One of the toughest challenges and greatest rewards in teaching is assessment. If you think back through highlights of your experience as a student, assessments probably stand out—whether the tough assignment that you nailed, the project that opened your eyes to new perspectives and interests, or on the negative side, the ones you bombed or that felt unfair. And if you think back over your career as a teacher, some of the biggest highs probably include students rejoicing in their successes, proud of their accomplishments on tasks that you set, while some of the big disappointments are those assignments you created that just didn’t click for the learners. Assessments—whether daily check-ins, formative tasks along the way, or summative events at transitions in the curriculum—are important sign-posts both internally for the individual and in the teacher-student relationship. They are the culmination of one instructional arc, and the peak from which one gains momentum going into the next.
As expectations of schools, teachers, and students increase, assessment’s importance is amplified. To ensure student success, teachers need to differentiate instruction, integrate technology, and personalize learning. Meeting these demands requires teachers to develop assessments, use existing instruments, and interpret data from many sources to tailor classroom practice. Developing those abilities takes time and hands-on experience, however, and is one of the more challenging aspects of the teaching cycle for new teachers to master. Results from performance assessments of candidates completing student teaching, for example, show that, while candidates do make use of data to inform instruction, development of assessments and interpretation of data are weak relative to other aspects of their work. These teaching interns have basic knowledge and skills, but plenty of room to grow.
In interviews, teacher educators point out two aspects of the challenge: first, assessment is a ‘culmination,’ a synthesis of many aspects of a new teacher’s capacity, and second, that assessment skills develop with practice, practice that is possible only in actual classrooms. Another aspect of the challenge in ensuring effective assessment practice broadly has been the lack of common reference points—common standards for assessment knowledge, skills, and practices that should be expected of all teachers, and specific discipline- or subject-specific ones. The National Assessment Literacy Task Force’s definition of assessment literacy takes an important first step toward getting the profession on the same page regarding assessment. And the Michigan Assessment Consortium’s Assessment Standards are a potential model for other states and associations. In addition to important source documents, documentation and demonstration of effective, consistent, professional learning regarding assessment—from pre-service to induction to accomplished practice—are needed.
Assessment practice brings together many aspects of teachers’ knowledge and skills. Assessment practice—whether developing assignments or instruments, using wisely existing instruments, or interpreting data whatever the source—is grounded in a candidate or teacher’s content knowledge and understanding of the specific discipline. Building on that base, teachers tailor assessments and analyses through intimate familiarity with particular learners’ needs and characteristics. Putting it all together is a challenge. Yet when a student or a class tackles a tough assignment or challenging assessment successfully, everybody, including the teacher, is rewarded. Teacher preparation programs experience that sense of success when their candidates—working with students and mentors in local schools—show that they can tie their subject-matter knowledge, instructional skills, and assessment abilities together to serve the needs of all learners. Effective assessment practice allows teachers to tailor instruction and feedback, to differentiate instruction, in the service of all learners. We’ve got the building blocks and wonderful examples of successful practice, now comes the fun of putting the keystone in place across the profession.
Dr. Mark LaCelle-Peterson has a long history of working to strengthen educator preparation programs. He joined the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education in 2014 as a Senior Vice President with responsibility for government relations, program development, and initiatives to support member institutions in their evidence-based program improvement efforts. Prior to joining AACTE, he served as Senior Vice President of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation and as President of the Teacher Education Accreditation Council. Mark’s scholarship has focused on equity in assessment, democratic teacher education, curriculum history, and program evaluation.