This semester I’m teaching a special topics graduate course with the title “Rethinking Assessment.” We’re a few meetings into the semester and our overarching question for the course is, tentatively, “How could assessments help our teaching and our students’ learning?” In order to work toward understanding this question, I’ve divided the course into three different chunks: mapping the landscape of assessment, understanding the work assessments do, and designing our own performance tasks.
I mostly want to spend some time here writing about the first three class sessions as a way to capture what I think is sticking out to me as we “map the landscape of assessment.”
So far we’ve read the first five chapters of Lorna Earl’s (2nd edition) Assessment as Learning, as well as Lorrie Shepard’s “The Role of Assessment in a Learning Culture” (pdf) and Schneider and Hutt’s “Making the Grade: A History of the A-F Marking Scheme” (pdf). Each time we meet we also take time to share some student work, as well as what we notice in that work (our observations) and what we think it means (our interpretations).
Although our attempt to “map the landscape of assessment” has been a bit ambitious, our readings have offered some insight and raised some questions to help us better understand the different ways people talk about assessment and the work assessment can do for teachers and learners. Even from her title, Assessment as Learning, Lorna Earl maps understandings of “assessment” in terms of how people use it in relationship to “learning.” In particular, she writes about three relationships that hinge on prepositions:
Assessment OF Learning (it’s summative; teachers make judgments about placement and credentials; teachers use other students, standards, or expectations as reference points) Assessment FOR Learning (it’s formative; teachers use their experience and their understanding of the context of the curriculum and of the assessment in order to highlight each student’s strengths and weaknesses and provide them with feedback to further learning) Assessment AS Learning (it’s a subset of assessment for learning that emphasizes using assessment as a process of developing and supporting metacognition for students; that is, formative assessment becomes a critical connection between assessments and the learning process).
Earl spends considerable time in her chapters 4 and 5 to describe “assessment” and “learning” and how they can inform one another. “Assessment as learning,” she writes, “is the metacognitive process where learners are responsible for their learning and for determining how to move forward” (p. 52). Earl is highlighting the importance she sees in helping learners become more independent in assessing their learning process and progress, but she does not see learning as a solely independent and individual process. Instead, she takes time to describe the importance of context when one learns. “Learning,” Earl writes, “occurs through a process of participation in various cultural practices and shared learning activities, as well as a process of individual knowledge formation. Knowledge is created through dialogue or conversations that make presuppositions, ideas, beliefs, and feelings explicit and available for exploration” (p. 47).
It’s this idea of culture and shared activities that Shepard brings up in her AERA presidential address, “The Role of Assessment in a Learning Culture.” Shepard writes that our “aim should be to change our cultural practices so that students and teachers look to assessment as a source of insight and help instead of an occasion for meting out rewards and punishments” (p. 10). Changing cultural practices, of course, is wrapped up in a constellation of beliefs and traditions, of values and obstacles of all shapes and sizes from the institutional to the logistical.
That is, our histories and our expectations for ways of doing things in the classroom reflect who we are as educators, and if we are asking teachers to rethink assessment, to re-consider what they do with students, then we are asking them to rethink how they imagine their relationships with students and with subject matter. For instance, Shepard’s history looks at some of the assumptions behind objective tests that shaped beliefs about “the nature of evidence and the principles of fairness” and that illustrated the perspective that “assessment needed to be an official event, separate from instruction (Bliem & Davinroy, 1997)” (p. 5). Shepard continues by acknowledging that “[a]ny attempt to change the form and purpose of classroom assessment to make it more fundamentally a part of the learning process must acknowledge the power of these enduring and hidden beliefs” (p. 6). When we rethink assessment and when we map the landscape of assessment, we’re dealing not only with what we do (our practices) but also why we do it (our beliefs and values) and what seemed to shape why we think that purpose matters (our histories and contexts).
The history of the A-F marking scheme illustrates how our beliefs, values, and contexts shape our cultural practices. In their article Schneider and Hutt forward the argument that the A-F marking scheme is a history of the tension between “what promotes learning and what enables a massive system to function” (p. 3). They write about how this cultural practice of grading with a letter system creates a bind for educators. Many educators “continue to see the potential usefulness as internal signals within a school to communicate with students. At the same time, however, those internal signals reverberate well beyond the classroom wall – the product of a relatively unified system in which grades have significant legitimacy as external signals for communicating to those outside the school” (p. 19). The external signals grades offer to those outside the school make the point that one challenge in rethinking assessment is that schools operate within larger communities, ones with their own cultural practices, purposes, and histories.
In other words, when educators rethink assessment and consider the work that assessments could do for their teaching and for their students’ learning they have to consider layers of relationships, including the following:
The layers of relationships means that when working with other educators to rethink assessment we have to make visible beliefs and values and trace their histories. For instance, Shepard suggests a few assessment practices that can cultivate and sustain a learning culture. She writes about dynamic, ongoing assessment that leads students to independently participate as experts within communities. She writes about acknowledging and tapping into learners’ prior knowledge, as well as offering feedback that leads to learners being able to take what they learn in one situation and apply it to other contexts. She writes about making criteria more explicit and about providing students opportunities to assess their own learning. Self-assessment is, of course, central to Earl’s argument that assessment is a way of understanding ourselves as learners and a way to track our progress toward our own learning goals.
As I look at this list of assessment strategies that Shepard and Earl suggest promote learning, I wonder about teachers as learners, and in particular, how we educators use assessment as opportunities to understand our students better. I found myself saying in class last night, “Think about what you want to learn about a student when you look at her work.” I was speaking about our class work of sharing student samples with one another so that we can make visible what we see and what we wonder when we read the work our students do for us. But I’m also asking our group to take on a stance of inquiry with students and to set our own learning agendas.
Earl writes about how rethinking assessment can help us rethink our classroom practices, but she cautions that changing our practices won’t be enough.
“An important element of these discussions and reflections should be about beliefs, as well as practices – beliefs about the role of schooling and the role of educators in schools. Why? Because assessment as learning is a shift in thinking about what matters in schools that moves the focus from categorizing students to learning for students and challenges some longstanding and deeply held beliefs about what schooling is for and why teachers should collect information about how students are thinking and learning. Embedding changes into routine practices without this discussion is unlikely to have much influence” (p. 9)
As I think about what assessment can do for teachers and for our students’ learning, one answer is that it can cause us to name what it is we believe is important for learners to understand. It can be an opportunity to ask why we believe it’s important, to trace where those beliefs come from, and to imagine how they can shape our conversations and relationships with students, how they can shape what we understand about subject matter, and how they can shape how we interact with other stakeholders and institutions.
Changing our assessment practices, it seems, can lead to our changes in what we believe and to what we see as possible. Demanding others to change their practices is counter-productive; instead, we have to acknowledge the range of ways people respond to change and then help them pursue their learning agendas, help them refine their professional judgment, and help them make their thinking visible for themselves and for their students. When we map the landscape of assessment, we have to account for what we do, why we believe it’s important, and make visible what relationships or other outside forces helped to create and shape the values and assumptions that inform our beliefs.
On the surface, it might seem like “rethinking assessment” means trying different activities to capture student understanding, but much more is in play and at stake, namely what we see as possible and preferable for ourselves and for the learners we lead.