George Orwell said that to see what’s in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle. I’m certain he wasn’t talking about formative assessments, but his words apply to the classroom.
Knowing what students know is a struggle. This knowledge doesn’t come easily, and it’s why we must move away from the stringent bubble sheet idea of assessments toward a true understanding of what students have learned. This is accomplished by acknowledging that the traditional summative test is inefficient. Instead, teachers must develop an intuitive “assessment mindset” while applying research-based strategies.
To better illustrate this, let’s say you’re on a first date. You’re constantly assessing the situation by asking yourself questions that require evidence for answering. At first, you’re asking, “Is this person nice? What does this person value? Do I want to go on another date with this person?” The answers to these questions will possibly lead to another date. At some point you’ll start asking yourself, “How can I make this person happy? How do I need to change to be a better companion?” This becomes a feedback loop—you’re constantly gauging the state of your relationship and intervening when something is off.
When teaching students, we must have this same natural assessing of the learning situation. “Was my instruction sufficient? Did the project help deepen learning? Who needs to attend my intervention small group?” The answers lead the teacher to change her practice so she can more effectively enhance student learning. This leads to deeper questions: “Am I good at what I do? If not, what can I do to get better? How can my team, administrator, district help me?” At this point, all the other factors in public education (Impact Teams, PBL, direct instruction, technology, etc.) come into play. Assessment should be the beginning of the search for what’s necessary to help students learn.
Of course, students should deploy assessment questions in the classroom, too. “Do I understand what we’re doing? Is there something I didn’t catch during instruction? How can I do better on the next project? What questions do I need to ask my teacher?” Assessing one’s situation is what makes learning visible.
This assessment mindset must be cultivated in order to assess well. At the same time, teachers should use practical techniques to learn what students know. The best resource I’ve found for this is Dylan Wiliams book Embedded Formative Assessment. I really like Wiliams’ definition of formative assessments: “An assessment functions formatively to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted, and used by teachers, learners, or their peers to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions they would have made in the absence of that evidence” (Wiliams, 43). Strategies such as wait time, mini whiteboards, exit passes, and many others elicit the evidence, while the use of Impact Teams can help interpret and use the evidence to determine which pedagogy should be deployed during instructional time.
It’s important for educators to develop their skills so they cultivate an assessment mindset in both themselves and their students while at the same time adopting effective assessment strategies for gathering important evidence regarding what students know. This evidence will be what fuels instructional decisions.
I recently finished reading the beautiful book When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Before his death, Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon who wrote about—among other things—the importance of succeeding at his profession. He writes: “As a chief resident, nearly all responsibility fell on my shoulders, and the opportunities to succeed—or fail—were greater than ever. The pain of failure had led me to understand that technical excellence was a moral requirement. Good intentions were not enough, not when so much depended on my skills, when the difference between tragedy and triumph was defined by one or two millimeters” (Kalanithi, 105).
There’s a correlation between our skill level regarding assessment and student achievement. With George Orwell’s words in mind, may we continually endeavor to see more clearly what’s in front of our noses as it relates to student learning.