Assessment: A Misunderstood Term

Over the past few months I have been invited to speak to  a variety of educators on Formative Assessment, what it looks like in my class and how it has become, for me, the foundation for student learning.

Of and For

image credited to Caren Cameron

Before sharing the strategies and processes I use with my students I asked each group this question: Why do we spent so much time on Assessment of Learning when research tells us that it is Assessment for Learning that makes the biggest difference in impacting student learning?

The conversation that ensues is a wonderful reflection of where so many educators are when it comes to discussing assessment. Too often when this word is used it is thought of in negative terms. For most teachers the term assessment is associated with tests, exams, and summative data rather than the bigger picture of teachers and students using assessment practises daily to inform and move student learning forward.

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One of the reasons that came from the discussions was fear. Fear of how to go about making changes, fear of what other teachers in the building will think, fear of not being supported by administration. Another reason given is uncertainty. This comes from a society that stresses competition and is unaware of what really makes a difference in moving students forward. Teachers are uncertain about what assessment for learning really looks and how to make it happen in their classrooms. The ‘OF’ is a part of the process of assessing our students as it gives a snapshot in time but it should be a very small piece of our overall assessment practises rather than the focal point.

At the end of a session, one of the teachers pointed out that he felt what I was teaching my students about setting criteria, establishing what the goal is at the beginning, giving and accepting feedback to improve learning and reflecting on what they have done and how to improve, are vital skills for life not just inside the classroom walls. It was wonderful to hear these words as I knew he truly ‘got it’. The big picture of Assessment for Learning is so much more than a set of strategies that are only valuable in a classroom.

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Since beginning my journey of embedding  formative assessment practises (or assessment for learning, whichever one you wish to use) into my day to day teaching the growth of student ownership has been quite remarkable. My students ask about criteria for all we do, they ask for time for peer feedback on a regular basis, they are reflecting in many aspects of their lives, and use learning language without a blink of an eye. After spending a few months in my class they no longer ask, “Is this for marks?” and have recognized the importance of focusing on the journey not the end. As research has shown, some of my most struggling learners are appreciating this approach the most as they feel value in what they have accomplished; they now see themselves as learners. There is no better evidence than this.

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My wish is that there is more conversation around best assessment practise in the classroom. What does it look like? How do we help students take ownership of their learning? How do we help students see their own potential as learners? Most of all, I hope that one day when I mention assessment it will not be thought of as a negative word.

It continues to befuddle me that with all the research showing the positive impact on student learning of teachers who have integrated formative assessment into their teaching why not more educators have made the shift. Why do you think this is? Can this be changed? Some important questions that need to be discussed.