Renewing Our Dedication to Assessing for Learning

Assess with a commitment to compassion, collaboration, and the goal of helping students succeed

It’s easy to become jaded about assessment, but I’m going to offer a different view that will hopefully make assessment a tool for learning instead of just an after-the-fact event. We can’t always control all of the assessments our students take, so set those outside our realm of influence for a moment. What we can do is approach the assessments we create and choose to give our students with renewed dedication. As I’ve tried to come to my own philosophy of assessment, I looked to The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. They provide an excellent framework for educators struggling to make sense of the mess that assessment has become in a drill and kill atmosphere that, at the exact same time, is being juxtaposed with the real need for 21st century skills.

Be Impeccable with Your Word

I think one of the most important ways we can use assessment for learning is to demonstrate for students the value of careful and thorough preparation. To this end, I always create the final assessment first, then I print a copy. I keep a clipboard with the questions with me throughout the unit, and I make sure that I clearly teach, reteach, and review each question. As I do so, I put a check next to each question, and I will not administer the assessment until I have three checks. Once I have three checks, I know that I have “covered” everything that will be on the test.

Why is this approach of backwards planning and checks so important? The reason I’m “impeccable” with my word is that I have taken hundreds of tests, and I’d venture to say that on half of them, there are questions or concepts that were not addressed thoroughly, and sometimes not at all. I’ve heard teachers say that students should be able to infer content, and if inferencing is the skill, so be it. Otherwise, there is no reason to make assessments that don’t deliver questions that you focused on and instead measure something other than what you were teaching.

Don’t Take Anything Personally

We’ve all been there. As you are grading an assessment you realize that your question was too vague, or the second choice answer was ambiguous, or the essay really requires them to tap into skills that you haven’t touched in months. You have a choice at that moment, and I will freely admit that in my early career I often made the wrong one. I used to make excuses, blame students for not being able to figure out what I’d meant, or become appalled that they couldn’t apply a skill. Now though, I don’t take it personally. If I’m expecting them to have a growth mindset, I have to demonstrate my willingness to own a mistake.

Just this year, the answers I provided for one of the questions in the multiple choice section of my The Outsiders test were convoluted. As I graded paper after paper, the pattern emerged. Everyone seemed to be missing #7. I decided to throw the question out and humbly explain to my students that I screwed up, and I would appreciate their help. All they needed to do was rewrite the question with better answer choices. They enjoyed “schooling” me, and I was able to model the appropriate reaction to making a mistake—and it wasn’t to dig in and refuse my fallibility.

Don’t Make Assumptions

This can be the hardest part of assessing for learning. What I mean by “don’t make assumptions” is to use formative assessments along the way and not rely on the big data of a final exam or state assessment to tell us what we needed to know along the way. We can assume that our students are learning, but if we don’t assess them, we are only guessing how well they understand the concept or skill being taught.

I tend to do really quick formative assessments, and I often rely on my own observations as I walk about the room checking in on my students. The best way to be clear about what you are assessing, while also gathering important data points, is to have students do the work for you. For example, in our last essay, I wanted students to make sure they were using sophisticated sentence structure as well as transitions to support their thesis statement. When they finished, they were given a “to do list” that would make their learning clear to me as I circulated. Their task was to highlight in yellow three sentences that used a comma and a coordinating conjunction, to highlight in pink four transition words they’d used, and to bold their thesis statement and bold three pieces of evidence that supported it. I was able to look over their shoulder and immediately know if they were on track or not instead of guessing who was and wasn’t doing well with the task. With over a hundred students, this is a practical way to take the guesswork out of their learning too, as they were forced to be reflective, which for middle schoolers isn’t always easy.

Always Do Your Best

Finally, after nearly two decades of teaching, I have recognized the harm that deficit grading can do, and I’ve pretty much eliminated the practice. By “deficit grading,” I mean the practice of taking off a point here for not capitalizing and another point here for the indentation not being exactly five spaces. It doesn’t mean I ignore those things, but I simply send them back to the students to do again. I assess whether or not students have met the criteria for the assessment, and I don’t penalize them for the sloppy or careless mistake. However, I won’t accept anything less than their best, so my first round of grading is simply to let them know what they need to work on. They can then check with me or another student who can help them with the problem I have pointed out in my feedback. Is it more work this way? Yes, but it is also more learning, and that is the point.

Assessments are a necessary part of teaching and learning, and if done with genuine compassion, an eye on creating a high-quality product, and a commitment to collaboration, students and teachers can learn from one another. Every time I give students an assessment, I explain that I am seeing what I need to do so that they are successful. Yes, they understand their role, but they also believe that I’m gathering information to make them better, which is exactly what assessing for learning should do.