Saturday, October 6, 2012

Since When Did Assessment Get A Bad Rap: The Ugly Stepsister of Teaching

So I am just coming back from an incredible learning experience. I am part of a specialty course entitled: Creating a Coherent, Braiding Curriculum: Thinking Across Units of Study in Reading, Writing, and Social Studies to Help Students Transfer Skills and Strategies, which Emily Smith is leading at the TCRWP. I hope to blog more about this later. The course is focused on transference, and maximizing the teaching that happens in reading and writing workshop so that students draw on the skills, structures and strategies learned in their reading and writing workshops, in order to, support them as learners in Social Studies and Science.

However, spending time at MY all time favorite learning place, The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, rolling up my sleeves alongside other teachers at the BIG table (the table where Calkins and her colleagues used to have their Thursday Think-Tank meetings) I am hoping to channel some of the energy from yesterday in thinking about how I was going to bring this work back to my school.

This year in addition to teaching fourth grade, I am in my second year as literacy co-coordinator, and helping my school meet the demands of the CCSS. At our last professional circles meeting, I tackled the topic of assessment and in working with the administrative team to create an assessment schedule, we looked across it at the summative assessments, such as the ELA and the formative assessments, such as running records (such as Fountas and Pinnell), conferring notes on-demand writing assessments, and the predictive assessments mandated by the state, such as STAR reading. We stepped back and were like, “Wow! That’s a lot of assessment.” It was a great conversation with a line of creative and productive tension running through it, as we discussed how to make this work for all of us, with the demands placed upon us as teachers, and debated about the purpose behind each assessment or what we should keep.

This led me to think, ponder and blog about the following question, when did assessment get such a bad rap? It seems like assessment is the wicked or ugly stepsister of teaching, but it shouldn't be.

Calkins calls assessment, “The thinking teacher’s mind work” (Don’t get me wrong, I think all of us are thinking as teachers and I know that Calkins would agree because of what she shares next from The Art of Teaching Reading). “Assessment is the stance that allows us to learn from our students and thus to teach them. Assessment is the compass with which we find our bearings and chart our course, and the map on which we do this.” She goes on to share later in that chapter entitled: Bringing Assessment into the Very Real World of Classroom Teaching, that it's, “Clear goals and honest, frequent assessment, including self-assessment, [which] allow students to become managers and authors of their own learning lives.”

We need tools in order to make student progress (and teaching progress) visible, and so here is the argument for learning progressions or continuums of growth. What is so beautiful about the documents the TCRWP has created is that, these tools do not spotlight what kids are not doing and do not use deficit language. If you have attended an institute, are a TC school, or had some experience with their narrative writing continuum, which is available to the public on their website, then you know what the thinking is behind a continuum.

After all, I think this is what has given assessment such a bad rap in the past, is that, assessments have often used to label and stigmatize rather than inspire and provide a vision for next steps. We see this often with the teacher evaluation scores (based on the standardized tests) – Do these scores (a single snapshot), which are shared with the public help teachers or harm them? Do these assessments give a complete picture of a student's/teacher's progress and actual growth? Do these assessments celebrate where teachers and students are and provide them with a ladder for where to go next? In the end, do the assessments honor learning? Unfortunately, the answer, for the most part, is no they don't.

Let’s re-think assessment and go back to intention – We need to ask about the tools we are using for assessment: Is this assessment helping us to teach? Does it honor the learner and help them take up the reins of their own learning life (with a little help from us, which gives them a sense of investment and lead them to action? Does it provide the teacher with useful data and immediate feedback, which helps drive their teaching and supports them in drafting learning plans for the individual students in their class? Since time is such a critical factor, Does it help them teacher look for patterns across their classroom to help plan for small group instruction? Is it as authentic as possible so that it does not seem so foreign to kids, leaving them wondering, “Why am I doing this?” If not, then don’t do it, but if the answer to these questions is, “Yes!” then celebrate assessment, look at it like the valued mentor, colleague or partner of teaching, the respected older brother or sister, steering you in the right direction and showing you what’s possible over the horizon, with a little bit of effort.

Reflecting on the Principal Gala at the Botanical Gardens (2015)

It is important for leaders to retreat to the mountains. This event stands at a cross-section. We need it to determine the road ahead. ...