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Bring the Assessment Conversation Back Into Schools

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As leaders of institutions responsible for educating children, we hold accountability, and the public trust, for keeping the promise. Even if no one asks what the promise is, we have only to look at children or at proud parents to remember. The promise to every child and every parent is that we will deliver a hopeful future.

As teachers in classrooms, it is essential that assessments are used to provide information about how well students are learning along the way and how well they have learned once the teaching is finished.  This year many discussions have taken place about the use and misuse of standardized tests regarding program, teacher, and principal evaluation.  While opinions on their value and proper use remain unsettled, it is important to remember the responsibility we have to measure learning in order to maximize student learning and our own integrity. We should not allow the standardized test debate to distract from the important work of improving the way learning is assessed within our classrooms.

Considering what we want students to know and be able to do at the end of the class or grade or school, while at that child's entry, sets the standard of expectation. Vanderbilt University posted an overview of Grant Wiggins' and Jay McTighe's seminal work, in backward planning this way:

... a powerful framework for designing courses through what they call "Backward Design."  It seems "backward" in that it starts from the opposite end of the planning process we typically go through to design courses--we usually start by thinking about how to teach our content.  Backward Design, in contrast, leaves teaching activities until the end and starts with the desired results of that teaching.  In other words, Wiggins and McTighe argue that you can't start planning how you're going to teach until you know exactly what you want your students to learn.

It is no different from Stephen Covey reminding his readers of the importance of beginning with the end in mind. It is the second habit in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Interestingly, he ties it to imagination. What impact might it have if we paused this holiday break and spent a bit of time picturing positive ends for each of the children? Would it make a difference in our practice or the end of the year come June?

Once we are clear about the target we set for our students, sharing our vision with other colleagues offers a great opportunity for collaborative thinking to ignite new conversations about standards and measures of achievement.  Are we asking students to simply learn facts or are we asking them to understand concepts and apply them anew?  How complex are our expectations?  Then, how will we measure them along the way?  What are the steps we need to measure to be sure students are on the path to accomplishing what we set our sites on for their final outcomes? In other words, how can we see and be informed by what the students are learning? 

What have assessment results come to mean?  When we see a student's test with a mark of 75%, generally it means the student learned 75% of what was intended to be learned.  What if the 25% they didn't learn was the most important 25% of the learning?  Does a review of test design reveal that our formative and summative tests are based upon factual recall?  Is that good enough?  Part of the difficulty is that in teacher training, little attention was paid to assessment development.  That is still the case in many schools of education.  But, within the current debate about standardized tests, it is more important than ever to pair skilled curriculum development with valuable formative and summative assessment development. It is central to the work of the teachers. 

From the principal's vantage point, the leadership of assessment development and its use is key.  Without it, there is no way to guarantee that a school has shared values about learning.  Without shared values about standards and expectations, students will not have equal access to the same education.  If standards and assessment methods vary from classroom to classroom, students will receive a variety of quality teaching and learning.  So how does a principal lead a positive assessment culture in the shadow of the public rebuff of the standardized testing movement?

It may be the fulcrum needed.  The current focus on standardized tests and their potential misuses may be the fuel leaders can use to rally faculties around the issue of important and valuable assessment.  In How People Learn:  Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, John D. Bransford etal. describes assessment to support learning as having the capacity to do these three things:

  • Mirror good instruction
  • Happen continuously, but not intrusively, as a part of instruction
  • Provide information (to teachers, students, and parents) about the level of understanding that students are reaching

How a particular type of assessment is designed, relies upon fidelity with content and process.  There is a time and place for a quiz that reveals whether or not the students understand the basics, as in compass directions, or the periodic table.  There is also a time and place for assessing a student's ability to explain and make new connections.   But "Many assessments developed by teachers overemphasize memory for procedures and fats; expert teachers, by contrast, align their assessment practices with their instructional goals of depth-of-understanding" (p. 245).

These next months of school become focused on preparing for summative assessments; the ones that make or break, pass or fail, open or close doors. Let's not forget the tremendous value of good classroom assessments; the ones that inform instruction, reinforce learning, and communicate information. Let's brave the assessment storm by building a value for good assessment in schools, in which educators openly share with each other their questions, concerns, and practices regarding assessment development and practice. Perhaps if we develop improved assessment practices, and students make gains as a result...the reliance on standardized tests will be diminished. But the conversations need to begin on the local level.  Within each school, someone needs to lead these assessment discussions. It must be someone who is credible and trustworthy. It is through these conversations that everyone can learn what is known and understood about assessment. Then the the target can be established, the course set, and the journey begun.

Resources:
Bransford, J. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Covey, Steven. (1989, 2004). 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York:  Simon & Schuster

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