I believe that if most of us were honest when asked why we assess we’d respond, “to give points and to assign a grade.” This is the ‘OF’ within the expression assessment OF learning. We must continue to transform our assessment practices toward assessment FOR learning and even to assessment AS learning.
David Ausbel (1968) wrote one of the most common sense of all truths in the epigraph of the seminal Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View over half a century ago:
If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly (p. 4).
We cannot do this common sense work without knowing where students are. We cannot do this common sense work without intentionally and frequently embedding opportunities for students to give us feedback.
When we gather evidence, students are giving us feedback about where they are and what they need to keep going. We can, in turn, give students feedback on what they’re doing well and where there is still room for growth, and we can begin to partner together in the next steps toward continuous improvement.
It’s common sense –assessment provides the opportunity to get and give feedback – feedback is a two-way street.
Giving “feedback” through points and percentages does not only threaten mindsets, it is also inaccurate. Consider a “constructed response” test made up of 10 items each worth 3 points. If a student earns 2 out of 3 on each item, meaning they had the right idea and even the correct process but did not arrive at the one correct answer, they will earn 20 out of 30 points, or 67%, or a ‘D.’ Are these points, percentages, and letter grades representative of what the student knows. More importantly, do these points, percentages, and letter grades provide students the feedback they need to keep learning (assuming that we give them the opportunity to keep learning). Does 2 out of 3 or 20 out of 30 give us the feedback we need from a student to know what is known and not-yet-known? Do these portions of points guide us in how to help the student improve?
We are surprised when a student stops trying or becomes frustrated within a grading period when they earn an early ‘F’ on a test – let’s say a 40%. And yet, if they earn an 80% on the three other tests within the semester, their final grade will be a low C, assuming they earn 100% of every other non-test point. Is that an accurate representation of their understanding? Should we be surprised if the hope of C- doesn’t inspire them to persevere? Do we provide students with feedback on why they earned that first grade and allow them the opportunity (or even require them) to learn what that they didn’t learn and give them the chance (or, again, require them) to show us what they now know?
If the content, skills, and concepts were important enough to teach and assess, shouldn’t they be important enough for us to allow/require multiple opportunities to learn them?
We cannot simply state that we taught it and they didn’t learn it. We lament that students do not have growth mindsets, viewing their learning as fixed and accusing them of neglecting to sufficiently persevere, and yet we do not give them the opportunities to act on the idea of, “I haven’t learned yet, but I may if I continue to put worth effort.” We do not allow them to practice a growth mindset.
We lament that students are not engaged in their learning and yet we do not provide them the feedback they need to know where they currently are and where they need to go. We hand back assignments, quizzes, tests, and projects with points, percentages, and pen marks and expect them to take responsibility for learning and for determining what they need to do.
Two of the three big ideas of PLCs at Work are a Focus on Learning and a Focus on Results. To meet the spirit of these two ideas, we must more frequently gather feedback on where students are. Determining what students know at the end of the unit (summative) assessments is simply too late. A focus on learning means we know how we are doing in helping students learn, and how students are doing learning, on a frequent, at least daily basis. And, our focus on results cannot be left the results on end of unit assessments. Yes, we can gain great insights from these common assessments (we can learn as professionals within a community of colleagues), but we must gather more frequent and accurate feedback from students on what they know and give more feedback to students on where they are.
At the very least, let’s accept that assessment and grading are not the same things. And let’s commit to assessment – to evidence gathering – as a way of getting and giving feedback. That’s the common sense need and opportunity of assessment.