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Assessment Swap: Shifting the Thinking for Student-Centered Learning

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

The "A" word has acquired a pretty bad rep over the past several years, and it's not without good reason. Unfortunately, assessment has become synonymous with test (or pre-test or quiz) and breaking this iron-clad mold has proven to be a less than easy task.

At it's basic core, an assessment is anything that tells us what students know, want to know, have learned, are learning, etc. It is a temperature check, a dip stick, an at-bat, and measurement of any kind of learning. Great assessments can provide learners with great, usable information to guide their next steps in learning--and they can also provide teachers with ideas on how to proceed, too.

Irrelevant assessments tell us a score but not what students (or teachers) can do with the information.

And then there is the never-ending clarifying conversation around the difference between formative and summative assessment. I have sat at countless tables with people far more intelligent and experienced than me, and together we have struggled to determine a simple, common understanding of these terms. People debate the question: Can we give a grade for a formative assessment? just as quicky as they debate: Can students re-take a summative assessment? Can we give homework assessments, and if so, can we count them for a grade? How should we weight our grade books so that the grades reflect student learning, not student behavior? Do the points actually balance out the way that we think they do? Who is harmed by this system? Who is disproportionately benefitting?

These are good questions and necessary questions for teams to wrestle with. I honestly don't stand in one clear camp about grades and formative assessments--I think it depends on your content, your students, and your understanding of what a formative is. I consider a quiz a formative assessment, and most teachers I know enter quiz scores in the gradebook. Maybe instead of never entering formative assessments as grades, we give ourselves time to discuss which ones are graded, are which are not.

I do believe we are operating with far too narrow of a scope of understanding around how to see what our students know. Our students have many, MANY skills, ideas, thoughts, dreams, emotions, and connections around their own learning experiences. When we exclude our students from the assessment conversation, we silence the voices that matter most.

I do believe there is power in teams who consistently use common, research-based, adopted, grade and skill appropriate assessments--regardless of the format. Pre-tests, post-tests and quizzes are not inherently evil or harmful to students. In fact, a well-written assessment can provide students with fantastic reflective experiences to assess their learning progression. Tests are not bad, and tests are not ruining education.

It is the misuse of tests, the poor formatting of tests, or the lack of intentional follow-up with tests that often creates the obstacles to the learning--not the actual idea of tests themselves.

Want to know if a test is overwhelming? Give it to someone who does not teach what you teach. Watch how they react. Watch their body language. Listen to the questions they ask you about the content and intent of the questions. How they react will provide you insights into how your students will (or won't) connect with the format.

There are so many ways we can ask our students to show what they know, and yes, tests provide us with one avenue. I also encourage teams to explore moments and units when a test is not actually the best way to monitor student progress. Gather mid-unit information, analyze it with your team, and make decisions on how to support students before the unit ends. Ask students to provide reflective feedback on what they'd like support in, or what they'd like to know more about. Provide choice and small group practice on specific skills or topics--and allow your students to self-monitor their own learning progression.

If you are looking for ways to incorporate more student voice and experience into your assessment gathering processes, consider activities that center students perspectives and backgrounds. Provide students with avenues to show what they already know or are curious about, and teach them ways they can self-monitor their own progress through a course or skill development.

Again, tests have no emotional attachment. They are not good or bad--they are tests. A well-written test can provide students and teachers with fantastic information about what has been learned and what is left to be learned.

And, there are many, many ways to draw your students in to share what they know, are learning, and want to learn. In addition to a test, you may also build in ways that students provide reflection or self-assessment at the end of a unit. When we allow students to provide more voice about what they have learned, ownership around learning increases.

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