Assessments: A Key Ingredient in Our Practice

Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously remarked that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”—and the same is true for middle level education. No transformative educational meal was ever created based on fear. I understand that fear is a natural emotion in the schoolhouse; however, we must not let our fears dictate the nature of our classrooms.

In This We Believe (National Middle School Association [NMSA], 2010), we are reminded that the young adolescents in our educational kitchens deserve an effective and amazing middle school meal that is propelled by “educators [who] use multiple learning and teaching approaches” (p. 22). While all of the words in that characteristic are critical, the verbal ingredient that truly resounds with my palette is “use” because it communicates a commitment to turn away from fear and try something new.

Many educators and leaders know about “multiple learning and teaching approaches.” Just like chefs who watch cooking shows or read about cuisine, we, too, hear about new and innovative ways to teach and learn. However, when it comes time to enact them in our edu-kitchen and transfer professional knowledge into progressive pedagogical action, fear often steps in and whispers, “Wait a minute. Are you sure you want to try that?” We consider this question and begin to doubt ourselves.

As a result, we often serve the educational dishes we always cook, the ones with which we are most comfortable. At the same time, we ironically ask our students to take risks and embrace challenges. How do we overcome the fear of new “teaching and learning approaches” in order to “use” them to reach every student, grow professionally, and create great schools?

An important element in the teaching and learning process is assessment. Great middle grades programs understand that “Varied and ongoing assessments advance learning as well as measure it” (NMSA, 2010, p. 24). One compelling part of this characteristic is the order in which the two components appear; in particular, I am elated that “advance learning” comes before “measure it.”

As wonderful middle level educators, we must remember that the primary purpose of assessment is not to measure; rather, assessment is meant to fuel learning forward for our young adolescents—to advance it, create change, inform innovation, and give direction. In regards to food, cooks evaluate their dishes and have others critique their food in order to enhance their culinary creations. The assessment of teaching and learning should be the same: to build and advance our pedagogical menus.

If we simply use assessments to “measure” our educational “meals” without truly understanding why we are measuring, then we may be data rich, but we risk being instructionally poor. Further, when we do not see the empowering purpose of assessment, both teachers and students learn to fear what the data could communicate and how the results could be used against them.

How do we create and use assessments that advance and move learning forward? Here are some ideas to get us started on the path beyond fear:

  1. Love learning, and embrace the fact that failing is part of learning.
  2. Treat yourself with kindness when you struggle, and surround yourself with people who also want to learn so you are not alone in the process.
  3. Look at the world from a place of curiosity rather than from a judgmental, fearful, or deficit perspective.
  4. No one is going to tell you when to start, so begin now.
  5. Boldly go beyond lists about teaching and learning.