Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What is the purpose of assessment?

I have been thinking a lot about assessment and report cards lately.  I have enjoyed numerous discussions with colleagues, debating the pros and cons of letter grades, but no matter who I talked to, it always came back to assessment.  What role does assessment play in the classroom?  I believe that this is the fundamental part of the equation that has to be answered before anything else.  I really think we miss the boat when explaining to student teachers what the purpose of assessment is.  Many seem to think that it is principally for the mark book and report cards.

I have the good fortune of being able to interview new teachers for the position of teachers on call.  My most anticipated moment is when we come to assessment.  Many of them will talk about assessment of/for/as learning, and I really hope at this point that they can explain it and not just quote it.  The reason that I look for this moment is that I hope that they are way smarter about assessment than I was when I came out of university. Unfortunately many of them seem to know the words but not what they mean and represent.

I believe that assessment serves 3 purposes:
1) Informs the practice of the teacher.  What is your assessment telling you?  What are you hoping to learn from it?  How are you changing/adapting your approach?  When many students do well are you thinking the test was too easy and I need to bell curve, or Great! they understand the material?  When students do poorly are you thinking about how you need to re-teach the material or are you thinking that this is a weak class?

2) Informs the students of areas of strength, growth and areas that need attention.  When assignments/work/projects are returned to the students, what is it that they do?  Are they pulling out the calculator and counting the points?  Are they critically looking at the assignment, reflecting on what they did?  Are they looking at the criteria and if they disagree with the assessment, are they coming to talk to you with well thought out questions/arguments? Have you spent time teaching the students how to critically observe and think about the assessment?  Do they understand it sufficiently in order to be able to self or peer assess?  Does it tell them that you value their work work, effort and time?

3) Informs the parents of how their child is doing.  When assignments are sent home, are the parents counting the points, figuring out the percentages and telling their child how many more they needed to get right for an "A"?  Is it just the reporting of a result that the parents are signing so that you know that they know how their child is doing?  Are they going over the assignment with their child looking at what the child did well, what are the areas that need attention and where the child has improved compared to previous assignments or areas that need repeated attention?  How much time have you spent explaining the parents what your assessment looks like, how to understand it, what it means and how to use it to help their child?

One of the student teachers we were interviewing had a copy of the Dr Seuss book Oh! The Places You’ll Go! and it made me think about the purpose of assessment.  Is it about where they are going to go and how to get there on their educational journey and putting support networks for their learning in place? Or is it about "Here is your mark, this is where you rank"?

Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
by the incomparable Dr. Seuss

Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
You’ll look up and down streets. Look’em over with care. About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.” With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down a not-so-good street.
And you may not find any you’ll want to go down. In that case, of course, you’ll head straight out of town. It’s opener there in the wide open air.
Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you.
And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening too.
Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights.
You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.
I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.
You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You’ll be left in a Lurch.
You’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that you’ll be in a Slump.
And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.
You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?
And if you go in, should you turn left or right…or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite? Or go around back and sneak in from behind? Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.
You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting.
Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.
No! That’s not for you!
Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying. You’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing. With banner flip-flapping, once more you’ll ride high! Ready for anything under the sky. Ready because you’re that kind of a guy!
Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won. And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all. Fame! You’ll be famous as famous can be, with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.
Except when they don’t. Because, sometimes, they won’t.
I’m afraid that some times you’ll play lonely games too. Games you can’t win ‘cause you’ll play against you.
All Alone!
Whether you like it or not, Alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot.
And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants. There are some, down the road between hither and yon, that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.
But on you will go though the weather be foul. On you will go though your enemies prowl. On you will go though the Hakken-Kraks howl. Onward up many a frightening creek, though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak. On and on you will hike. And I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are.
You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.
And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)
Kid, you’ll move mountains!
So…be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray or Mordecai Ale Van Allen O’Shea, you’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!

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