Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Power of Assessments

   Cute Little Girl  I am really focused on assessments as I think about this upcoming school year. The idea of assessments and how we use them has been one of interest for me for quite some time. What are assessments? For whom do they serve? How should we use them? The answer at first blush seems so obvious. With much thought, however, it truly isn´t. It´s much more complicated then it outwardly appears, and I argue that it is complicated because assessments have widely been misused. I don´t think the misuse of assessments is anyone´s fault. I think as teachers and schools we haven´t used them for their real purpose.
     Imagine this (a scenario you might have experienced yourself, or a scenario your own child might have gone through): little Jose takes a test. He´s very nervous during this test because he´s had mutliple tests recently that he´s failed. His grade has been going down consequently. His parents have been upset with him for a while now. Jose fails this test. Again he senses that feeling of being a failure. He can´t seem to understand anything. The teacher asks him, ¨What´s wrong? What happened?¨ Jose now asks himself the same thing. The next day Jose goes into class and class continues as normal. The failed test is now another test in his past. He is on a downward spiral and isn´t sure he will even pass this year.
     Is the above scenario a typical scenario of what happens when a student fails a test? Unfortunately it is. Have you detected what´s wrong in that scenario? The teacher missed an opportunity to help Jose reach the learning goal. Assessments are not just a measurement of the depth of student learning, assessments should be guiding our next steps in the classroom. Is student failure our goal? Of course not. Is passing a test our end goal? I sure hope not. The purpose of education is the growth of knowledge, skills and abilities. The purpose of education is not to pass a test. I repeat: the purpose of education is not to pass a test. We should never say, ¨Study so you can pass your test.¨ We test to measure the learning that occured. Assessment, then, serves as a means to measure student learning and guide where our teaching should go. If my student fails, then I know my student did not reach the learning goal. A failed test, my friends, is a call for additional action.
     Here´s a better scenario with little Jose: It´s the day of the test. Jose is not too nervous because he knows his teacher will do everything in his power to ensure that Jose understands the material and meets the learning goal. Even though he isn´t very nervous, he ends up not doing too well on the test. He´s actually not surprised. He had a tough time with the concepts covered on the test. The next day Jose comes into class. Jose´s teacher, Mr. Smith, approaches him with a smile. Mr. Smith assures Jose that they will continue to work on the material that Jose did not understand. You see, Mr. Smith reviewed the tests and made a pile of the tests for the students who did not pass the test. Failure is not an option in his class. His students are there to learn. His responsibility is to help find a way that they will best learn. He came up with different lessons and activities just for those students to give them more time and a different means to understand the material. After he´s worked with them during the week he will give them a different assessment to measure the depth of their learning.
     Assessments are powerful. They guide us. They inform us. They are not, however, why we teach. We should not be teaching so students can take a test at the end. We should instead be teaching so students meet the learning goals. If a student doesn´t do well on a test, we shouldn´t stop there. Failure should not be an option. Instead, we should plan further action. What will we do next? What steps will we do to ensure our students succeed? You see, that is the power of assessments.

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