Assessment All the Time? Why Not?

“Assessment All the Time? Why Not?” by Bill Zima first appeared on
zoomersWhen talking with people who are not educators, I often think of Fannee Doollee, a character from the Zoom television series, which ran on PBS in the late seventies, who has a fascination with double letters. Fannee Doollee loves one thing but hates something very similar. For example, she loves swEEts but hates candy (notice the double EE in sweets). Similarly, in my conversation with parents and community leaders, I am always amazed at how they can advocate for one thing while mocking a possible solution.
For example, last week I found myself at a round table with eight influential community members. Then it happened. One of the leaders begins talking about her granddaughter in Virginia and how the school gives students a chance to “do over” an assignment until they get it right. She looked at me and pleaded, “Bill, tell me your school does not do that.” All heads nodded in support, and then slowly turned toward me. Enter the image of Fannee Doollee; “They love having students prePPed, but hate giving them time to learn.”
I drew a deep breathe, giving myself time to think. Do I simply agree and let the conversation move to the next topic, or do I attempt to explain our school’s approach to learning? The size of my lungs were clearly not sufficient for the time needed to ponder such a question, so I dove in.
“I do disagree with giving students the same assignment to do over until they receive a passing score,” I said, hoping that my initial agreement would keep them listening. “What I think, though, is that we need to hold students accountable to meeting specific learning targets. If they need more time for another chance at hitting the learning target, then they should receive it. If we truly want them to develop important skills, we need to continue instruction until they can demonstrate they have learned. It should not be the same assessment, and it should not happen before there is more instruction on the topic to help to remediate their thinking.”
I could tell the table was in agreement, so I decided to add one more point. “A statement I have always hated, and one I used as a teacher is: ‘They struggled on this unit, but we have a test coming up next week on material they are more comfortable with, so that should pull their grade up.’ We move on knowing there are holes. When do those holes get plugged? Maybe they never do. And don’t even get me started on the messages we send to students. Something like ‘The quality of our work and whether we have done it correctly does not matter. Time does.’”
The table agreed and began talking about how much they missed in school because the teacher needed to move on. I once again realized they do not disagree with competency-based education; rather, they think of assessment only as what they experienced: The Test. Once given a new perspective on what assessing a situation can mean in school, they got it, realized ‘doing over’ to build understanding makes sense, and I was able to return to my steak.
Dylan William talks about how teachers also suffer from the “What you know is what you do” phenomenon. My approach as principal is to develop philosophical lenses that our practices must pass through. The teachers can use their talents, expertise and innovative spirit to find the best ways to get through those lenses. Our school’s leadership team recently crafted our assessment lens. It is:
Good assessment provides evidence of learning which:
– Is tied to targets at the correct reasoning level
– Informs our instruction
– May not look the same for every student
– Makes progress visible to students
– Directs effective feedback
During our faculty meetings, we watch videos, read articles, and discuss how they help focus our lens by informing our practice. We talk about how assessment of student progress should include feedback about were the student is, a positive based on where he has been, and a direction to where he needs to go next. This is easier when using a well articulated progression of learning, with clear targets that make the learning transparent for the student. When those progressions are written to represent conceptual understandings and not facts to know, they can be used to create engaging units, which make learning meaningful. It allows for voice and choice and avoids the appearance of creating a list of simple steps monitored by worksheet after worksheet.
Assessment should focus on building a ‘body of evidence’ to better inform the teacher on how the student is progressing in their learning of a concept or skill. The evidence comes in many forms. We can assess a student through conversation, listening to group discussions, quizzes, writing portfolios, interviews, focus groups, presentations, and/or art work. The list is limited only by the creativity of the teacher and learner.
As people begin to see that we are not using assessment to mean testing, they will begin to see the power behind holding students accountable to meet a target through a demonstration of learning. Not that testing is wrong. There simply needs to be more than testing in a competency-based system. A saying we have at my school is that we need to not simply assess but to apply. Once this becomes clear, we can get Fannee to love both aSSeSSment and learning.
Bill Zima began his career as a zoo educator. Seeking something that was a bit more dynamic, he became a 7th grade science teacher. He is currently the principal of Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham, Maine. He is an original member of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning , an organization of educators dedicated to the promotion of performance-based education systems in Maine.

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1 Comment

Kathy Dyer

Bill, thanks for sharing your enthusiasm and your philosophies regarding assessment. The connection you make between competency-based education and formative assessment is a strong one. With the process of formative assessment - Where is the learner going? Where are they now? How will they get there? - students and teachers a continuously gathering evidence of learning to adapt what happens in the classroom. Having clear targets, multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning and feedback that helps students move forward, seem important to supporting students in being accountable for their own learning - student directed learning. This link has some formative assessment ideas that can be used easily in the classroom...

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