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Author Interview: 'The Perfect Assessment System'

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Rick Stiggins, author of the new book The Perfect Assessment System (ASCD), agreed to answer a few questions.

Rick is the founder and retired president of the Assessment Training Institute (ATI), a professional-development company created and designed to provide teachers, school leaders, policymakers, and communities with the assessment literacy they need to face today's assessment challenges. Stiggins' other books include Revolutionize Assessment and Defensible Teacher Evaluation.

LF: You write that "our assessments must deliver far more than evidence for grading, sorting, and weeding out. They must also become teaching tools—tools that motivate all students and promote maximum success for all."  I, too, have always thought that assessments and grades only made sense if they were used in a positive way to move students forward. There seems to be a lot of lip service to supporting that view but, in the end, it can sometimes be less "efficient" for schools and teachers to proceed in that direction.

You provide a lot of suggestions in your book, but can you share two or three very practical suggestions for teachers who want to apply this kind of perspective to their classroom?

Rick Stiggins:  

In "The Perfect Assessment System," I point out that failure to understand of the basic principles of sound assessment practices on the part of federal, state and local educational policy makers and school leaders has caused them to cling to the blind faith belief that accountability testing improves school quality.  This belief has played out over the last 70 years in local, state, national and international testing at a cumulative cost of billions of dollars even though it is a belief simply that is not supported by rigorous scientific research.  On the other hand, we have compelling evidence in hand gathered from around the world revealing that classroom assessment used as a teaching and learning tool can have a profoundly positive impact on student learning.  My "perfect system" seeks to bring them to bear in our school improvement initiatives.

Teachers who use "assessment FOR learning" involve their students in ongoing self-assessment in ways that reveal to those learners (a) where they are headed in their learning, (b) where they are now in relation to those expectations, and (c) how each student can close the gap between the two.  These teachers begin instruction with a student-friendly orientation to their learning destination and the pathway they will follow to learning success. 

To help their students stay in touch with their current learning status and progress over time, these teachers provide students with continuous access to descriptive feedback revealing how they can do better the next time.  Further, teachers help their students develop the self-assessment skills they need to begin to anticipate what comes next in their own learning so they can collaborate with their teacher to plan what come next for them.  And finally, to help students attain continuous improvement, teachers focus instruction of keys to advancement and engage students in reflecting on and communicating with other about their progress over time.

What educational policy makers and school leaders must understand here is that few teachers have been given the opportunity to learn about these principles of assessment FOR learning.  Our collective educational future hinges on providing them with the necessary professional development.

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LF: This is basically a repeat of the last question except, now, I'm wondering if you could list some suggestions for how administrators at both the school and district level can take some initial steps to support this kind of change?

Rick Stiggins:  

Lest we believe that teachers can turn to their principals for the professional learning they need and want, we should be clear about the fact that relevant, helpful assessment training remains almost non-existent in most pre-service leadership preparation programs.  This must change now.  As programs open to inclusion of this dimension of leadership competence, it must be made clear to candidates their overarching responsibility is to put in place in their district, schools and classrooms the conditions necessary for teachers to be able to use assessment FOR learning. 

First, leaders must build balanced local assessment systems that meet the information needs of classroom, interim benchmark and annual assessment users, each of which can serve formative and summative assessment purposes.  Second, they make sure each teacher understands and is a confident master of the learning targets their student are expected to master. 

Third, leaders ensure the quality of the assessments conducted throughout their system; that is, that both they and their teachers are sufficiently assessment literate to fulfill their responsibilities.  Fourth, they build systems for communicating assessment results that fit the purpose for the communication, formative or summative.  And finally, leaders ensure that the links between assessment and student motivation leave every student believing that learning success is within reach if they keep striving.  All of these are active ingredients in my Perfect Assessment System.

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LF: I was struck by what you had to say about assessment and student motivation, which I don't often hear discussed.  Can you elaborate on that topic a bit?

Rick Stiggins: 

That last entry in my response to question two, about assessment and student motivation, is critically important because of a recent change in the social mission assigned to our schools.  In decades gone by, a primary mission was to begin the process of sorting citizens into the various segments of our social and economic system but ranking use according to achievement by the end of high school. 

Schools were evaluated on the basis of the dependability of their judgments about who are the winners and losers.  However, over the past two decades the accelerating rate of technological and social change in our society has let us to the inference that any student who leaves school without essential lifelong learner proficiencies will not be able to survive.  So the mission of the institution has been expanded to include responsibility for ensuring universal competence in those essential proficiencies.  In other words, school are to leave no child behind in this sense.  We can no longer afford to have major segments of our student population giving up in hopelessness.  

The key to accomplishing this is to offer the promise of learning success to all students and build the motivation system on that hope.  This can be accomplished by, once again, turning to the principles of assessment for learning.  Teachers do this by helping students always remain aware of where they are headed, where they are now and how to close the gap between the two, teachers can get students on winning streaks and keep them there. 

Each teacher's mission is to use the assessment process when students are learning to build each student's sense of academic self-efficacy or sense of control over their own academic well-being.  Essentially, a perfect system replaces a reward and punishment-driven behavior management system of motivation that yield winners and losers with a learning success-driving system that yields lifelong learners who learn more and faster (with evidence to prove it).

LF: You also talk about the role of assessment results in teacher evaluations.  Can you share your thoughts?

Rick Stiggins:

I just touch briefly on the role of student achievement in the evaluation of teacher performance in the Perfect Assessment System  but delve deeply into it in another book, Defensible Teacher Evaluation (Corwin, 2014).  The bottom line in this case is the it is patently and emphatically indefensible to evaluate teacher performance by relying on change in annual standardized test scores.  For a variety of technical and practical reasons, these tests are incapable of detecting the impact of an individual teacher on the learning of their students.  These tests simply lack (or clearly have not demonstrated) the instructional sensitivity to do so.  Indeed, they were and are not designed with that purpose in mind and have not been validated for that purpose.  Therefore, this use in indefensible.

However, I do believe there can be a role for student achievement in the evaluation of teacher performance that can arise from evidence gathered over time using classroom assessment.  If a teacher and their supervisor identify high priority learning targets and gather pre/post instruction evidence of student achievement using high quality assessments, a teacher can build a strong case for the efficacy of her or his instruction using such evidence.  Specific procedural details on how to accomplish this in a professional manner are presented in the Corwin book. 

LF: Let's say you were stuck in an elevator with a public official who was crafting a statewide assessment policy.  You only have a minute before he/she gets off.  What do you say to him/her?  What's your literal "elevator pitch."?

Rick Stiggins:

Elevator speech: Just as dramatic breakthroughs in technology have added exciting new dimensions to our lives and just as stunning breakthroughs in medicine have saved and extended lives so too can recent remarkable breakthroughs in our understanding of how to use assessment as a teaching and learning tool dramatically accelerate and extend our students' learning lives.   We have been stuck for decades in a 1950s vision of excellence in assessment that never was excellent.  A new assessment world is there for the taking. 

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LF: Is there anything I haven't asked you about that you'd like to share?

Rick Stiggins:

We have been operating for decades on the belief that assessment is something adults do to students and if we just do it right, schools will work better.  This is not incorrect in the sense that the adults in the system absolutely play a key role and must fulfill that role well.  But what is missing from this vision is the student.  As it turns out, students are constantly judging their own learning success and making key instructional decision about themselves based on their interpretation of their academic record.  Among those decisions is whether to try, how hard to try, what risks to take or not.  We know how to help them make smart decisions that do get them on winning streaks and keep them there.  All teachers and school leaders need is the opportunity to learn about those things.  But, alas, essential opportunities to learn are not forthcoming for them.  But not to worry, we can spend billions to be sure we have the very best standardized tests money can buy...

LF: Thanks, Rick!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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