Today Tammy and Clare are stopping by Reflect and Refine to answer a few questions about assessment. Take time to enjoy our conversation, and then click over to take a look at their new work (leave a comment here - and at any of the other tour stops - to have a chance to win a copy of Assessment in Perspective). You can preview Clare and Tammy's book at the Stenhouse website. You'll want to add it to your summer reading pile.
Cathy: I noticed throughout the book you both talked more about the questions you formulated with assessment data than the answers you found in assessment data. Can you talk a little more about this?
Clare and Tammy: When we ask a question we are propelled to act. We want assessment to be about how we use the information to target our instruction by continually analyzing, questioning, and assessing as we instruct. No “answer” in education is the final answer; any answer should always propel us to ask the next question about how to help our learners take the next step. We don’t think the cycle ever ends and it is the questions that keep us in the cycle. When we have an inquiry stance around data then we begin to notice more as teachers. We question, notice, and assess throughout our instruction. It is our questions and observations that allow us to use the information we have about our students to triangulate and piece it together to understand what our readers need instructionally.
Cathy: You talk a lot in your book about the importance of combining formal data collected with observations of students in our classrooms. What is essential in collecting strong observational data to consider in discovering the stories of our readers?
Clare and Tammy: First, it is essential to view assessment as a part of instruction. We need to take the time to notice and observe our students in the process of learning. Assessment should not be about proving that students know everything. Assessment needs to be the vehicle to help us find opportunities to instruct our readers in what they need to learn next. When our students are constructing new knowledge there should be some confusions. These confusions are not failures but stepping-stones to their next level of understanding. This can only happen if we notice what students are doing and use that information.
Once we begin observing and noticing we need systems to collect this data. These systems need to be easy, useful and embedded in our instruction. These observations need to happen in the moments of our teaching. We spent many years creating beautiful conferring binders and never used them. We wrote notes, but never used the notes to find patterns to help us inform instruction. We have learned over the years that we need to make our notes useful to us through the use of displays and note taking strategies. We can’t fall into the trap of only collecting formative data – we must use it if we are going to discover the stories of our readers.
Lastly, we find that having a focus for our observations – an instructional goal or a student goal – helps us collect stronger observational data. When we observe with a purpose in mind we tend to take notes in a more meaningful way and use the notes more effectively.
Cathy: One of my favorite parts of chapter 4, "Triangulating Assessments," was your discussion about visual displays that help us to understand the information we've collected. In chapter 6, "The Student's Role in Assessment," you come back to this conversation. What are some ways you've seen students create and use displays to help them to understand their learning?
Clare and Tammy: We have seen as many ways as we have students. Using displays to monitor progress works best when students are in control of creating the displays. While we may not always agree at first with the goals they set or how they design the displays, this is not as important as getting them engaged in the process. Once they are setting goals and monitoring goals it is easy to shift the goals towards the expectations we want to see for each reader. We often model a few displays so our students have an idea of what we are looking for them to create. We use book logs as one common type of display. So many students are “collecting” data in their logs but not using the data or collecting the data in a way that helps them achieve a goal. We talk with our students about setting goals for themselves as readers and then creating a log that will help them track their goals. This is often our first step. Once they see this then we meet with each student during our conferences and help him or her set additional goals. Here are some common student displays we have seen work well:
- Tracking the use of a strategy they are trying to use more effectively through a strategy inventory
- Using a display to track when they tended to write in their notebooks and how it helped them as a reader
- Tracking the number of minutes engaged in reading
- Tracking how many minutes a book group engages in meaningful conversation
- Noticing how often they self correct
- Noticing when they are metacognitively thinking while they are reading
- Being prepared for weekly assignments in their notebooks
- Being prepared for weekly assignments for their book club
Cathy: In classrooms today it seems we spend more and more time assessing. What is important to consider in time assessing vs. time instructing?
Clare and Tammy: We first need to consider the type of assessment. Formal assessments often take away time from instruction so we try to limit how often we administer them. We limit them by really thinking about how often we need this type of data on our students. We only want to assess the students for whom we need to gather additional formal data. Fair is not equal when it comes to assessment. Our at-risk readers need more diagnostic assessments that help us pinpoint what they need and monitor their progress. Other readers do not need the myriad of assessments we are giving. In the ideal world we should use assessments that provide us insight into how our readers authentically use strategies to decode and comprehend texts. When this happens then it is time well spent since we need the information we are gathering. If we are talking about informal assessments then we think assessment and instruction are inseparable and we should not be losing any time. When we assess as we teach we gather data so we can adjust our teaching in the moment as well as plan to adjust future lessons.
If we have to give more formal assessments than we would ideally like due to district or state requirements, then we make the most of what we are required to work with. We are sure to explain why we are giving the formal assessment to our students and remain clear with ourselves about what type of information we are going to look for in each round of assessments.
Cathy: Often what we assess becomes what we teach. How do we advocate for assessments that match what we value in educating children?
Clare and Tammy: When we authentically assess every day we think it is the opposite – what we teach is what we assess which informs what we need to teach next. We recognize that districts are mandating the use of some common assessments, but that does take away from how we assess every day. We have the power to assess as part of our instruction and to notice how our students are learning. When we use these assessments and show how they help us target our instruction we are advocating for assessments that match what we value. If we lose sight of what we do have the power to impact in assessment because we are frustrated with what we do not have the power to control in assessment we end up giving up the best tools we have to inform our instruction – on-going, informal, formative assessment.
In terms of advocating for common assessments that are more useful to us we suggest working as a school to determine why each assessment is being used. We find it helpful to determine the purpose of each assessment and the area of reading it targets. We also suggest looking at the common assessment plan to make sure there is a range of types of assessments: diagnostic, formative, and summative; quantitative and qualitative; and formal and informal. When we find areas for which we have too many assessments – we weed the garden! If we find areas for which we do not have any assessments – we add one. Knowing why we are giving an assessment helps us know how we can use it and how we cannot use it. Screeners are a great example of the importance of understanding the purpose of an assessment. Screeners are not meant to inform our instruction, they are just meant to raise a flag of concern. If there are students who are flagged then we know that we need to gather more data to truly understand or diagnose the needs of the student. A one minute assessment cannot help us inform instruction it just tells us to look more closely at why a reader may have not met benchmark.