Published Online: June 18, 2013

First Person

Gaining a New Appreciation for Assessments

In October, I moved to Mexico City and started teaching at a bilingual international elementary school. I was hired as an extra teacher, and my job was to provide English literacy support to students in all grades, beginning in kindergarten. Naturally I thought a good place to start was speaking with teachers and looking over assessments.

When I asked for assessments, I was shown work samples and project rubrics. While these can be useful gauges of student performance, they did not provide the details about students I was looking for. For example, by observing in the classrooms, I learned that teachers check and star all work before it’s turned in—but these work samples didn’t show me what the students could produce on their own, without help from a teacher or instructional assistant. The rubrics offered some information, but did not include skills or knowledge directly related to reading or writing. I learned that there was an English reading exam given at the end of each school year, but only the overall score was recorded, and neither teachers nor the school administration were able to find the previous year's scores for me.

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How was I supposed to know which students needed more support? How could I target their needs if I didn’t know what those needs were? I found myself longing for the same grueling assessments that, when teaching in the U.S., I’d wished I didn’t have to conduct.

Mandatory assessments can be very overwhelming for teachers. In most U.S. schools, there are numerous running records, literacy assessments, writing prompts, exams, and other evaluations to complete during the school year. Sometimes it seems as though more of our time is being spent on assessments than actually teaching. Unfortunately, the most useful are often individual assessments—but doing one-on-one evaluations with 25 or 30 students takes a lot of time. Assessments are intended to provide important information about a student, but at a certain point you begin to wonder if they may actually be hurting student learning.

Shaping Your Instruction

Nevertheless, feeling lost at my school in Mexico without any knowledge of student reading levels or phonemic awareness, I developed a very basic assessment program. Based on the structure of my previous U.S. school district's assessment, I created an emergent literacy assessment for kindergarten, integrating components of the English reading curriculum used by my current school. I also found five leveled texts and created corresponding comprehension questions in order to do running records for students’ reading.

Teachers sometimes shared beforehand which students were “high” and which were “low.” Some teachers knew their students’ abilities well, but as I discovered, some did not. One kindergartner was said to be the lowest in her class and not able to read at all. It turned out that she not only knew the letter sounds, but could decode basic words and knew some sight words. Other students needed support with those skills, but not her.

There were also skills and deficits that showed up for almost all students, revealing the strengths and weaknesses of the school’s curriculum as a whole. Rhyming, for example, was a skill that almost no kindergartners had developed. Yet when I spoke with teachers, I found out that most thought their students could rhyme.

Assessments give teachers insight to student learning that, when used well, shapes their teaching. The results can be used to differentiate whole-group, small-group, and one-on-one instruction. They enable teachers to address students’ learning modalities and teach to their strengths. When students move on to the next grade level, assessments can be given to next year’s teachers so they too can create lessons and class structures based on student needs, not having to start from scratch.

At the end of each school year, my school in Mexico uses the Gates-MacGinitie reading test in English in grades K through 6. But assessments shouldn’t just be about testing at the end of the year—it should be about tracking progress. This is especially true for younger children, whose abilities change quickly and whose teachers need to have information throughout the school year.

By comparison, a kindergarten teacher I spoke with from a charter school in New York City shared that she was required to use the Developmental Reading Assessment three times a year to evaluate her kindergartners. She spent approximately 15 minutes with each individual student, and the assessments took about two weeks of class time to complete. But they provided the teacher with information about the students’ phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, understanding of print concepts, and comprehension. Similarly, a public school in Washington state requires bilingual kindergarten classes to use an emergent literacy assessment three times a year and running records in the spring. Teachers assessed the 24 students individually in both English and Spanish. Like the teacher in New York, these teachers received information about students that allowed them to target specific student needs.

Return on My Investment

It took me two whole months to finish my basic literacy assessments in Mexico City. Based on the results, I was able to group students for work on particular skills, strategies, and reading levels. With only a few months left of school, I could now focus on supporting the specific needs of these students.

Was it worth the time? At first I couldn't help but wonder if it would have been more effective to just dive into working with students right away. Assessing their strengths and weaknesses on the fly would have given me more teaching time. But the assessments proved to be extremely helpful for planning small-group instruction. I was able to group students based on needs and focus instruction to best support their learning. Now that we are at the end of the year and I have seen students' progress, I would say that the assessments certainly paid off.

I have often heard teachers comment that they wished they didn't have required assessments. But without them, would teachers be able to differentiate to the same extent? Would there be accountability? Would the norm become what I walked into in the school in Mexico City? Ideally there should be a balance between excessive assessment done at the expense of actually teaching and neglecting assessment altogether. But that balance can be hard to find. Maybe running records and other required assessments are like everything else in the world: You don't truly appreciate them until you don't have them. And perhaps when I eventually make it back to the States, I will be right back to wishing I had fewer assessments to conduct.

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