The word “test” has a negative connotation. It conjures up images of students sitting in rows, number two pencils, and bubbles. It feels like long amounts of time, tricky questions, and essays. The test is a difficult task in which one must prove oneself. The students are the Odysseus, Perseus, and King Arthur, suffering through test after test on a long arduous journey. Teachers are the archetypal meddling Gods, monsters, and dragons of mythology providing one test after another for students to show what they really know. Teachers’ main goal seems to be creating elaborate tasks for students to conquer on their own in order to prove that they are good enough to be marked as having performed satisfactorily.
Assessment can, and, in a successful proficiency-based learning model does, have a much more positive connotation. Assessing is judging or appraising. In the case of proficiency-based learning, an assessment is a tool used to judge or appraise a performance against a particular learning target, or standard. It is about finding evidence that a student knows or is able to do something, then documenting it. Assessments are ways to see if students are “getting it” or not. Students are still our mythic heroes, moving ahead on their journeys, breezing through at times and struggling at others. Teachers are now the archetypal wise man, or guiding sage: Athena supporting Odysseus, Hermes helping Perseus, Merlin guiding King Arthur. Instead of constantly testing the students they work with, these teachers are constantly judging where students are in their progress toward a learning target, and providing them the support, help, or guidance they need to continue making progress.
Yes, constantly. But remember, it is more like the Arthur-Merlin dynamic. Assessments must happen constantly in order for teachers to know how students are progressing in their learning and if anything needs to change in the instructional plan. This is true for one particular student, small groups of students, and even the whole class. When combined with effective feedback and progress tracking tools, constant assessment allows students to take on much more ownership of their learning by making it clear to them where they are in relation to a target, and what they have to do in order to meet that target.
Constant assessment sounds like a huge drain on a teacher’s time, but it doesn’t have to be. Again, think Athena, not the meddling Greek Gods. There are ways to craft assessments so that students barely know they are being assessed. The best assessment, much like the best sage guidance, feels like it is just part of the regular flow of things. It is important for students to apply their skills and knowledge in longer, more complicated tasks, just not all the time. If we want to be like the mythical wise men and sage guides we have to be ready to give just-in-time support so that we know our heroes will be successful when put to the test; if we wait for the test, it is often too late to provide any meaningful guidance. (more…)