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What's the Next Step? Using Assessment as a Classroom Guide

Marsha Ratzel
Student learning is the result of a dynamic interaction between assessment and instruction. Effective teachers use assessment to inform the design and use of classroom lessons. This interaction reminds me of assembling a huge jigsaw puzzle: I know what the final picture looks like but there are many, many pieces that have to fit together. I have to know each piece—its unique characteristics and how it might fit with the others.

Similarly, each student has a complex set of individual needs—emotional and intellectual—that I must understand to build the trust that will make learning possible. Knowing a student's unique characteristics helps me design instructional strategies that will motivate and engage them. And I have to connect the pieces. In a classroom of 31 kids, when one-on-one teaching just isn't possible, I must create small groups that let me deliver targeted mini-lessons based on students' needs.

When I start a unit, I create a clear picture of what students should be able to know and able to do by the end of the unit. I keep that picture at the forefront of my mind. It drives every instructional decision I make, helping me use time wisely and show students what is expected of them. This helps students—and me—track our individual and aggregate processes. It gives us specific things to talk about and guides my coaching of them throughout their learning journey.

An initial assessment tells me where my students are. That way, I can tailor how I teach, expediting the pacing if they come with lots of background knowledge. This initial assessment establishes the partnership I build with students. They have to know that we'll do this together and we're a team. It isn't graded. In my classroom, learning is not about me pouring knowledge into students' heads—it's about a journey we'll take together.

Throughout the unit, I use formative tests, quick measurements of discrete knowledge or skills.

For example, I recently asked students to draw a diagram of how energy is transmitted from the sun, and hand it to me as they exited. I thumbed through their index cards to see if they were visualizing the big ideas of heat transfer. The cards offered immediate information that I needed to design the next day's lesson. Half my students understood the basic concepts, so the next day, they used temperature probes, a globe and some graphing software to measure differences in how the sun heats different parts of the Earth. Meanwhile, I worked with the other half of the class, using a flashlight and globe and asking students to verbalize what they saw. The students and I coached one another: If someone stumbled on vocabulary, we interjected the proper word or offered hints. Using formative assessments this way helps me deliver learning possibilities that match what students are ready to learn.

Of course, summative assessments (at the end of a unit) are also important. In my next post, I'll explain how I handle these.

Marsha Ratzel is a National Board-certified teacher in the Blue Valley School District in Kansas, where she teaches middle school math and science.

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