Imagine looking up at the night sky on a spring night with no light pollution to mar the view, nothing but sparkles and twinkles overhead. Some stars appear bright enough that you could reach out and touch them, some are muted and subtle against the black backdrop. Numerous constellations are easily identifiable. Suddenly, an asteroid comes careening through the sky, blocking out the twinkles, pulling your attention away from the constellations and lovely sparkles.
To most students moving through public education, their experience is very much like that night sky. Each light represents a moment in which he or she is asked to show what they know or have learned, a moment that adults refer to as “an assessment”.
Consider a middle school student:
- First Period - she writes her findings in a lab report in Science,
- Second Period - she completes a reader’s response in ELA.
- Third Period - her writing conference with her teacher is recorded so she can review it later.
- Fourth Period - She uses a graphic organizer to cite her sources for a discussion in Social Studies.
- Fifth Period - Lunch to catch her breath...
- Sixth Period - Completes a ticket out the door in Art class summarizing what she found surprising that day.
- Seventh Period - In PE, she gives her opinion about a new game they played by using her phone to respond to a survey.
Like the stars, each assessment is independent but also part of a larger pattern and system. Some of these moments burn bright and leave a permanent impression. In this case, our student practiced for that Socratic Seminar for weeks; it became a veritable north star on her horizon. The quick text after PE, though, was more muted, barely noticeable. It was just something quick she did to share her thinking with her teacher.
For a student, a constellation is analogous to an individual teacher’s assessment system. Not all assessments may be formalized, but each teacher has routines, habits, and techniques that provide a shape or structure to his or her assessment system.
Meanwhile, we’ve increasingly seen the effects of trying to replicate that careening asteroid; of trying to add more and more asteroid clones into the night sky, making it harder to see the stars, or in some cases, even crowding out them so that they are all but gone.
Documenting and reflecting upon a classroom assessment system through an audit or review is akin to setting up a telescope and creating a star map of a constellation and the surrounding sky.
Reflective Activities for Teachers
An individual classroom teacher can take stock of his or her own classroom system by engaging in a series of reflective activities. The first is to generate a list of all classroom assessments used during a specific time period (i.e., month, quarter, marking period, semester, etc.). The list should include all of the different ways in which the teacher has collected evidence of student learning. (e.g., worksheet on pivotal battles on the Western front; recording of students doing a Socratic seminar around the essential question, “Is war inevitable?"; World War II test; For Whom the Bell Tolls project; ticket out the door). The goal is to capture, in writing, a sampling of the ways in students are asked to show what they know or have learned before, during, and after instruction.
A second activity involves pondering questions like: Why did you become a teacher? What is your goal for your students? Using words, phrases, or pictures, the teacher should try to capture what it is he or she hopes students get out being in his or her classroom. The goal of this step is to invite the teacher to re-connect with what matters to him or her.
The third activity involves comparing the information generated by the first two activities. That is, in what ways is he or she measuring what matters? Each assessment can be coded. Those that align with or help support the teacher’s educational philosophy can be coded with a check. A check plus can be used for those assessments that illustrate the teacher’s most valued outcomes or embody his or her reasons for becoming a teacher. Finally, a check minus can be used for assessments that have little or no perceived value to the teacher.
The alignment between a teacher’s philosophy and her or his assessment system can serve as a first step in taking stock. There are a variety of other entry points or lenses teachers could use to enrich or expand their review. For example, they could look for patterns in the:
- Purposes for the assessments: when are most of the assessments administered; before, during, or after instruction has occurred?
- Types of assessments used: are the assessments mostly multiple choice? Are students asked to create products or too demonstrate or perform what they’ve learned?
- Usefulness of the assessments: Are assessments structured to give students feedback that helps them get better the next time they tackle a similar task? Do they support future curriculum or lesson planning activities?
- Fairness of the assessments: Are the assessments as free of bias as possible? Were steps taken to reduce measurement error? If a student fails an exam, it’s because of a gap in their learning, not a flaw in the exam?
- Alignment to standards: Are particular standards targeted? What steps are taken to ensure that assessments are aligned to the standards?
Collecting data by doing this kind of a review is just the first step. Some reflective questions to consider after the analysis include:
- What patterns do you notice?
- What implications do those patterns hold for you?
- What revisions could you make to the assessments you coded with check minuses so that you can turn them into checks and check pluses?
- Who could you share the patterns of your data with to increase the health and balance of the assessment systems in your school?
The powerful thing about this process is the reminder that, unlike the night sky which is immovable and outside our sphere of influence, a classroom assessment system can be tweaked and modified. Even with (perhaps especially because of) the brightness of the asteroid, we need to remember that we have much influence over the learning and assessment experiences at the classroom level. The act of doing these kinds of review serve two powerful purposes. First, it helps teachers and administrators ensure that focus remains on the stars, the curriculum-embedded assessments, even as attention is captured by the asteroid. Secondly, it can be the check and balance to ensure the assessments students experience are beneficial, useful, and purposeful so that when that asteroid comes by, it’s a predictable, routine event that does not distract from the beauty of the stars and constellations.
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.