4 Habits of Highly Effective Assessors

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photo credit: gbaku via photopin cc
photo credit: gbaku via photopin cc

In my last post, I shared 3 myths that get in the way of using assessment better. Today, I will share 4 assessment habits that will move you into meaningful assessment that supports and guides learning instead of getting in the way.

Before we talk about the habits, remember the first myth, and the mindset we should adopt in order to avoid it. Assessment is not about assigning value to a student (usually in the form of a score or a grade). Assessment should be about gathering evidence of learning so that we know what and how a student has learned what we want them to learn. Once we let go of the idea that we assess to accumulate scores, we’re ready to adopt these new habits.

1. Always Be Assessing…

The second myth I addressed in my previous post was that assessment is an event. Since we have rethought the purpose of assessment, everything that takes place in the classroom can be considered a type of assessment. Not for grading purposes (especially if you are becoming a No-Grades Classroom, which I endorse highly), but as a spot check of whether learning is happening.

Think of yourself as an instructional archaeologist. You’re trying to reconstruct the changes that are taking place in your students’ brains. Your only way to do that is through the external artifacts they generate: work products, behaviors, communication, and so on.

If you are on alert at all times, looking for things that will tell you they are learning–or warning signs that they are not–then you are developing the habits of an effective assessor.

2. …But Only Assess What You Need

When you start to consider everything as a potential source of evidence, and therefore as a potential assessment, you risk data overload. So think carefully about what information you actually need in order to know that learning has taken place. Although your pool of options is large, you only need to collect, keep, and analyze some of it.

Archaeologists sift through everything they find at a dig site, but only certain pieces are collected and analyzed. And different pieces are used for different purposes.

A corollary of this habit is that you may need to collect different evidence for different students. Some students will need to show you they know some factual material through a test. Other students may have already demonstrated that with other artifacts collected from other activities. If you already know they’ve learned it, why make them prove it again? Food for thought.

3. Assess Growth, Not Gaps

The third myth was that assessment is bad for kids. Unfortunately, we can make this myth come true if we focus on deficits. Most graded assessments in traditional classrooms point out only the flaws. We go through a test and mark all the wrong answers, then write how many points were taken off to arrive at the final score. Think about how often students come up and ask for bonus points. “I almost got an A. I was just a couple points off. What can I do to bring my grade up?” It’s because we’ve focused on what they did wrong and they’re trying to prove to you they can do something right.

What if we were to emphasize the growth instead? Start by documenting what students already know. Then, during instruction, only collect things that indicate new learning has taken place. At the end of a unit or course, the collected evidence is a record of growth. “Look how much you learned this year that you didn’t know before?” If a grade is absolutely necessary, base it on this growth.

4. Assess Forward

The last habit can also help us make sure we don’t validate the third myth. I call it “assessing forward.” Most traditional assessment only looks backwards at what was done. Assessment is done at the end of a unit or course, and it’s final. Often we don’t even plan what the assessment will be until it’s time to do it.

Good assessment habits look forward. Create an assessment plan before you begin planning the instruction or learning activities. Answer these questions:

  1. How will I know students have learned what I want them to know?
  2. What evidence will help us prove that?
  3. How can I give students opportunities to show other learning that wasn’t planned?

The other dimension of assessing forward is that every assessment informs the teaching and learning that happens afterwards. Use all the assessment evidence to decide whether your pace and direction are appropriate, and even whether your learning goals are reasonable. Adjust frequently, and repeat.

All of these habits will make you a more effective assessor, and as a result a more effective teacher.

What other assessment habits do you use, and how do they make you a better teacher? Share them in the comments below.

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Gerald Aungst

Supervisor of Gifted and Elementary Math at School District of Cheltenham Township
Gerald Aungst has more than 20 years experience as a professional educator, specializing in digital technology, mathematics, and gifted education. In his various roles as a classroom teacher, gifted support specialist, administrator, curriculum designer, and professional developer, he has worked to create a rich and vibrant learning culture. He is also passionate about improving learning opportunities for all students. Gerald is a founder of AllAboutExplorers.com and ConnectedTeachers.org.

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