Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Supportive Assessment

I often talk to teachers and parents about assessment. I simplify assessment into two steps. First you collect information about a student's learning and then you share it with others.

Collect and share. That's it.

Sounds simple, right?

Well, there's a couple caveats. First, any information collected should be done based on what students are learning while doing projects that are in a context and for a purpose.

Second, the collecting and the sharing of this information should be done by the kids and not simply to them. Just like how the best kinds of learning is done by children rather than to them, the same goes for assessment.

Let it be known that teachers don't ever need tests to collect this information nor grades to share it. 

I used to differentiate assessment into two categories: formative and summative. While I still recognize the two categories, I now label them supportive and unsupportive of learning. For too long testsandgrades have been labelled as summative assessment. This label has implied a kind of appropriateness that is entirely misleading - testsandgrades should be more appropriately labelled unsupportive so that educators and parents can rightfully ask "why would we continue to assess in a way that does not support learning?"

Alfie Kohn provides what I believe should be at the heart of any sound supportive assessment practices:
Here are five principles of assessment that follow from this support model: 
1. Assessment of any kind should not be overdone. Getting students to become preoccupied with how they are doing can undermine their interest in what they are doing. An excessive concern with performance can erode curiosity -- and, paradoxically, reduce the quality of performance. Performance-obsessed students also tend to avoid difficult tasks so they can escape a negative evaluation. 
2. The best evidence we have of whether we are succeeding as educators comes from observing children's behavior rather than from test scores or grades. It comes from watching to see whether they continue arguing animatedly about an issue raised in class after the class is over, whether they come home chattering about something they discovered in school, whether they read on their own time. Where interest is sparked, skills are usually acquired. Of course, interest is difficult to quantify, but the solution is not to return to more conventional measuring methods; it is to acknowledge the limits of measurement. 
3. We must transform schools into safe, caring communities. This is critical for helping students to become good learners and good people, but it is also relevant to assessment. Only in a safe place, where there is no fear of humiliation and punitive judgment, will students admit to being confused about what they have read and feel free to acknowledge their mistakes. Only by being able to ask for help will they be likely to improve.
Ironically, the climate created by an emphasis on grades, standardized testing, coercive mechanisms such as pop quizzes and compulsory recitation, and pressure on teachers to cover a prescribed curriculum makes it more difficult to know how well students understand -- and thus to help them along. 
4. Any responsible conversation about assessment must attend to the quality of the curriculum. The easy question is whether a student has learned something; the far more important -- and unsettling -- question is whether the student has been given something worth learning. (The answer to the latter question is almost certainly no if the need to evaluate students has determined curriculum content.) Research corroborates what thoughtful teachers know from experience: when students have interesting things to do, artificial inducements to boost achievement are unnecessary (Moeller and Reschke 1993). 
5. Students must be invited to participate in determining the criteria by which their work will be judged, and then play a role in weighing their work against those criteria. Indeed, they should help make decisions about as many elements of their learning as possible (Kohn 1993). This achieves several things: It gives them more control over their education, makes evaluation feel less punitive, and provides an important learning experience in itself. If there is a movement away from grades, teachers should explain the rationale and solicit students' suggestions for what to do instead and how to manage the transitional period. That transition may be bumpy and slow, but the chance to engage in personal and collective reflection about these issues will be important in its own right.


  1. Alfie Kohn is such a great resource including how to transition from grades to a different kind of assessment.

    In talmudic ( jewish learning ) academies - yeshivot kids are assessed by the questions they asked. Questions (or confusion )are a sign of progress in learning - previous levels of understanding are no longer sufficient for new depth in learning

  2. I'm ambivalent about #5. I see value in having students participate in setting some standards, such as those that directly impact the classroom environment.

    I'm not so sure about having students set performance standards for academic work. I think that may set up unrealistic expectations about what students should expect outside school. The manager of the burger shop, the grocery store, and retail shop at the mall do not solicit ideas on standards for employee performance: they set the rules; you comply or you don't have a job.

    Also in most entry-level jobs, the difference between OK work and super work is not in the job tasks, but in the attitude with which the employee does the job. Although that piece could be built into performance standards, I don't believe students are likely to think of it without a lot of prodding from the sidelines.

  3. 1) You seem to be saying that there is no place for assessing individual skills in isolation.

    That's ridiculous. We see in other endeavors that individual skills sometimes can be worked on in isolation and individually benchmarked for progress.

    Think about weight training in support of athletics, as the most obvious example. Or marksmanship in military training.

    2) "Unsupportive" has enormous connotations, quite different than "non-supportive" or "asupportive." You seem to be saying that not only is there no place for any sort of accounting to non-learners for the student learning, but that such things are actually incompatible with learning.

    How do The Public Schools report on their work to the The Public? How do the schools to which families send their children report to those parents? How do the schools at the center of communities report back to those communities?

    No one is a fiercer critic than me of what our standardized tests and our traditional grading practices have done to trivialize the endeavor that is 13 years/15,000 hours of students' lives. But there is a big difference between saying we do it poorly and saying that there is no place for not doing it all.

    Public accountability of the public school matters.

  4. I find myself nodding in agreement, but I'll put a caveat on number #2: The " . . . best evidence we have of whether we are succeeding as educators comes from observing children's behavior rather than from test scores or grades."

    It doesn't come through observing a behavior but through having a conversation or observing a mental process. We learn in relationship and we learn what students are learning through reflective questions. Often a child "looks" disengaged, but is deeply engaged mentally (I was that child).

  5. Joe, thinking back to our conversation a few weeks ago, it is clear to me that we were talking about the same things. Great post - well articulated. It is all about the learning.


  6. How do you go about this conversation/observation process where you really get to know the student with 30 pupils in your class? How much do your observe? How do you know what to really look for? How do you keep track in your head? How do you sanely keep this up day in and day out?? I have heard a lot of talk, but I have never seen this really done well. It is mostly just talk.

  7. @Anonymous I'm wondering if the questions you are asking are in fact punctuated with question marks or exclamation marks.

    Are you honestly wondering whether this kind of assessment exists? Or are you telling me that because you haven't seen it, it can't be true?

    I'll be honest, it feels like you would rather not know just so you can hang on to what you already believe to be true.

  8. I did not say any of that. I am really looking for answers. I like the ideas you are presenting but it is very frustrating being told that you should do something a certain way and then never really being showed how.

  9. On #3 and Safe and Caring Schools when there is no fear of humiliation and punitive judgement will students admit to being confused about what they have read and ask for help, how does this benefit where a student is identified as struggling which is likely perceived to be due to a condition or circumstance so they are coded learning disabled therefore requiring support or accommodations which still require the very grammar decoding skills they may have lost along the way. Adding to the confusion is that most agree that literacy skills deteriorate but do not consider this problem in the schooling years. Many with low literacy levels may not even be aware of it and there is the public perception that schools do teach every student to read and write cursives and do have an expectation of proficiency regardless of rules. Another concern is that this has been going on for decades without solutions if 30 percent of the students are struggling with weak reading skills by the end of grade six, almost half of the people are dealing with low literacy levels after school and now our top tier students who write 30-1 diploma test have been struggling for five years.
    Most everything we say and do is based on what is familiar and past experiences and not necessarily what is correct. The various blogs and comments show how diverse interpretations are on one concern and make it questionable if we will work to determine the fundamental contributing factor that students are dealing with in class. To start, TAP into their problem, look at low grade achievement results on TAP tests as indicators and if programs and adjustments have not worked then provide an achievement test to pinpoint literacy skills and follow this with intense continuous ELA grammar instruction to grade level achieved to fill in lacks and gaps and ensure students can truly benefit from the educating process. Reworking articles into discussions to prove a point but were written in 1993 will not help break any cycle or deficit thinking. Students know they are in school to learn, parents see education as key and both value a good teacher and good attitude over any designed environment and likely everyone wants 'rules' that work rather than restrict or hold students back.

  10. I think a well designed rubric given ahead of time both communicates expectations and communicates performance. Grading should not be a secret but I'm not sold on the idea of involving the students in the development of rubrics, we have standards that can help with that. Well-designed rubrics communicate expectations and are tools that communicate performance.


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