Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Meaningful Assessment and the Garden Shed

By Trenton Goble — July 20, 2012 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Note: Trenton Goble, Chief Academic Officer of MasteryConnect, is guest posting this week.

I want to thank Rick for allowing me this forum to share my thoughts on assessment and offer a special thank you to everyone who took the time to share their thoughts.

How can we help teachers find real value in the formative assessment process? Can we clearly and efficiently track each child’s individual performance relative to the essential concepts he or she must know, and work to ensure mastery for all students? These are the questions we set out to answer when my team and I created MasteryConnect. There is a tremendous push to deeply mine for the data that will help improve instruction and student outcomes. The range and volume of data available to schools today make it particularly difficult for teachers to parse through the numbers. Students are being given simple predictive curriculum-based measurements, a variety of formative and benchmarks assessments, as well as the traditional summative criterion and norm-referenced tests. In order to determine the value of these assessments, it might be helpful to imagine students building a garden shed.

If your goal is to have your students build a simple structure, like a garden shed, you would probably want to make sure they were proficient at hammering nails. Hammering nails is perhaps the most basic skill required for completing the garden shed. Monitoring student proficiency is simple. You can count the number of nails a student hammers into a block of wood in a given amount of time - say one minute. Then, you can subtract the number of bent nails from the total to establish a benchmark for proficiency. A student who hammers 20 or more nails in one minute might be considered proficient, a student who only hammers 15-19 nails would be near proficient, and anyone who hammers less than 15 nails would require additional training.

A recent study conducted by the prestigious Green Thumb Institute (GTI) found a strong correlation between a student’s ability to pound nails and his or her ability to successfully build a garden shed. Hammering nails is therefore a solid predictor of student shed-building success. The value of the one-minute nail-pounding test is important, but limited, as it merely predicts the speed a student can hammer nails. Students will need to acquire additional skills and knowledge in order to make use of their hammering skills.

If the students are going to successfully build a garden shed, they will eventually need to understand how to read a blueprint, use a tape measure, level the foundation, as well as frame, plumb, and square the walls. Students will also need to be able to install the trusses, roof, and shingles. Doors and windows need to be hung, siding and finish trim installed, and a fresh coat of paint will need to be applied to the finished building. If a teacher wants to ensure that every student will succeed, he or she will need to monitor student performance every step of the way.

A student may make an initial attempt to level the foundation, but fail to accomplish the task. If this goes unnoticed, the final outcome is already compromised. However, if the teacher recognizes the error and remediates the student until he or she has successfully completed the task, the potential for complete success remains. Teachers increase the likelihood of success for each student so long as they continue to monitor student performance and ensure that the students master the skills and tasks required to meet each objective. Along the way, the teacher may find that some students already possess the required skills or reach proficiency more quickly than others. These students could be encouraged to modify the complexity of their garden shed by adding dormers, details, or structural modifications. Those students who struggle to master the necessary skills may, in turn, modify or simplify their structures to accommodate their needs. Using the essential building skills they have acquired, students will present unique garden sheds to meet the established criteria.

Upon completing a garden shed, the teacher needs to assess the totality of the student’s work. Did the student successfully build a garden shed? Was the quality of the student’s work proficient, and how does his or her garden shed compare to other students’ work? The evaluation of the completed project provides a summary of the student’s overall success or failure and allows the teacher to evaluate his or her own success. This information may prove valuable for the teacher as he or she looks to improve upon his or her future practice, but for the student, there is little opportunity to address skill deficiencies because the time to complete the shed has passed.

Hammering nails is an essential skill that may loosely correlate to successfully building a garden shed, but it is the development and application of a myriad of skills that ultimately determines whether or not a student will be successful. If a teacher wants to maximize the number of students who succeed, he or she must ensure that each student has mastered the essential skills. While predictive assessments such as the nail hammering test serve a very limited purpose and summative assessments allow us to evaluate whether each student has succeeded or failed overall, they provide no real opportunity for remediation. The real power of assessment lies in the formative process. When we as teachers closely monitor student performance and provide immediate interventions when necessary, we dramatically increase each student’s opportunity for success. Ultimately, it is within the garden shed that each student will store the tools and resources required to tend to his or her own life’s garden.

--Trenton Goble

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.