Assessment For Learning

Gil Gallagher
Grades and assessment are not the same thing. This is a common misconception among students, parents, and teachers.  

My sixth grade students are preparing to share their responses to an inquiry project. They created their own research questions, did guided research to find relevant sources, and are now writing op-eds, scripting and recording podcasts, and creating infographics to shape what they discovered into a publishable form. During a somewhat regular check-in, I asked them to share what was on their mind about their projects. Some expressed worries about getting their responses done on time; others expressed excitement about what they figured out along the way. And a number of them expressed anxiety about their potential grades on the assignment.

My heart sank a little in that moment.

The idealist in me holds to the idea that all students at all times should be driven by their innate passion and quest for learning and discovery and shouldn’t care about their grades! The educator and parent in me (who chuckles lovingly at the idealist) knows that there are realities to students’ lives that make that expectation admirable but unreasonable. Grades are a reality for our students and for our school, and simply wishing they weren’t won’t help my students learn. While the field of education is grappling with how grades can and should function, particularly in this pandemic, we aren’t likely to be able to dedicate the kind of energy we would need to intentionally shift away from assigning grades in the near future, though there is a lot of exciting work happening right now in that domain. There has been significant research into grading practices that exacerbate inequities in schools, and we have dedicated time and resources to align our grading practices with what the research tells us about grading for equity.

There are a number of practices that can shift the conversation away from “what is my grade” to “how am I learning?” Facilitating that shift in student mindset is an exciting challenge. What it means is that I need to be clear with them that grades and assessment are not the same thing. This is a common misconception among students, parents, and teachers.  

Grades are abstractions--generalizations that attempt to communicate a “wholistic” sense for how a student performed. They convert a student’s achievement on a great many tasks into a single metric--a letter, a percentage, a number on a scale. In that sense they are useful for ranking students broadly relative to each other, which is why they tend to be relied on in admissions processes, particularly as other kinds of standardized tests become less valued.

Assessments are more precise and are rooted in particular tasks. They can range in scope from a brief chat about a solution to a problem to a formal presentation of a body of work to a panel of experts or community members. They can be targeted toward a single skill or concept; they can also be used to see how well a student can apply a variety of skills in context or transfer a concept from a novel to a situation.

As a classroom teacher considering how to help students learn deeply in the current environment, I try to center a few things in my assessment practice.
Assess frequently: I am almost constantly assessing my students’ level of skill. That does not mean that I am relentlessly giving them quizzes and tests. It just means that I am paying attention, in a disciplined way, to what I am observing in their thinking. The purpose of that watchfulness is to be able to notice the extent to which students are moving towards (or, sometimes, away from!) the goal. That knowledge then drives shifts in practice. Sometimes these assessments take the form of quick notes on what I hear them say in working groups or what I see in a learning activity; sometimes assessment looks like quick scored rubrics or checklists; sometimes it looks like more extensive portfolio or project reviews. Often times students don’t even feel like they are being assessed because I have just “caught them” learning. And I often involve them in the process of assessment. What does it matter if I know where they are if they don’t?
Strive for Clarity: I use rubrics both as a tool for communicating standards and for showing students the extent to which they have met those standards. Rubrics can be quite effective when well designed; they can also be complex and confusing, particularly when they are too “teachery” in diction. In my practice, the skill rubrics are a regular part of the conversation, and my students see the same standards again and again in different contexts. For the last few years, I have been using single-point rubrics to help students focus their energy on the most essential skill goal of a learning task. There is a body of research which suggests that single-point rubrics are an effective way to give students a clear target for their learning and to allow us to give quick feedback when they hit the target and more customized feedback when they fall short or rise above.

Rubrics are also an equity tool. They limit the extent to which my subjective experience of students influences my assessment and push me to look for the same criteria in all students' work.

Focus on Feedback: when I look at artifacts of learning (the things they make both to learn and to share their learning), I use the rubrics to center my attention, and I focus my feedback on where I see evidence of skill. I do my best to avoid evaluative language like “this is a good question” or “you did a good job with…” Where I see students hitting the mark, I describe what I see in those terms--”your question is open and can be researched.” Where I don’t yet see them hitting the mark, I focus on specific tasks they can do to get there: “your question can be answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’; rewrite it as an open question.”

All student work is also a form of feedback for me about my practice, so I look for trends and when I see that a bunch of students aren’t hitting the mark, I take that as a signal that I should loop back, maybe with the whole group, but often with a smaller group. This is where mini- and micro-lessons can be a powerful tool for learning--targeted lessons that address identified skill gaps in students.
Keep it Simple: I try to isolate the skills I am targeting in assessment when that is possible. Students have a lot going on--their six classes and their social lives and their family lives and their individual passions and interests. Asking students to focus on too many things at once--and giving them feedback on too many things at once--can be counterproductive. This is not always possible, particularly with complex skills like writing and research and communication, but we strive for it anyway.

Teachers also have a lot going on, and centering assessment on a few things at a time allows me to give quick, targeted feedback close to the moment of learning, which is where feedback can have the biggest impact. This is why I use regular, quick conferences while students are in the process of doing research and preparing to communicate their findings to an audience.
Back to the reality of grades for a moment. Turning all of this assessment data into a letter grade for a transcript is not all that challenging. I generally don’t do this calculation until the very end of the semester; I take an aggregate of their most recent scores on the core skills of the course and create a composite that goes onto a transcript--which, for my sixth graders, often feels a little silly. That end of semester assessment usually takes the form of a portfolio presentation. I also involve students in the process of determining their own semester grades, using a skills rubric--which we’ve been working with all year!--to reflect on their growth as a learner and the skills they have developed.

Assigning grades is a reality for now, but I don’t feel much creative energy around grading, except when it comes to equity. The real pedagogical energy, the places where teacher creativity and student learning can really come together, is in the kinds of authentic ways we can ask students to show us what they know, and how we can capture and reflect back to them their emerging skills of mind.

Gil Gallagher, The Field SchoolGil Gallagher is the Dean of Curriculum at Field and an educator in History and Anti-Racism.