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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Creating Assessment-Capable Learners

By Peter DeWitt — April 06, 2014 5 min read
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Formative assessment is--or should be--the bridge or causeway between today’s lesson and tomorrow’s.” Carol Ann Tomlinson

It’s the time of year when students around the country are taking high stakes tests. More times than not, those tests are tied to a percentage of teacher and administrator evaluation. That percentage varies by state, and can range anywhere from 20% to 50%. Unfortunately, in our test-based accountability system, teachers and students have very little knowledge of what will appear on the tests, and often receive no effective feedback on where the students did well, and where they need to improve.

Test-based accountability has helped to create a deficit mindset among educators and students. There was a level of deficit thinking before testing came into our lives. Some teachers and school leaders sometimes focused on what students couldn’t do, rather than on what they could do. However, that deficit way of thinking was magnified by high stakes testing, and now it runs rampant in our schools. Being recycled into our professional conversations are the topics of retention, increased Academic Intervention Services (AIS) and special education classifications. These are all byproducts of test-based accountability tied to teacher and administrator evaluation.

Providing a paper trail of evidence to show why a student is struggling is now easier than taking responsibility for helping a student learn. It doesn’t help that what appears on the test is often the only curriculum being taught, and other important curriculum that could play to the strengths of students who are not good test takers gets left for the days when the high stakes testing period is long over.

There should be, and definitely is, a better way to provide high quality learning opportunities to students. As we negotiate our way through a time when students have to sit through high stakes tests, we need to do our part to make sure that other times in their educational practice are engaging, challenging, and fun. One way to meet these needs is to encourage students to become assessment-capable.

Assessment is Not a 4 Letter Word

Too often when educators and parents hear the word assessment their minds quickly turn to high stakes testing. In the March edition of Education Leadership, Carol Ann Tomlinson wrote,

I see formative assessment as an ongoing exchange between a teacher and his or her students designed to help students grow as vigorously as possible and to help teachers contribute to that growth as fully as possible. When I hear formative assessment reduced to a mechanism for raising end-of-year-test scores, it makes me fear that we might reduce teaching and learning to that same level."

Tomlinson goes on to write, “Formative assessment is--or should be--the bridge or causeway between today’s lesson and tomorrow’s.” It’s a great point that Tomlinson is making, because lessons should not stand alone in a lesson plan book waiting for their day to come. They are not individual silos of learning. Lessons should flawlessly go from one to the next, and it’s important that assessment is part of that process. Without it, we can never truly tell whether students are learning.

Unfortunately, when we talk about learning and the assessment process, we do not always include the student. Too often students have been passive participants in their learning, and that learning often involves curriculum that is “on the test.” When it comes to the learning process, everyone has a responsibility, and that includes the students. Engaging them, and helping them become assessment capable is important.

What is an Assessment Capable Learner?

Assessment capable does not mean that students need to do well on high stakes testing. It also doesn’t mean that they have to be good test takers on whatever test they are being given in school, whether it’s standardized or teacher made. Assessment capable learning means that students can assess their own learning. It will help them gauge where they need extra help, and where they are doing well enough that they can move on.

Where assessment capable learning is concerned, tt is important for students to know where they are going, how they are going, and ask where to next (Hattie. 2012). John Hattie says that in order for students to understand how to do this, they need to have “clear learning intentions and success criteria.” It also involves providing exemplars and rubrics.

Another key ingredient in the assessment capable process is effective feedback. In order for true success in the learning process, students need to be provided effective feedback from their peers and teachers. It’s not an easy process, because according to Graham Nuthall, “80% of the feedback that students received every day was from their peers, and 80% of that was wrong.”

In Visible Learning for Teachers, John Hattie uses the nine guidelines offered by Valerie Shute. Those guidelines are:

  • Focus feedback on the task, not the learner.
  • Provide elaborated feedback to enhance learning.
  • Present elaborated feedback in manageable units.
  • Be specific and clear with feedback messages.
  • Keep feedback as simple as possible but no simpler (based on learner needs and instructional constraints).
  • Reduce uncertainty between performance and goals.
  • Give unbiased, objective feedback, written or via computer.
  • Promote a learning goal orientation via feedback.
  • Provide feedback after learners have attempted a solution.

In the End

In an effort to change the way students feel about learning, we need to continue to change the way we look at assessment, and we don’t have the time to wait for state education leaders to redevelop high stakes testing. We need to shift our mindset to making sure that our students can assess their own learning.

Contrary to popular belief, students at a young age can learn how to assess their learning. As a caution, we should always make sure we are finding a balance between assessing learning, and encouraging fun and creativity while doing it. School should be a place where students can explore, even at the risk of failure, at the same time they learn. Helping students become assessment capable will only help them in the long run.

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  • Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.
  • Nuthall, Graham. (2007). The Hidden Lives of Learners. Nzcer Press. New Zealand.
  • Shute, Valerie (2008). Focus on Formative Feedback. ETS. Princeton, NJ.
  • Tomlinson, Carol Ann. (2014). The Bridge Between Today’s Lesson and Tomorrows. Educational Leadership. ASCD.

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.