Blogstitute Week 3: Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan on creating a culture of meaningful assessment
July 2nd, 2013
At the end of each year we take time to reflect on the things that went well and the things that we want to change the following year. This reflection helps us think about the classroom community we want to establish in the year ahead and prepare for implementing these changes in the first six weeks of school. We find the first six weeks of school to be pivotal in creating the systems and structures that will support our instructional models all year. We establish the culture and climate for our classroom community. In Reading with Meaning, Debbie Miller says, “When our vision of community expands to create a culture and climate for thinking (Perkins 1993)—when rigor, inquiry, and intimacy become key components of our definition—it’s essential that we work first to build genuine relationships, establish mutual trust, and create working literate environments” (2013, 21). We believe we need to use these first six weeks to set the tone for assessment in our classrooms. Assessment is key to rigor and inquiry, and it can only be used productively if it is part of a trusting, authentic, literate environment. Assessment needs to part of this vision of community. How do we define assessment for our students so that they do not see it as evaluative? How do we help students understand their role in the process of assessment? How do we show students that we believe that assessment is inseparable from instruction?
For us, the first step is taking the time to think about why we assess and how we view the role of assessment in our classroom community. We think it is important to share these reasons with our students so they know why we are assessing and how this process will help us as teachers and them as learners. We assess for a variety of reasons: to establish a beginning benchmark for each student; to identify students who may need additional support in reading; to understand the strengths and learning needs of our readers; to learn about the passions, interests, and frustrations of our readers; and to plan whole-class, small-group, and individual instruction. For us, assessment is more than a number. It is the information we need to get to know our readers and to create a climate of learning that will engage each of them.
In the past, we did not “go public” with our beliefs around assessment with our students. In fact, we may have even tried to sneak the assessments in, hoping not to stress our students out. This ran contrary to how we established all other aspects of our learning community in the first six weeks of school. Now we open the dialogue about assessment right away and establish a different tone. We take the time to listen to our students’ thoughts and questions about the assessment process. This gives us the opportunity to discuss their past experiences with the assessment process, clear up any misconceptions, and alleviate any worries they may have. We hope that by listening and talking with our readers, we will help them understand their role in assessment and the importance of the insightful information they share with us.
As we sit down with students to begin administering an assessment, we pay attention to their questions, comments, and even body language (shoulder shrugs, mumbled answers, or silent stares) to learn how they are feeling about the process. When we ask them about their thoughts on assessment, we hear a range of responses:
Why are we doing this?
I already know all of this.
Why did I have to leave the block area?
Why doesn’t Suzy have to do this?
Are you going to do this with everyone?
What is the timer for?
When will I be done?
What are you writing?
We think it is important to let the students know what they will be doing during the assessment and why they will be doing these things:
We are going to work together for the next twenty minutes so that I can get to know you a little better as a reader. You will read a text aloud, and then we will talk about the text and you will write about it. When you are reading, I will be listening to help determine some good next steps for you.
This assessment will help me support you in choosing books that will be interesting and will help you meet your goals. I will be taking notes during this process so that I can remember the things you share with me and the things I notice about you as a reader. This assessment isn’t about you getting things right or wrong. It is about us working together to figure out our jobs: my job as a teacher and your job as a learner.
After we are done I am going to ask you what you think would help you as a reader. We will look at the assessment together and choose some goals for us to work on together. Are you ready to begin?
Assessment is the heart of our instruction. We need our students to understand that assessment is more than one test or a few formal cycles per year. Assessment is what happens every day when we listen to our students and watch them as they learn. Peter Johnston reminds us that “Formative assessment isn’t only the teacher’s responsibility . . . [h]owever, it is the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that the students know how and are disposed to take up their responsibilities for formative assessment” (2012, 49–50). When we include the role of assessment in our culture of thinking and learning, our students understand why we are assessing and how it will help them set goals and grow as readers.
Johnston, Peter. 2012. Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Miller, Debbie. 2013. Reading with Meaning: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades. 2nd edition. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Tammy and Clare are the authors of Assessment in Perspective: Focusing on the Reader Behind the Numbers. Be sure to leave a comment or ask a question. Last week’s winner of a free book is Lori Napier.