The Elephant in the Room

As I have been preparing to start teaching in OMG just a few days, assessment has been on my mind; I want/need some sort of formative assessment to get a feel for what understanding exists within this new (to me) community of learners.  What sort of sense-making has taken place, what models do they use, what is their common language?  I know the scores on a textbook test being left for me are going to tell me diddly.  I have developed strong beliefs about what school should look like (and why)— students actively making sense of ideas, learning from and with each other, valuing, making visible, and actively promoting their thinking— and have focused much of my formal and informal professional learning on how to create such a culture.  Yet when it comes to assessment that actually supports my pedagogical ideals, I feel a tad undereducated.  And I need answers STAT.

It does not make sense to invest time in building a safe and equitable thinking and learning culture, to empower students to deeply understand and connect mathematical ideas, to develop and apply calculation skills meaningfully…in short, to make thinking and learning the currency of school, and then not let them spend it at assessment time!  Whenever we evaluate student work with points, grades, or even levels of proficiency (yes, I said that), we send a completely different message about what and who is valued and the purpose of school:  grades and “right” answers and the students who know how to get them.  This is NOT what I want!

What does make sense to me is assessment that is rather indistinguishable from the regular activities of learning, something that involves students in a meaningful and reflective manner.  Something that they actually value because it is FOR them, is designed to both reveal and represent their current understanding to them, not just me.  This IS what I want!

Crazy?  I don’t think so, I just need help in making it a reality.  I feel like there is a ginormous gap in education conversations around assessment (and it onerous sibling, grading).  Not sure of the reason for this deficit.  Overlooked? Avoided? Too mandated? Ignored? It concerns me that much of what little I’ve read assumes/accepts testing and grading as natural and necessary parts of the Game of School.  Sure, there’s some clarity around terminology— formative vs summative, assessment vs testing— as well as some examples of “how” (such as proficiency rubrics, or not using zeros) but not so much when it come to the really, really important question:


Figuring out Why requires us to deeply examine and unflinchingly question still-prevailing status quo practices and compare them to our beliefs and values.  My gut tells me that assessment and grading are not in line or caught up with current practices that are shared in progressive face-to-face and on-line education communities, and therefore, send a conflicting message that undermines change.

Of course, I may just be completely ignorant and you will now kindly steer me to some excellent resources.  Until then, I’m going to do what I always do:  Make Shit Up figure out/find out what assessment that supports, promotes, and honors a thinking and learning community looks like, try it out on some real, live students, and learn.


4 thoughts on “The Elephant in the Room

  1. I wonder if could be used in a way that would allow you to formatively assess a students learning with out creating a counter cultural message in your classroom? Students use iPads to create a short video response of their learning and you are able to view their responses and share them with the whole class. This could be come a great conversation starter. Every voice is important and this tool may be able to get the less talkative students to share their ideas.


  2. What struck me while reading your post is that you have done the reverse of many of the educators we have worked with, in that most determine that they want to change their assessment practices to benefit their students, and then realize that they need to change the culture of their classroom, and the way they think about what assessment is for. You’ve done the opposite. It sounds like you have already transformed your thinking, and are now looking to change how you assess to align with your stance. If you keep your assessment descriptive and anecdotal, you will be able to support your learners to make their thinking visible to you, to each other, and to themselves. All of this, though, hinges on you and your learners knowing and understanding the criteria of what successful learning looks like. What are you looking for? You said not just the right answer, but a deep understanding of the concepts. What does that look like? Can you articulate it, and can your students?


    1. It was serendipity to come across your blog just as I am full of questions about assessment. You have asked me some great questions, which I appreciate along with your feedback. I will write more as I figure things out!


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