Assessment, which you can read here.