Assessing Learning Versus Taking Assessments


I once tried to create a stop motion feature called "Phil in the Bubble." Here, the protagonist is a student who sits alone in a black and white silent classroom taking a test. Bubbles emerge from his multiple choice test and when he tries to pop it, the bubble captures him and takes him out of the clasrooom and into the world, where he experiences a bubble-based adventure.

It didn't pan out. It turns out I don't know much about animation. However, I often go back to "Phil in the Bubble" when my students take tests.

See, I'm not against assessing learning. I assess often. When I use rubrics for projects, engage in one-on-one conferences, read exit cards, analyze student work or leave comments on blogs, I am assessing. On a daily level, I can determine the extent to which a student is mastering a standard.

Assessment is a verb. It is a part of the learning process. It isn't something a student takes. It is something that a student does, alongside a teacher, in a contant, ongoing conversation. It happens when students put together portfolios are complete a self-assessment rubric (summative) or in that daily, constant dialogue of checking for understanding.

Unfortunately, the school system treats assessment as a noun. Here, assessing students means giving tests. Constantly. Six weeks a year, students stop the daily process of learning to sit in isolation, taking multiple choice tests. The same process happens once a week. Every Thursday is our common assessment day, where students sit silently filling out bubbles, trapped in the bubble of a testing culture.

When we treat assessment as something that students must take rather than something that we do, students begin to view assessment as an artificial "other," a dark place they go to where, unlike their own work, they are forbidden to work collaboaritively, make their own decisions, use technology or use flexible thinking.

In addition, teachers are forced to compact the curriculum and teach at a breakneck speed. My students take assessments for for forty-eight percent of the school year. In the process, we stick to a rigid one-standard-a-week framework, assessed weekly in order to provide intervention.

Supposedly, the constant testing is a part of policies meant to help students. Common assessments are part of PLC. Quarterly benchmark tests are supposed to be summative measures to see what the students have retained. Ideally, this system leads to early intervention, data transparency and a system where we can easily identify how teachers are doing.

However, if the goal is helping students with intervention, why not switch from giving assessments to simply assessing learning? Why give them a hand-written writing prompt when we could use a holistic rubric with the writing they are already doing? Why not use the observational data that we already collect as teachers to determine who needs intervention?

Note: This was originally posted at Arizona Stories from School. If you haven't read that blog, you should go check it out.


John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler.
He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard
and the co-founder of Write About .

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