Assessments: Tools for Growth

By Kimberley A. Yates, PhD

Field’s Dean of Instruction, Dr. Kimberley Yates, takes a deep dive into how teachers plan and articulate assessments based on research, which provides students with tools to grow.

Assessment. A word that pulls on so many experiences can elicit nervousness, anxiety, and general feelings of dis-ease. Is there a difference between testing day and judgment day? Whether we are children or adults, assessment can feel like something is being done to us, like our worth is determined by a singular criteria or person. It seems to carry with it always the potential for unfairness.

But, change it to a verb. Perhaps it’s different now – something we realize we do all of the time: assess a situation, assess our schedules, assess our finances, or assess our progress in relation to our own goals and creations. As I write this, I stop frequently to evaluate, to make sure everything fits and that I am on track. We also probably believe that we should assess that there is value there. 

The tension lies in the space between the subject and object positions. If we are the agents assessing, then it seems obvious that it is something we must do with some degree of accuracy: it determines whether we are ready for the next level, for greater responsibility. If we are the one being assessed, then we hope it is fair and perhaps compassionate, understanding, and considerate.

How can we assess in a way that is fair and feels fair, in a way that actually does what it is supposed to do – support people in growing their abilities? We begin with an honest assessment of its purpose: to reflect on where one is in relation to a desired outcome. What’s the next step, and are we ready? Our job as faculty, coaches, and leaders is to support and nurture learning and growth. At Field, this equates to nurturing student development of “their passions and interests through exploration and discovery.” We set the desired outcomes, at a different level from where they are, with an eye and scaffold toward the targets we will help them reach.  

These desired outcomes are key. We use research-based targets to guide our lessons and articulate those goals. We carefully plan the student work so that their skills are building in a logical and functional way, that we are structuring their autonomy so that students become increasingly more self-directed and independent as the year progresses.

  • In the process of actually moving through the lessons and the work with students, teachers are in a constant state of assessment, even within any given class period. 
  • When we ask questions, we look for evidence of students’ understanding. 
  • When we assign visible thinking routines, we are gauging students’ understanding
  • When we check their notes
  • When we listen to their smaller group discussions
  • When we ask for a thumbs or thumbs down after explaining a concept
  • When we have students restate our instructions
  • When we guide them through goal setting
  • When we check in with students while they are working independently
  • When we meet with them
  • When we watch how and when they collaborate best
  • When we give them feedback on how they are doing and what they need to do next – and that list can go on. 

We tend to think of “assessments” only in terms of the high stakes nail biting ones - the quizzes, the tests, the essays, the projects. So many moments and iterations of assessment have happened before we get to those big moments to see where students are in the learning process because assessments provide us data on what understanding and skills students are demonstrating and where they still need support. 

Because our culture focuses on those big assessments, we can too easily place an inordinate amount of pressure on the grades, and the problem there is that grades can obfuscate more than they illuminate: they can fold in, or even prioritize, assessment of behaviors rather than skills or content knowledge. So, for example, as illuminated and argued in Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity, a student might earn an A because they are perceived as obedient, respectful, and timely: they always submit homework on time; they are quiet when asked but engage in discussions when prompted; their work is neat, but their skills aren’t as developed, perhaps, as those of a classmate who consistently submits late but thoroughly prepared work and frequently challenges the teacher. Additionally, as Feldman points out, grades can also demotivate students, working against actual growth - all of this to say that assessment that helps build student capacity is and should be our focus as educators.

That requires deliberate planning on our part as educators. We have to know what we are assessing and for what purpose. For that matter, it benefits students to know what they’re being assessed on. The dreaming, the planning is the fun part – and the hard part – of teaching. We plan the unit by starting with the assessment. All of the research points to the benefits of that teacher clarity and intentionality on student outcomes: whether we’re thinking about the work put forward by Grant Wiggins in Understanding by Design (“UbD”), by PBLWorks from The Buck Institute, or the work outlined in Standards-Based Learning in Action: Moving From Theory to Practice—all of which inform our instructional practices here at Field. 

The same is true for the assessment of teachers. A leader in the field of teacher evaluation, Kim Marshall concludes that assessment of teachers is most helpful when observations by skilled observers are frequent, unannounced, and when the feedback is targeted, clear, and actionable—and when it is followed up by a meeting to debrief the observation. It is the model we are using here at Field with the same purpose as with students: to grow skills that have a positive impact on teaching students to reach the desired outcomes. Assessment lives and breathes at the different levels of our school for the benefit and growth of a whole community of learners, and there is wisdom in accepting that functional assessment is a necessary part of learning.