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Assessing for Success

Strategies for using assessment to continue the learning process — for teachers and students

November 21, 2016
conceptual photo of teacher holding folder of graded papers

Our assessment muscles get a workout at this time of year as reporting season nears. Our desks become swamped with piles of grading while we strive to report faithfully to parents about their child’s progress at school.

But if you ask any two teachers how they collect evidence of student learning, their answers will likely differ. That is because assessment — which lies at the heart of our work as teachers — has been made unnecessarily complicated in recent years.

Our inboxes overflow with offers of weekend workshops that promise to coach us in assessing our students’ learning. We are recommended books that devote entire chapters to the “field of assessment," which is now puzzlingly a subset of education rather than at the core of teaching and learning. We are simultaneously accused of assessing too often and too infrequently.

And all of this occurs in a climate of standardized testing, where school funding and teacher employment may well be on the line.

"Assessment has become a perfect storm — so much so that it’s easy to lose sight of why we do it in the first place."

Assessment has become a perfect storm — so much so that it’s easy to lose sight of why we do it in the first place. To this, Australian researcher Geoff Masters offers helpful clarity: “The fundamental purpose of assessment in education is to establish and understand where learners are in an aspect of their learning at the time of assessment.” Simply put, we should assess to understand.

It’s worth keeping this clear purpose in mind as we approach our work. When questions about frequency and specificity become less relevant, we can begin to refine our assessment practice with students at the front and center of our planning.

To Assess Effectively

Here, strategies for curriculum coordinators and teachers who wish to assess effectively — without getting caught in unnecessary complexities. 

Be clear about why you assess.

  • Proponents from particular assessment camps might try to convince us that assessment is complex and multifaceted — a field of its own. Regardless of whether assessment is formative or summative, cumulative or terminal, nothing is more important than understanding the strengths and learning needs of students.
  • Though we assess to report to parents, that should never be the primary focus of our work. If our repertoire of assessment strategies is not helping us to better support the needs of our students, it is distracting from the goal of teaching and learning.

Prioritize feedback that is timely, transparent, targeted, and two-way.

  • Try to give feedback to students on their work as soon as possible. Neuroscience research tells us that the best timing for feedback comes directly after learning something for the first time.
  • Value transparency by making sure that students understand the feedback. Provide them the opportunity to ask you questions about your comments.
  • Be specific in your feedback by focusing on the core objectives of your unit. Too many comments and corrections sends the message that everything needs to be “fixed,” which can overwhelm students and make it difficult for them to know where to begin.
  • Remember that feedback should go both ways; it is as much for your own learning as it is for theirs. Deploy assessment as a strategy for gaining feedback from learners about how they are coping with the work.

Draw on data to inform your differentiated classroom practice.

  • Standardized tests have reshaped the way we do our job as teachers. We must embrace the fact that such testing yields highly useful information. Before we can make our data do the heavy lifting, we must understand what it means and how to analyze it.
  • We can use data to identify students working hard with little result, and those not working hard enough with room to grow. We can identify patterns of skill deficit and strength, using data to paint a clearer picture of students in particular classes, cohorts, or the school at large.

Build a shared metalanguage for assessment in your school.

  • On the grade level team at least, ensure that teachers are using a shared metalanguage when discussing assessment. For instance, do students know the difference between homework, study, and assignments? Does a “quiz” in math mean the same thing as a quiz in French? The need for a common assessment vernacular provides an opportunity to staff to undertake essential professional learning to support their development in this regard.

Undertake assessment collaboratively.

  • As teachers, we tend to collaborate for the purpose of moderating tasks, ensuring that we have been consistent and comparable in our judgements. What if instead we discussed our approach to giving feedback through an entire unit of work? What if we met routinely to analyze the available data about our students? We stand to improve in our assessment practice when we plan with colleagues and acknowledge all that they bring to the work.

Try to see yourself as a researcher rather than an appraiser.

"It is important to move beyond the dated paradigm of teacher as appraiser, merely collecting and returning work with a grade."
  • Researchers tend to collect data from study participants, process and analyze it, and make recommendations based on the findings. Teachers are data collectors, too; they use assessment to harvest important information about student learning. In marking a piece, teachers process and analyze the evidence of student learning in order to adjust their practice. They may revisit a unit of work with which students have struggled, or challenge others who have demonstrated mastery of the content.
  • It is important to move beyond the dated paradigm of teacher as appraiser, merely collecting and returning work with a grade. In this model, the onus is incorrectly placed solely on the student to make adjustments.

None of the strategies listed here encroach significantly on teachers’ time, but all provide the possibility to understand students better and to assess more efficiently and effectively.

About the Author

David Rawson
David Rawson is a high school languages teacher in Australia with a particular interest in improving assessment and creating school cultures that value teachers as researchers. He is a former Frank Knox Fellow and a Fulbright Scholar. He completed his master's degree in educational leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2017.
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