Building Our Assessment Literacy

October 23, 2018 by

This is the fifth book in the series Conversations with Authors About Competency-Based Education.

I have never been a teacher. Thus, I don’t write very much about instruction and assessment as my knowledge base is about the size of a raindrop compared to the sea of knowledge that teachers tap into every day. I simply don’t have enough knowledge to know where to focus or the types of questions to ask.

However, my knowledge has been growing over the past two years as I ask every educator I can, “How do you meet students where they are? How do you make sure they are progressing and gaps are being repaired?” My little raindrop became a small puddle of knowledge after reading Using Formative Assessment To Enhance Learning, Achievement, And Academic Self-Regulation by Heidi L. Andrade and Margaret Heritage (recommended to me by Paul Leather).

We talk a lot about how we need to build our assessment literacy among schools, districts, national organizations, and policymakers. We aren’t going to get beyond the age-based summative accountability policies without deeper knowledge that can feed our imaginations of what might be possible. This book will certainly help…and it is super easy to read even for someone who doesn’t have background in teaching. The elegantly composed vignettes bring the ideas to life. The discussion in the book raises core concepts, describing what they are as well as problems of practice that wouldn’t be as beneficial to students.

The book has shifted my own practice of inquiry. In addition to the other questions I ask when I visit schools, I will be adding questions such as:

  • For district and school leaders: What is your overall approach to assessing students? What are the strategies you use to identify and repair gaps in knowledge?
  • For district and school leaders: How do you think about the knowledge and skills teachers need to have to support students in the cycle of learning?
  • For teachers: What is your approach to helping students develop social emotional skills and self-regulation? To what degree has it become embedded or integrated into your instructional and assessment strategies?
  • For students: How do you know that you have successfully learned something? How do you what you still need to work on? What is the process for continuing to work on something until you are successful?

Here are just a few of my take-aways (I took ten pages of notes!):

  • Classroom assessment is about closing the gaps. It’s what helps students get from not yet to proficient. It regulates or drives learning. It’s not the end of a process of learning: it is actually a key step in the learning process.
  • Classroom assessment can be designed to build students’ capacity for self-regulation (one of the Building Blocks for Learning needs to be a strong lifelong learner). Self-regulated learning is so important for students that we should prepare ourselves for the acronym: SRL (it is often included within social-emotional learning or SEL practices). Practices that contribute to greater self-regulation include transparency of learning targets and goal-setting; co-construction of performance and/or product criteria; self-and peer- assessment (feedback, not grading); opportunity to struggle with discovering the answer; and revision. Essentially, it comes down to helping students take ownership: What are my goals? How will I know I’m successful? Where am I in my learning? What do I need to do next? What did I do to become successful?
  • Self-regulated learners learn more effectively because they have a powerful combination of 1) learning strategies, 2) self-control (managing thoughts and feelings) and 3) motivation. This got me wondering: if one of the outcomes that schools focus upon is developing effective learners, should we be focusing more explicitly at CompetencyWorks about the strategies, ways to monitor, and indicators that students are learning effectively?
  • Explicit criteria and feedback is needed to improve performance. Students need to revise their correct work products. This may require more time, but it is time that is well spent. Definitely watch the video on formative assessment (starting at 8:56). Quite fun and certainly can be used in your district. (And it will bring a smile when you hear the second round of applause! We really do need to celebrate more.)
  • When students co-construct the criteria, they are more engaged (thinking about and owning the task) that leads to learning. They outline the steps in co-construction of success criteria: sharing exemplars and examples that illustrate typical errors from which students brainstorm a set of criteria that describe the desired qualities or features. The authors suggest the extra time it takes to co-construct criteria is worth it compared to handing out a checklist. However, they do not suggest spending the time to co-create all the levels of a rubric.

The book introduces a number of concepts that I think can be helpful in our building a common language of teaching and learning. I’m sure many teachers know all of this already. However, it is important that we get better at talking about school design and effective instruction/assessment if we expect policymakers to be guide by the science of learning. For example, the authors refer to New Zealand’s Deliberate Acts of Teaching: modeling, prompting, questioning, telling, directing, explaining, providing, and feedback. Other terms include:

  • Learning progressions (or construct maps/construct models, which is a much better term since the word ‘progression’ gets used for all kinds of things).
  • Teacher connoisseurship that includes competencies such as strong knowledge of domain, understanding of which formative assessment strategies are most effective for the subject, and knowledge of how student learning of that content develops.
  • Corrective procedures are the instructional steps used by teachers once they have understood why a student is making errors.
  • Parallel testing is a technique of using a multiple answer test, followed by students delving into why their answers were wrong, discovering what they need to know for the correct answer, and then another multiple answer test on the same content with different questions.

Multiple choice tests can be a useful tool for formative assessment. The trick is to design the assessment to provide plausible answers based on typical errors in learning for all the options. Thus it becomes a diagnostic tool that helps teachers better understand why students are making mistakes and can inform the corrective instruction. However, this doesn’t mean every multiple choice quiz is going to be an effective formative tool. It is going to depend on the level of teacher connoisseurship to design tests that illuminate where students are in their learning.

There is research that shows that grades are negatively associated with performance, self-efficacy, and motivation. The authors spell it out: this research “implies that grades can trigger counterproductive learning processes.” Here is research they refer to if it is helpful in engaging teachers, students and parents about why A-F grading needs to be modified.

  • Butler, R. (1087) Task-involving and ego-involving properties of evaluation: Effects of different feedback conditions on motivational perceptions, interest, and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79, 474-482.
  • Butler, R. & Nisan, M. (1986) Effects of no feedback, task-related comments, and grades on intrinsic motivation and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78(3), 210-216
  • Lipnevich, A.A., & Smith, J.K. (2008). Response to assessment feedback: The effects of grades, praise, and source of information. ETS Research Report Series, 2008(1), i-57.

I did have two concerns about the book, neither of which diminishes its incredible value to the field. First, a few times the assumption that all students should be on grade-level reared its head. Of course that is what most schools focus on, so it only makes sense. However, it would have been helpful to recognize that some students enter the classroom well above or below grade level skills. Grade-level standards should not be considered a cap or the only way to express expectations. Second, although the book was all about gap filling, it didn’t address what a teacher would have to do if either a few or the majority of their students needed to repair extensive or multiple gaps in knowledge. Perhaps Andrade and Heritage will write a follow-up book to provide guidance on this issue that is haunting schools in every state.

Read the Entire Series:

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