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Nine Ways Assessments Can Improve Teaching and Learning

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: "In Praise of Assessment (Done Right)" by Kim Marshall in Phi Delta Kappan, March 2018 (Vol. 99, #6, p. 54-59), Link
In this article in Phi Delta Kappan, Kim Marshall lists the reasons that tests have come under attack in recent years: the classroom time they take; the stress on students and parents; teachers' well-founded objections to test scores being used as part of their evaluations; and the fact that changing state curriculum standards mean high-stakes tests are a moving target. "Less testing, more teaching" is a battle cry among anti-testers in Marshall's home state of Massachusetts.
But criticism of tests is mainly aimed at high-stakes standardized exams, which aren't the most important; interim and on-the-spot assessments have a far greater impact on teaching and learning. Marshall's concern is that the testing-is-bad movement will distract educators from the power of lower-key assessments to address three troubling equity issues:
- Gaps between the intended, the taught, and the learned curriculum - for example, a high-school senior who's never learned about the Holocaust;
- Teachers who don't take responsibility for their students' learning - I taught it, and if they didn't learn it, that's on them;
- The Matthew Effect - the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer because gaps in the curriculum and ineffective teaching have a disproportionate effect on students who walk into school with any kind of disadvantage.
"Why is assessment so important to meeting these challenges?" asks Marshall. "Because only when teachers and principals have accurate and timely information on what students have (and haven't) learned can they do the kind of minute-by-minute, day-by-day, month-by-month fine-tuning needed to reach all children."
All assessments can be handled badly, but Marshall argues that, used well, assessments are the key to improving learning during each lesson, keeping educators and students focused on where they're going, and shifting instructional conversations to student results. Here's how:
Assessments improve instruction during each lesson
o Fixing learning problems in real time - On-the-spot checks for understanding have great potential (and a robust research track record) when they provide accurate information and teachers follow up. Students' facial expressions aren't a good gauge (too many "compliant pretenders"), and teachers asking, "Is everyone with me?" won't uncover embarrassed confusion, willful evasion, and daydreaming. But many teachers are now using a better repertoire of methods that truly reveal students' level of understanding:
- Every student jotting answers on small dry-erase boards and holding them up;
- Students answering well-framed questions via clickers, Plickers, and other high-tech and low-tech response systems;
- Students doing quick-writes with the teacher circulating and looking over their shoulders;
- Think-pair-share with all students discussing a question with an elbow partner and then reporting out;
- The teacher cold-calling students, using popsicle sticks or smartboard apps;
- Students responding to a lesson-closing question on an exit ticket.
Dylan Wiliam summed up the research on formative assessments with this alarming statement: "If students left the classroom before teachers have made adjustments to their teaching on the basis of what they have learned about the students' achievement, then they are already playing catch-up. If teachers do not make adjustments before students come back the next day, it is probably too late."
o Improving memory through the "retrieval effect" - Have you ever forgotten where you parked your car in a large garage? That, like students' inability to remember the content of a textbook chapter they studied and highlighted the night before, is a retrieval failure. Recent research by cognitive scientists has revealed that strategically retrieving about-to-be-forgotten information - testing ourselves - is the best way to remember it. "Retrieving a fact is not like opening a computer file," says Henry Roediger III, one of the pioneers of this research. "It alters what we remember and changes how we subsequently organize that knowledge in our brain." This means the best way to study for a test is to read the textbook chapter, close the book, write down as much as we can remember, and then go back and re-study (and re-test) the parts we thought we had mastered but didn't. Retrieval practice works best when we're about to forget something; to commit important information to long-term memory, it needs to be repeated at widening intervals - a day later, a week later, a month later.
o Leveraging peer instruction - Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur explains a concept to his 180-student classes, puts a multiple-choice clicker question on the screen, displays a graph of students' answers, and if 30-70 percent chose wrong answers, says, "Convince your neighbor." While students argue, Mazur walks around listening in on the dialogues. When he re-polls the question, correct answers shoot up - a sign that he's successfully enlisted the help of scores of peer instructors. After a brief clarification, Mazur continues with the class, using this teach-test-peer instruction-clarify cycle several more times. Engagement is high, student achievement has improved (especially in the conceptual realm), female students' achievement has improved significantly, and Mazur has become a much better professor. The key, he says, is orchestrating peer instruction.
Assessments keep educators and students focused on where they're going
o Fostering a growth mindset - Classroom tests often trigger fixed-mindset thinking in students: I aced it, so I'm a genius; I flunked, I'm just bad at math. Carol Dweck and her colleagues have shown that students with a fixed mindset (negative and positive) tend to avoid challenges, give up easily, see effort as fruitless, ignore useful criticism, and feel threatened by the success of others. But if teachers (and parents) are sensitive to this cognitive trap and choose their words carefully, tests are an opportunity to foster a growth mindset. The key message: tests show how much you've learned, how hard you've worked, and the strategies you've used. Those are also the words adults should use to praise - or, if things haven't gone well, to give specific suggestions for improvement. When we succeed in getting students to shift to a growth mindset (sometimes one subject, sport, or activity at a time), they are more likely to embrace challenges, persist in the face of failure, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from setbacks and criticism, and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others.
o Generating helpful graphic displays - "Tests produce detailed information on student learning," says Marshall, "and data displays can help students, teachers, and school leaders track progress, identify weak areas in the curriculum and test items, diagnose learning problems, set goals, and celebrate success… Well-constructed graphic displays can motivate students, inform teacher team discussions, and give administrators and instructional coaches key insights to support teachers' work."
o Growing students' ability to monitor their own learning - An important long-term goal in every school is getting students to take increasing responsibility for their learning. "Working with assessment results," says Marshall, "helps students think like assessors, measure progress toward goals, zero in on weak areas, recognize a fixed and growth mindset, and understand retrieval practice."
Assessments can shift the instructional conversation to student learning results
o Providing substance for teacher collaboration - Data from common interim assessments and performance tasks are the ideal focus for same-grade/same-subject teacher team meetings. Key prerequisites are well-crafted assessments, enough time for substantive discussion, an adult culture of humility and trust (so one teacher can say to another, "Your kids did better on this item than mine. What did you do?"), and systematic follow-up with students who aren't yet successful. "The ideal dynamic," says Marshall, "is a balance of common curriculum goals and assessments, teacher autonomy and creativity around instructional methods, constant experimentation with new ideas in classrooms, and an ethos of seizing on the best ideas and spreading them to all teachers on the team."
o Helping school leaders supervise with an eye to learning - The idea of using student test scores as part of teachers' evaluations is now largely discredited, but advocates of test-based accountability do have a point: student learning should be part of the conversation. "The trick for school leaders," says Marshall, "is to turn down the accountability pressure and join with teachers in looking at assessment results with a curious, problem-solving frame of mind." School leaders and instructional coaches have plenty of opportunities to do just that:
- Checking in with students during classroom visits (What are you learning today?);
- Chatting with teachers after classroom visits about intended and actual outcomes;
- Looking with teachers at on-the-spot assessments and exit tickets;
- Sitting with teacher teams as they plan assessments for upcoming curriculum units;
- Observing teacher teams as they analyze student work and test results;
- Getting reports from teacher teams on before-and-after evidence of learning through the year.
"The best leaders," says accountability advocate Douglas Reeves, "will use assessment results not as a hammer to embarrass teachers, but as a lever to prod even the best and most experienced to improve their practices."
o Ensuring that all students learn the right stuff - Marshall remembers the pedagogical freedom he had teaching Boston sixth graders in the 1970s and concludes that laissez-faire curriculum policies have a major problem: "Disadvantaged students emerge with lots of gaps in knowledge and skills while advantaged students pick up what's not taught in school in their homes and communities." The best policy approach is:
- A well-thought-out K-12 curriculum (the what);
- Lots of room for creativity at the school and classroom level (the how to);
- High-quality tests that don't consume too much time;
- Stakes attached to test results so everyone takes them seriously, but with sufficient time and support to reach the standards;
- Prompt and helpful data on students' progress;
- Frequent, structured opportunities for teachers to share effective practices.
This approach creates a sense of urgency (but not panic) at the school level, getting people on the same content and skill page, while still allowing freedom to experiment with effective practices - always asking what's working and what isn't.
The bottom line, says Marshall: "The wise and effective use of assessments is essential to solving inequities within and among our schools… Let's use assessments so that all students have the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind to enter adulthood as well-educated, responsible citizens - who can sit down with any challenging test and say, 'I've got this.'"

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