Literacy Lenses

Focusing on The Literacy Work that Matters

Maximizing Our Potential (part 5): Assessment that Informs

by Mary Howard

This week, #G2Great concluded a 5-part series, Maximizing Our Potential: Focusing on the Literacy Work that Matters as we enthusiastically turned our attention to Assessment that Informs. I have loved each topic including Allocating Instructional Time, Classroom Design, Student-Centered Learning and Independent Application, but our final chat in the series became the thread that interweaves each topic together in such a powerful way.

This is not the first time that we have put a broader perspective of assessment under the #G2Great microscope and I can assure you it won’t be the last. Like each of you, we are concerned about the lingering impact of the data-driven culture that has permeated our schools and clouded our view of the amazing learners beneath that data. We’ve made many missteps along the meandering pathway that wavers between assessment that informs and assessment that labels. Until we address this mismatch, we are destined to lose our way somewhere between these two contrasting viewpoints.

I looked up “label” and found the tagline “tests labeled him” with synonyms like classify, brand, pigeonhole and typecast:

Then I looked up “inform” and found a very different stance that reflects the heart and soul of our #G2Great dialogue:

I cannot imagine that any knowledgeable educator would opt for categorizing children over using information that would enlighten our understanding and thus elevate instruction. Numerical data is our reality as grades, scores, levels and color-coded spreadsheets have become the norm. To be clear, the danger does not reside in numbers but in the source of numbers and how we choose to use or misuse them through interpretation and decision-making that can naturally rise from the use, purpose and intent of numbers for better or for worse. To clarify this, let’s look at reading levels.

If the source of levels are Accelerated Reader tests used to narrow student text choices, determine who attends AR celebrations, or post AR scores publicly in conflict with privacy laws then we abuse the use, purpose and intent of levels. By contrast, if the source of levels is running records analyzed by knowledgeable educators used as a flexible text selection tool for forming temporary small groups that change over time, then the use, purpose and intent of levels keeps kids at the center. In other words, the quality of our assessment is WHAT we do, WHY we do it and HOW we use this in the most professionally responsible and responsive ways.

With this critical shift in thinking reflective of assessment that informs, I set out to take a closer look at tweets from our amazing #G2great family to find key points of discussion. During my joyful twitter perusal, Ten Assessment Heart Guides began to emerge that support our quest for assessment that maximizes rather than restricts our potential. To highlight the heart guides, I’ll share a few of the tweets that inspired my thinking at the end of this post.


Heart Guide #1: Stand up to assessment nonsense

I put this point first because you may as well stop reading unless you take this one to “heart.” The reality is that you all be forced to use data that goes against the grain of research. Acknowledge this reality but refuse to allow it to taint the formative assessment that happens in the confines of your “heart home.” Stop complaining and draw a line in the proverbial assessment sand knowing that no one can rob you of assessment that matters unless you give them permission. So don’t!

Heart Guide #2: Don’t lose sight of your assessment WHY

Now that you’ve broken through the data ties that bind, honor your real assessment purpose: WHY: K-I-D-S. Irrespective of school-based data goals, the ultimate goal of assessment is to understand our learners so that we can design the instructional opportunities they deserve. When we shift our WHY we can shine a spotlight on the whole child and all that entails. When we can do this, the assessment process then highlights the teaching-learning process. This will broaden our WHY which in turn broadens the understandings that we can glean from those assessments.

Heart Guide #3: Let your beliefs guide your assessment actions

Before we can possibly design the assessment that will help us bring our WHY to life, we must be able to verbalize what we value. Ask, “What do I believe?” and then assess that. Heart data is not about gathering numbers to display on a spreadsheet. It’s about assessing the learning experiences that you value so that you can redesign experiences in more effective ways. If we value student engagement in reading, then we put worksheets and grade books away and amp up kidwatching as we observe our values in action.

Heart Guide #4: Create a two-way assessment pathway

Assessment that informs has two distinctive but equally powerful purposes. Obviously the first purpose is to understand each of our learners. But more than that, it is also to understand ourselves. As you assess, don’t just think about what you see and hear as you assess students but also what this says about your professional choices. Quick fix answers are not welcome so dig deeper as you look into the reflective mirror. What responsibility do you have in what students were or were not able to do?  Own it and take it to heart by your actions.

Heart Guide #5: Sharpen your success-based assessment lens

Formative assessment is not a deficit model that reflects a ‘gotcha’ mentality. Rather it is a success-based model where we seek to find out what our children already know, do or understand or are on the cusp of knowing, doing or understanding. When we start there, we create a stepping stone to where we might go from here. And don’t keep this success knowledge a secret. Shout it from the highest rooftops so your colleagues, parents and children will be able to celebrate alongside you. A heart-based view is much more beautiful when we all get to join in the festivities.

Heart Guide #6: Stretch your assessment mindset

By nature, assessment is confined to one moment in time. While these moments are powerful informants, they are too narrow to give us the kind of information that will have the greatest impact on our practices. But when we stretch our perspective over time, we would begin to notice the patterns that could strengthen our understandings. If we gathered assessments across our learning days in varied contexts, settings and experiences over time, we will have references that confirm, refute and deepen what we know.

Heart Guide #7: Infuse transformative life into assessment

Assessment is not a process of gathering but one of intentional decision-making. Knowing what children know is only the starting point since we must then consider the next step actions that will gently nudge them from where they are to where they need to be in a timely fashion. The clock is always ticking but for some children it ticks even louder. Honor the discoveries you have made in the assessment process but turn those NOW discoveries into NEXT STEP possibilities and then hit the ground running to put them into place.

Heart Guide #8: Embrace the gift of in-the-moment assessment

Some of the best assessment opportunities occur when we don’t even plan for them. Few assessment shifts are more powerful than taking it on the road armed with nothing more than a clipboard, a pencil, and your curiosities about children. Engage your children in on-the-spot conversations by rotating as you transform from teacher to fly on the wall observer. Acknowledge the impact of closing your mouth so they can open theirs since the more they are doing the talking, the more you aren’t. These talk moments where we listen in on student conversations are an assessment goldmine.

Heart Guide #9: Create your own ‘behind the lens’ assessment

No matter how skilled you are at the observational process of assessment, it is simply not possible to notice everything. When we assess, we attempt to pay attention to all that children say and do but in the process you will inevitably miss some of the most informative knowings of all. Video tape a lesson and use this to capture the noticings that may reside just beneath the surface. To make this process even more powerful, invite a colleague to help you capture important details you are sure to have missed.

Heart Guide #10: Make assessment personal by turning the tables

I would be remiss if I didn’t return full circle to heart guide #1 and the most questionable district mandated assessment of all – those dastardly data discussions. I wonder if we would be proud of our dialogue if we imagined that our children were sitting in that room with us. What would they hear? What would they think? How would they feel? Although we can’t invite them to data meetings, we can display their photograph in full view to give those numbers a face. We must never forget that regardless of designated data, we are talking about living, breathing children and the decisions that we make will have a lingering impact on their success or failure.

Last week, my friend and co-moderator, Fran McVeigh, eloquently opened her blog post on independent application by reviewing the first three topics of our series. So in celebration of the completion of our wonderful series, I’d like to return to the idea I posed at the beginning of this post describing assessment that informs as the thread that interweaves each topic together.

The image above visually reflects this interweaving of topics. Notice that our thread, assessment that informs, is intentionally placed at the center of those four topics. This reflects that we use assessment to inform our professional decisions by considering the best instructional options based on the learning needs of our children:

We allocate instructional time based on assessment that informs

We create a classroom design based on assessment that informs

We identify student-centered learning based on assessment that informs

We build in independent application based on assessment that informs

In other words, assessment that informs is always in the service of each instructional topic

The red outer arrows reflect this ongoing cyclical process where instruction and assessment are inseparably connected. This is not based on scripted instruction using scripted assessments out of obligatory compliance to a scripted program. Rather, it is based on knowledgeable teachers who use assessment informants to design research-based literacy practices that interweave assessment and instruction based on the unique learning needs of students. These informants can change our thinking and thus our instruction as new informants support or refute new thinking. Publisher-driven directives could never accomplish this dynamic process.

As I pause for a moment to soak in these heart guides inspired by our #G2Great family, I want to express “heartfelt” appreciation for each of you who are willing to call your own teaching to task. We may live in a politically fueled data driven culture, but we do not need to park our hats there my friends. My ten assessment heart guides are critical and each of them are all feasible when you let your heart lead the way. Never lose sight of the role you play and what can happen when you take ownership of all that you do.

From the bottom of our collective hearts, we are forever grateful to you for bringing your heart to #G2great each week!

Some #G2great tweets that inspired this post

Revisit the chats in this series using the links below

Date Chat Title Wake Blog


Maximizing Our Potential part 5: Assessment That Informs Wake Blog

Maximizing Our Potential part 4: Independent Application

Wake Blog

Maximizing Our Potential part 3: Student-Centered Learning

Wake Blog

Maximizing Our Potential part 2: Classroom Design

Wake Blog
9/13/18 Maximizing Our Potential part 1: Allocating Instructional Time Wake