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.

Entry Filed under: Assessment,Blogstitute

14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Debbie Merritt  |  July 2nd, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    It seems like an idea that should have been realized so long ago! I agree that assessment should be another obvious component of our classrooms that students understand fully.

  • 2. Erika Victor  |  July 3rd, 2013 at 2:49 am

    I could not watch the video, as a message came up saying it was private.

  • 3. Becky Amaral  |  July 3rd, 2013 at 5:15 am

    Thanks for the model discussion … it always helps me to see someone else’s language and think about how I might make it my own. More good stuff to think about this week!

  • 4. Cathy  |  July 3rd, 2013 at 8:24 am

    I love this idea! I already share a bit about why I am assessing with them and by the end of the year, they know that I am trying to find out who needs what and what I can teach them. I am excited to push my own conversation with the students and be more deliberate in my language about the assessments.

  • 5. stenhouse  |  July 3rd, 2013 at 8:36 am

    Sorry about that, Erika–it should be working now!

  • 6. Jenny  |  July 3rd, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    As a new teacher, this really made me think about assessment from the student’s perspective. I think it is a wonderful idea to include the student’s thoughts, feelings and ideas in the assessment process so that they can grow in their role of learner while I am growing as a teacher.

  • 7. Andrea Payan  |  July 5th, 2013 at 12:29 am

    I love the idea of bringing students into the assessment process from the beginning. I envision a good discussion about assessment that I could learn from and that would help my students to understand how I assess. I was already working this summer on putting together ideas for a portfolio system and I am glad to have this idea to add to my assessment practices. You are right that this will be a big part of the classroom culture and it is a great thing to plan for during those first six weeks.

  • 8. Joanne m.  |  July 7th, 2013 at 2:02 am

    I will have my first classroom next year and this certainly gave me some food for thought. Thank you so much.

  • 9. Gwen  |  July 7th, 2013 at 7:50 pm

    I love the idea of letting kids know what and why we are assessing. Formative assessments are so valuable and I agree with you that our students need to understand how important this type of assessment is when incorporated into daily lessons. We don’t need to hide the information from them, they should be a partner in this learning and assessing process. Thanks so much!

  • 10. Clara  |  July 7th, 2013 at 10:30 pm

    Thank you so much. This was very helpful and gives a different perspective on opening up to your students.

  • 11. Tracy Mailloux  |  July 8th, 2013 at 7:04 am

    I absolutely agree with your perspective on the first six weeks of school…I find these weeks are the key to success for the remainder of the year.Your comments about assessment being not soley evaluative but for growth are right on. This important time in our classrooms is for getting to know our students as learners and individuals, and including assessments at the beginning gives us the opportunity to do both.

  • 12. Diane Griggs  |  July 8th, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    Thanks-you for giving me the language to explain to students the purpose of the assessment. I am taking away the importance of the learner and the teacher formulating a goal and both owning the goal. I see this as working for writing and math study and for reading and writing partnerships, too.

  • 13. Lillian Erb  |  July 9th, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    I am looking forward to having an open discussion with my students about assessment. I had never thought about it before, but it all must be such a mystery to students. They should know what is going on and have an opportunity to ask questions. I tend to be open with students when everyone is doing an assessment, but am at a loss for words when only a few kids need an assessment. I don’t know how to answer, “Why doesn’t he need to do this?”

  • 14. Deborah  |  July 12th, 2013 at 7:36 am

    If we agree that children are partners in the learning process, then this is just another part of the whole.

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