Focusing on the Journey: The Right Way to Assess Students

This article focuses on the right way to assess students during the journey that is the educational system.

Formative
Editorial Team
December 1, 2022
Thought Leadership

If your car gets a flat tire, do you throw up your hands in the air, kick the side of the car, and then scream at the tire for being flat? Believe it or not, your reaction here ties into the ways we continue to think about student assessments today. 

The hope is, you might confront that tire situation by pausing, evaluating the problem, and then acting accordingly. That’s the approach I took when I was a high-school language-arts teacher in New Jersey. We had a standardized test called the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) which we administered to juniors as part of their graduation requirements. I could have gotten upset at the weight the HSPA held in influencing my students’ future. Instead, I began to think about how I could repurpose and reframe this daunting test so that students might perceive it as a jumping-off point: something that could support their journey beyond high school as opposed to an obligation they had to pass. 

For example, the HSPA’s picture prompt asked for an imaginative, three-paragraph essay based on - you guessed it! - a picture. Rather than supply an image of my own choosing, I gave students the autonomy to pick one from their cell phones. This method allowed for open, rich dialogue between my students and me. Through this relatively simple action of selecting an image, students could explain the why behind their choices.

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After that step, I challenged my students to then explain themselves. Together, we developed dynamite hooks to engage an audience as you might in a job application; my students took their most valuable traits and turned them into the kinds of one liners that could appear on their future resumes. In doing so, we not only addressed the curriculum, but we covered a more critical skill that my students took ownership over. Writing these hooks helped them communicate their strengths in a way that could benefit them later in life.

Finally, we paired off to take turns telling our stories and practicing active listening. Not only did students get a chance to articulate their experiences before a larger audience, but they were also able to give and receive feedback. Taken together, all of these steps shifted focus to the journey, rather than to the test. Furthermore, they enabled me to work toward equipping students with the skills and mindsets they would need to navigate our changing world.

The end result? My students achieved 92% proficiency on the HSPA. While this score was a win, the most rewarding experience was watching them grow through guided learning. We focused on interpersonal skills like communication, active listening, and critical thinking: skills they carry with them beyond the test.

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Join Formative, Modern Classroom and a special guest educator from Hosford Middle School for an interactive, free webinar!

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Using Formative in the Modern Classroom

Join Formative, Modern Classroom and a special guest educator from Hosford Middle School for an interactive, free webinar!

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But let’s return to that flat-tire metaphor for a second. What happens if you yell at the problem in the hopes it magically fixes itself? Nothing - you’ll stay on the side of the road, trapped. And that’s my fear with regard to how many educators handle assessments. We assess the same way we have for the last century, but we expect to get different results. We value the end result - the test itself - more than the lessons students learned on the way to that destination, and so we never move the needle in terms of true student engagement. We’re trapped, so to speak.

Alvin Toffler, futurist and author of Future Shock, put it best when he remarked that "the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” We should prioritize the incremental steps during the journey, where students are inspired to become architects of their own instructional development. Yet we still hold onto summative and standardized tests as both the mechanism and ultimate assessor for measuring accountability, skills, and gaps in learning. 

Let’s take a step back. Lower our voices when eyeballing that flat tire. Assess the situation honestly. Let’s not forget that learning is a lifelong adventure. It extends beyond any one assessment. It’s a journey, not a destination. To make the most of it, we must invest in instructional technology that marries instruction and assessment so all participants - district leaders, teachers, and students - have the freedom to learn, unlearn, and relearn. To focus on the journey.

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