Monday, September 22, 2014

X-Rays or Autopsies: Assessments Should Strengthen Learning, not Label It

By Libby Bailey 
Navasota ISD Assessment Coordinator

A lot of educational discussion today focuses on assessment as the media reports on results of state, national, and even international tests. These results rank us in relation to other schools, other students, and other cultural situations. The findings almost always depend solely on the scores of one type of test on one particular day and may or may not be indicative of actual student abilities. Nevertheless, that ranking is attached to us for a year and is used by many as a measure of our effectiveness as educators.

Despite the public’s focus on this type of assessment, we educators must remember that the truly important assessments happen repeatedly--assessments for learning, not assessments of learning. These formative assessments should occur almost continuously as we try to measure student understandings and misconceptions during instruction, not after the fact when it may be too late. They are intended to strengthen learning, not to label it. As much as possible, it is better to assess individually rather than whole-group to get an accurate idea of individual needs.

I was often guilty of covering large amounts of new and often high technical information before finally asking the full class, “Are there any questions?” or “Does everyone understand?” Thinking back now, I realize most students said they understood because, the Lord knows, they didn’t want to have to live through my going through the whole thing all over again. Or, if someone did have a question, I would ask what part they didn’t understand, and the answer would invariably be “all of it.” Neither of these situations was good for them or for me.

This scenario can be avoided with frequent effective formative questions to adjust instructional materials and methods and to improve student understanding while the learning is in process rather than at the end. To plan for effective formative assessment, it is necessary to study the requirements of a standard so that we can scaffold questions to measure it. Most standards have KUDs (something students need to know, a concept they need to understand, and something they are to do).  For example a 3rd grade math TEK requires students to explain a fraction. This requires a student to know numerator and denominator, to understand the concept of relationship of parts to a whole and how the change in one impacts the other, and to do an explanation of that relationship. We should purposely mentally prepare questions for each of those steps in the mastery of the standard to be aware of where understanding may be faltering so that we can make the proper adjustments in instruction and materials as early as possible.

The ultimate goal is to make this frequent questioning such a ritual in the learning process that the student learns to constantly question and think about his own understanding and the strategies he is using during the learning. To help him learn to do this, we must model by metacognition (thinking out loud) how we would approach learning new information. “What is clear to me?  I wonder what this sentence means? Would re-reading, drawing the steps, highlighting, asking my partner, etc help me here?”

Formative assessment is the kindest measurement we can give our students. Its focus is on improvement of the student’s learning rather than an evaluation of academic worth that we reflect with scores and grades. It won’t be reported in the media, but it could easily have the greatest impact on the lives of all your students in their educational journeys.

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