As a teacher, I have found that it is not long hours, the planning, or the classroom management that poses the greatest challenge, though all of those things are by no means simple or easy. Rather, it is the assessment of my students’ learning that I struggle with the most.
For me, administering a test is a stressful event. Did I teach my students enough? Did they learn enough? Did I write the assessment well, or will their scores be harmed by a mistake of my own? And grading the assessment is even harder. As I mark each paper, I am not only struggling to objectively analyze the level of skill demonstrated by the test-taker (what is “objective” anyway?), but also constantly asking myself if assessment is hurting or helping their grades, which are (unfortunately) the universally understood quantifier of success in my classroom. And so a grade becomes not only a measure of learning, but a measure of my students’ worth and my own.
However, as I have developed my teaching practice, my understanding of assessment has evolved for the better. In the last few years, I have begun to see formative assessment and feedback as one of the most powerful tools that I have to make my lessons effective for every student. I use formative pieces to identify concepts students need to practice more, to push students further, and to diagnose and reset faulty patterns of thinking. James Paul Gee (2010) uses video games as a good example of how to use formative assessment successfully. He states that in well-designed video games, you are given information just as you need it, and in the very next room, you are tested on how well you learned it. In a classroom, that translates to giving students daily given opportunities to test their skills, and providing quick or even immediate feedback that helps them to solve problems and build skill as they go.
I have also learned to soften the idea of any assessment being truly “summative”. As Gee describes, in a video game, if you didn’t learn a skill well enough, then you go back and try again. Retakes of tests and quizzes in my school began as a suggestion several years ago, and then a mandate. Over time, I have found retakes another useful tool that, used within thoughtfully established limits, can boost individual student learning even when the class is moving on. Rather than shrug and give up and likely struggle for the remainder of the unit or course, students have an extra opportunity to sit down and try again until they get it right.
Finally, I have learned to critique our current grading structure that counts errors and ignores the whole product. Grant Wiggins (2012) states, “The more we focus on impact – did you achieve the goal of such a performance? – instead of such abstract things as “focus” and “organization” or such indicators such as “eye contact” in speaking (which should not be criteria that are mandatory but indicators of the more general and appropriate criterion of “engaging the audience”), the more students can practice, get feedback, and self-assess and self-adjust on their own.” In my department, we are developing rubrics that embrace the complexity of language and grade on more holistic criteria of fluency, comprehensibility, and originality, among others. Rather than count grammar mistakes (and indirectly rewarding students who stay safe but make fewer mistakes than those who push themselves and so make more mistakes), we are rewarding students who are truly mastering (and having fun with!) effective communication, not practicing mere error evasion.
I believe now that assessments are not judgements, but trail markers. They are not a measure of worth, but guides that let me and my students know if we are on the right path. While it may be many years yet before our A through F grading system and numeric percentages catch up with rubrics that encourage experimentation and creativity, I can see from my students’ enthusiasm, evidence of greater learning demonstrated in both formative and summative assessments, and daily renewed efforts in class that we are on the right path.
Isslehardt, E. (2013, February 11). Creating Schoolwide PBL Aligned to Common Core [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/PBL-aligned-to-common-core-eric-isslehardt
Gee, James Paul (2010, July 20). James Paul Gee on Grading with Games. [Video interview]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/JU3pwCD-ey0https://youtu.be/JU3pwCD-ey0
Wiggins, G. (2012, February 3). On assessing for creativity: yes you can, and yes you should. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2012/02/03/on-assessing-for-creativity-yes-you-can-and-yes-you-should/