Serve Students Better Assessments

Erin Lark

An excellent assessment is like a fine meal.  Preferences, preparation, presentation, delivery and timing have all been considered beforehand.  There is anticipation by the educator and students alike, and whether or not the assessment is a culmination or a catalyst, both parties know that outcomes will have lasting effects.

In what has become an annual practice, each June I pick through the units I taught over the year and spend particular time analyzing my means for measuring instructional results.  Assessments, these measurements, deserve specific scrutiny because at the end of the day, my ability to accurately gage and report learning absolutely hinges on my ability to effectively collect evidence of student growth.

While learning standards have changed significantly over my career, in critical and exceptional ways, I argue that too few of the collective assessment practices have changed as well.  Evolution of any iteration of testing must match the movement and change of learning targets and the pedagogy and strategies they frame. A cursory scan of the internet finds teachers sharing all manner of exciting lessons in which students become deeply entrenched in the role of learner only to finish up with one of the following:

-Multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, etc.

-Rubrics that don’t change in format and/or content

-Slide-based presentation, with or without a stand-and-deliver talk

-Black text questions on a white background

-the aforementioned with only a shade of adaptation 

Did the teacher collect some information about student learning? Possibly.  Were most students able to demonstrate mastery off their new abilities and knowledge? Were all learning abilities and differentiation needs enabled?  Did the instructor allow, support, and amplify cultural backgrounds in connecting concepts? My guess is no. Lastly, if you build a better assessment, are you likely to build better learning experiences?  I don’t see how one couldn’t.  

Assessments, like a quality meal are hard to make on our best days with all our resources.  I’ve yet to find an educator who can work metaphorical culinary magic at every sit down, but I do know we all work tirelessly to increase our competencies.  The more assessments we improve, the more learning experiences we strengthen. The development of this growth mindset in improving assessments, rather than just recycling them from unit to unit and year to year, will serve us all as we continuously cultivate our practices.  

Sample as You Cook

Great chefs will tell you that it’s important to taste as you cook.  If you aren’t checking in on your meal, you’ve only yourself to blame if your guests fail to dig in when served.  I am of course referring to the need for formative assessments.  

Formative assessments allow you to monitor learning as it is happening, 

  • checking in as to whether your instructional intent is taking hold, 

  • where challenges are happening, 

  • where extensions need to be made, 

  • check in on overall progress, 

  • document the status quo, and 

  • make plans for next steps.  

While it’s likely many of us have employed the standard exit ticket, here are a few other examples that may help you add a little flavor to your lessons:

-act out a 30-second silent movie about today’s lesson

-draw a map of all the places essential to the setting

-rewrite the learning target into a haiku,

-create a receipt for your learning target, including restaurant name, order, and value

-ask a Twitter chat-style question and track the discourse that follows

Picture by Author

Serve Dessert First

While it feels out of order, culturally frowned upon, or just a means to get to the good stuff more quickly, most of us have likely gone straight for the slice of cheesecake on occasion, knowing our needs and reveling in attainment.  Beginning your meal with the end in mind makes me think of assessment as learning, a practice of using your measurement to enable students to set goals, choose learning activities, and generally frame their work.

While it can seem a bit counter-intuitive, I’d urge any educator to try this strategy, suggesting it is one of the most customizable methods available for personalizing learning experiences.  When you limit students to the same assessment as their peers, you miss out on the nuances of their learning and therefore the ability to truly activate their individual abilities. Beginning a unit by introducing the measurement tool as the purpose uniquely positions students to monitor their own learning, ask questions specific to their needs, use strategies they know while seeking to collect others, and move forward in a way nothing short of specific to the learner.  

Here are a few examples of using the assessment to drive the learning:

-Design an amusement park ride with given criteria 

-Redesign a garment for a person with a disability

-Answer a request for proposals as to a new county elections process

-Plan a school garden

-Build a budget for starting a small business

Host Dinner Parties

While dining by oneself has its pleasantries, people most often enjoy each other’s company when they sit down for a meal.  Given this, it’s baffling that while learning is generally expected to take place in a group setting, with countless studies lauding the benefits, assessment still occurs in a solitary vacuum.  While I acknowledge that measurements of individual progress require the ability to isolate individual abilities, many of those abilities are made possible only through interpersonal interactions.  I think we often falter when we try to perform that isolation after the fact, asking students to evaluate their, or their teammates’ contributions.

I’ve come to highly value opportunities to measure students’ work in their collaborative experiences, and here are a few methods that make this possible:

-giving individuals specific project management duties

-project reflections in which students narrate their experiences from the individual perspective

-daily logs in which students submit pictures of their work

-observing group work time to collect evidence of talk and task

-engaging outside experts to provide feedback

Picture by Author

The Role of a Chain

I can hear the folks in my metropolitan area, bemoaning the existence of chain restaurants as a denigration of culinary talent and mass production of taste.  It can be easy to dismiss predictability in pursuit of a new artistry, but there is value to be gained from consistency and it does not have to come with a loss of quality.  I can visit a chain restaurant in Washington and rely on getting the same meal I had in Arizona, a feat made possible only through extensive, dedicated analysis of a large organization focused on unifying experience.  

To me, chain restaurants are like the standardized assessments of the education industry.  No, you cannot walk into a Chipotle and order escargot, nor can you expect a standardized test to measure a student’s ability to write elegies in December.  Just as you wouldn’t sidle up to the tortilla line and request snails, it wouldn’t be fitting to expect a similar experience from this style of assessment. The type and purpose of an assessment is essential to maximizing its application and mining the data.

State standardized assessments are powerful tools designed to provide snapshots of student abilities in wide, geographical regions.  They can do an excellent job of measuring trends, common experiences, and avenues for improvement to the system. In many places, they have also been the means to identifying opportunity gaps when other, smaller means failed to bring attention to severe holes in achievement of vulnerable learners and underrepresented children.  Further, they can be starting points for important conversations about efficacy and resources, garnering the attention of policymakers who are not privy to the small details of individual classrooms. While you may not be willing, and rightly so, to visit all chains, consider supporting those that focus on quality and customers, and you’ll likely leave a satisfied customer.     

Not All Surf and Turf

One of my mentors, the now retired David Piercy, used to say that “not every lesson can be a gourmet meal.”  This wise note reminded us, whenever in the thick of a PLC conversation about rigor, equity, and science, that some meals we eat for simple sustenance.  More than a statement of teacher exhaustion in the industry standard of burning candles from every end available, he reminded us that learning, too, comes in nibbles, bites, and gobbling for students.  Eating your favorite meal three times a day, 365 days a year may initially sound like a grand proposition, but even the most avid eater might find his mind and body quickly negatively affected by the experience.

I write about assessment to challenge our current implementation, not to insist on an improbable expectation.  Whether an elaborate, multi-course extravaganza or a simple amuse bouche, your purpose of collecting useful information about a student remains the same.  Some units will naturally lend themselves to rich, interdisciplinary projects, others are best met with a more standard format that you bolster through increasing student voice and choice.  You get to balance the meal plans in a way that only you, the expert, can know is right for your students.  

Picture by Author

Pass the Ladle

This time of year when stores are chock full of dorm paraphernalia, I am reminded that many of our young people are graduating into adulthood and all of its responsibilities.  Whether a rice cooker, cutlery, or a pass to the dining hall, our students move into a phase in which they will need new tools to fend for their own survival. Wherever their career path may lead, our job as educators is to prepare them to take the reins, and like apprentices in a kitchen, I think this work should start sooner rather than later.

One of my favorite points in the school year is when I turn over grading to students.  What initially may sound like a free-for-all, is actually a calculated move build ownership over learning in a way that can’t be matched by a teacher who holds all the cards.  To get to this point, there is a lot of footwork, including working through units in which I clearly articulate assessment methods, tools, and frameworks, not to mention dissecting the standards used to guide our learning.  We then work through the next unit together, analyzing our learning targets, outlining evidence, and creating collection devices for students to show their accomplishments. As we learn, students are using their plans to assemble a defense of their personal assessment and can articulate achievement to any audience.

This is no small task, it takes work and trust.  The set up and execution is one piece and the buy-in of students (and their parents, your administrators, colleagues, etc.) is another step.  Here are some other sources for inspiration and encouragement, should you want to implement this practice in your classroom:

How, and Why, You Should Have Students Assess Themselves

The Importance of Student Self Assessment

Student Self-Assessment

Student Self-Assessment: The Key to Stronger Student Motivation and Higher Achievement

Assess it Yourself

Whatever you are serving in the restaurant of classroom, know that designing a menu and delivering high quality meals is no small enterprise and something the best chefs work at for a lifetime.  How are you honing your abilities to shape and employ assessment tools and strategies for your students?

  • Assessments
  • elementary
  • high school
  • middle school
  • Smarter Balanced Assessments
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The opinions expressed by the CORElaborate Bloggers, guest bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), Ready Washington or any employee thereof. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Washington State Teacher Leader or Guest Bloggers.

Erin Lark Board

Secondary Science Teacher at Vancouver Public Schools

Erin is an NBCT teaching secondary science in Vancouver, WA. Currently at iTech Preparatory, her work centers on interdisciplinary PBL and mindfulness.Her dissertation focused on youth innovation skills and interests in STEM content and careers, and she continues to advocate for young innovators on the daily as a co-founder of WayfinderWA.