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Assessment: The Neglected Priority

Sarah Henchey
I remember listening to my undergraduate professors as they emphasized the importance of assessment in the learning cycle. There was mention of formative and summative assessments, checks for understanding, rubrics versus checklists, and more. Although I paid attention and took away what I could, it didn't click until I was faced with more authentic circumstances.

Somehow, in my first year as an English language arts teacher, I lost sight of the role assessment plays and thought my "grading" could wait until the weekend. This led to many moments of frustration as I could not accurately gauge my students' needs.

Thankfully, as I gained experience, I finally understood what my college professors had tried to impart—assessment must be a priority in teaching.

Like all teachers, I use a variety of tools to assess what students know and are able to do. I gain the most valuable feedback during my daily lessons and interactions with students. I learn a tremendous amount from puzzled expressions, stop-and-jots, and post-it notes passed to me as I circulate around the room. I frequently use "cold calls" to check for understanding and find exit slips invaluable as I modify and adjust to students' needs.

When planning summative assessments, I've learned to be purposeful and proactive. This year, my professional learning community decided to begin the year with three mini-units focused around the skills students would need in order to be successful.

We used the following steps to plan for each unit:
1. Identify key vocabulary, skills, and goals.
2. Create an assessment that would demonstrate mastery.
3. Use the assessment to construct targeted lessons.
4. Assess students on their ability to apply their learning.
5. Analyze results and determine interventions.
6. Allot an additional week for intervention and enrichment lessons.

We've found the last step to be crucial. During this week, we provide small-group restructuring based on students' needs and then reassess. Meanwhile, students who demonstrated mastery participate in authentic enrichment activities.

As I've come to understand and appreciate the role assessment plays in student learning, I've been forced to re-prioritize. To truly understand the needs of my students, it's essential that I remain focused on their responses and questions when I'm teaching. I also have to make time each day to regularly evaluate more formal assignments (homework, quizzes, etc.) and determine the degree to which students understand and can apply what we're learning.

Some days, it's tempting to return to my old ways. But I know the difference it makes in my teaching when I understand where my students currently are and where we're going. For this reason, assessment has to be my priority.

Sarah Henchey is a 6th grade language arts teacher in Orange County, NC.

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