(Sharon Day — bigstockphoto_

Kathryn Mitchell Pierce is a literacy teacher at Wydown Middle School in the Clayton School District in Missouri, where she has been working since 2003. She has taught in elementary school as well as at the university level, and has written extensively on the role of talk in literature study, as well as about children’s books and professional resources for literacy teachers.  In the following post, she writes about how teachers would like to assess their students, referencing a project by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)  in which teachers are reporting on how good assessment works.

By Kathryn Mitchell Pierce

I was once advised that if you want to know how well a canary sings, it’s best to start by listening to canaries.  If we want sage advice on how to improve teaching and learning — which requires strong curriculum, well-prepared teachers, and adequate resources to support learning — then we would be wise to turn to our nation’s teachers for suggestions. The NCTE English Assessment Story Project has endeavored to do just that — to gather stories and suggestions from teachers across the country. With nearly 350 responses so far, educators from kindergarten to college are weighing in with ideas about how good assessment works.

Teachers are the most important agents of assessment. What they’re telling us is that they need time and support to use assessments that actually inform instruction.

Consider this full dashboard of tools and techniques that Tiffany, a high school teacher, describes using for every unit she teaches:

  • Pre and post assessments at the beginning and end of each unit
  • A combination of review skills and mini-lessons to reintroduce topics.
  • Guided practice and then a practice assessment
  • Follow up practice for reinforcement at home.
  • Short assessments: quizzes, exit tickets, bell ringers, short tests, etc
  • An overall unit test, which could be in the form of project where students must transfer a learned skill into an authentic task.
  • “Root cause” analysis with colleagues to figure out how to reteach trouble areas.

Literacy and learning are complex, multi-faceted processes.  Teachers like Tiffany use varied assessments in order to preserve this complexity. They integrate this information with their ongoing observations and interactions.

The NCTE/IRA Standards for the Assessment of Reading and Writing reiterate this central role for the classroom teacher:

“Most educational assessment takes place in the classroom, as teachers and students interact with one another. Teachers design, assign, observe, collaborate in, and interpret the work of students in their classrooms. They assign meaning to interactions and evaluate the information that they receive and create in these settings. In short, teachers are the primary agents, not passive consumers, of assessment information. It is their ongoing, formative assessments that primarily influence students’ learning.”

What teachers want and need in order to carry out this crucial role isn’t fancier tests – it’s time to work collaboratively with assessment data and professional development to help them understand how to make sense of the various data sources already available. One elementary teacher shared:

Honestly I think the data that is needed is already out there in a variety of well-designed assessments.  What is needed most in order to improve our teaching is some inservice on data interpretation.  We spend so much time on collecting data but then interpret it very differently and respond differently.  ….  Let’s look at our data, find out who is consistently showing improvement in student achievement and then attempt to replicate what they do.  We don’t need more assessments, we need to use what we already have more effectively.

If time is money, then making time available to effectively use the data that already exists seems like money well-spent.

Additionally, when teachers work together to make sense of samples of student work, and to create common ways of analyzing these samples, they engage in powerful conversations about learning and what counts as evidence of learning. The end-result of these conversations is a deeper understanding of growth patterns in literacy, a broader repertoire of strategies for supporting students, and a fuller appreciation for the intricacies of assessment.  An elementary teacher explains, “Assessment should be a tool for teaching, putting the focus back on helping our students succeed.” In an atmosphere that seems to frame assessment as a bad word, I find hope in vignettes like this one from high school teacher, Juliette:

We start with the end in mind. Interest inventories, diagnostics, and multiple intelligences questionnaires are used to ascertain where the students are, especially since we have a large population of students coming from the International Center. We find that many of our students are below grade level reading, limited English and lack of exposure play a role…

We want to address the whole student, not just their test performance. Our district meets with administrators and teacher leaders, to discuss data, and collaborate on implementation of alternative assessments, [we] invite all to provide input and contributions to the assessment process.

Such things are possible. The best assessment processes are those that truly inform instruction AND contribute to teachers’ professional knowledge base. Listening to teachers is the best place to begin if we’re truly serious about improving teaching and learning.

Listening to teachers is the best place to begin if we’re truly serious about improving assessment practices.