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Assessment = Opportunity

An Opportunity to Show What You Know

by Kathy Dyer

As I read the first sentence in an Ed Week article, I had to shake my head. “Assessments may change in many ways, but for most students, the stress of having to prove what they know and can do doesn’t go away.” Let me tell you a story about a teacher who transformed her students’ thinking about assessment.

Kathie Morgan taught third grade at the time. Two months into the school year, Nancy, her teammate across the hall, noticed that any time the word “test,” “quiz” or “assessment” came up or was posted on the board, Kathie’s students got excited. Nancy asked Kathie, “Why all the excitement about these words?” Kathie directed her to talk with the students. After chatting with a dozen kids, Nancy summed up what she heard them say: “’Test’ is an opportunity to show what I know, figure out what I don’t know and make a plan with Ms. Morgan to get what I need to know.”

How did Kathie get her students there? As Ms. Sparks says in her article, districts are looking for ways to change how students respond to tests. In Kathie’s case, the integration of formative instructional practices and developing assessment literacy in her students were key elements in this transformation. For me, this was a bit of a mental dance. The partners I ended up with in my mind were growth mindset and assessment literacy. Let me explain.

What makes something an opportunity for us? We might think of opportunity as an “opening” or a “break” — “a chance” to do something we want or need to do. Through assessment, teachers provide an opportunity to figure out where a student is, individually, in their learning. As students learn more, they grow. As students are given a chance to try again — show or demonstrate more — pieces of success get scattered along the learning path — assessments provide students opportunities to “show what you know.”

When teachers provide effective feedback as a result of these assessment opportunities, they actually help students figure out the “what I know and what I don’t know” portions of the path. Let’s pause here for a moment to make sure we are on the same page when we talk about feedback from assessment that moves learning forward. The feedback:

  • is focused on the learning targets and success criteria
  • is timely for the student, for the task and for allowing the learner to use the feedback; it occurs during the learning
  • is accurate
  • is appropriate to the learner in form and in word choice and developmentally
  • doesn’t do the thinking for the learner
  • engages learners in the process and encourages growth in the learner

Some educators express student concerns about the possibility of failure when it comes to assessment. Other educators counter those concerns by building a culture of learning that views assessment as a support for learning with structures and strategies built into the classroom culture to cultivate and build a growth mindset. Teachers do this in a variety of ways focused on five key elements of a culture of learning:

  1. Trust: Trust in the classroom between teachers and learners is the foundation that holds all the elements together. Without a strong foundation of trust, you will not be able to put all the other practices in place, and students won’t invest effort, share freely and support one another.
  2. Mindset: I heard a seventh grader say, “Smart isn’t what you are; it’s what you get with hard work and effort.” Using assessment and the resulting feedback are ways to help students figure out where they are as lear