In schools across the country and probably across the world, September means assessments. We give all kinds of assessments to get to know our students, or should I say to get to know their academic strengths and weaknesses. I don’t think assessments have anything to do with getting to know our students. We determine who is high, medium, and low; who succumbed to “The Summer Slide,” and who excelled without our teaching. We do this in the grand name of progress. We pore over every score. Who is proficient and fluent? Who is struggling and not retaining the concepts and skills we’ve taught? But what do those numbers and labels that we diligently collect really tell us? What do we truly understand about the information we gathered? And how does that data affect our instruction?
As an elementary school learning specialist, I am keenly aware of these questions because I am not sure that copious amounts of data are changing or improving our teaching. I think the majority of teachers – whether in public, charter, or private schools – revert to the mean. By which I mean, they revert to what they know: they teach to the middle, often leaving behind the students with weaker skills and also boring to tears the students who have surpassed their grade-level standards.
I am sure teachers mean no harm. They just lack the awareness and knowledge of how to reach all students no matter their skill level. Many think you need specialized training and yes, that might be very beneficial, but what teachers really need to reach students is simple: the ability to be present and listen – the ability to tune out the educational jargon and tune into the little scholars in front of them. All they have do is ask…
- What does this child need?
- What is she telling me?
- What can I do to build her knowledge, her confidence, her motivation, and her curiosity?
- How can I create a classroom experience that will connect my students to each other and to big ideas too?
This past week, I came across a common assessment dilemma. A new teacher came to me with a problem. One of her young students did poorly on a sight-word spelling assessment, scoring 2 out of 27. I asked to see the assessment.
The teacher responded, “You want to see the hard copy?” And I wondered about her hesitancy until she handed me the student’s paper. Then my suspicions were confirmed. The student had left almost all of the test blank.
I asked the teacher, “What happened here? Why did she leave all these answers blank?”
The teacher replied, “I don’t know. It looked like she was writing?”
“Didn’t you walk around the room and check to see if everyone was following along?” I thought to myself, knowing full-well the answer.
The teacher responded, “I don’t think it’s my job to constantly watch over them. I can’t stand over all of them all the time!”
I took a deep breath and calmly said, “That’s not what I am suggesting. When I had my own classroom, I would walk around the classroom, so I could assess in the moment what each student was doing and what they may need assistance with.”
She was silent. Then I quietly asked to reassess the student the following day.
The teacher asked me if that was fair.
I asked her, “What is the point of the assessment?”
She answered, “To find out if they know how to spell grade-level sight words.”
I nodded, “Right, so do we understand what this student knows?”
The teacher shook her head.
Then I smiled and said, “Then I will need to reassess her.”
The next morning, I sat in our sun-filled school library in the presence of a little girl with dark braids and big brown eyes. She was eager and happy to sit with me. I explained that I would be giving her the spelling assessment again. Her bright eyes grew even larger. I told her that she should sound out the words even if she was unsure how to spell them. I told her to think carefully, go slowly, and try her best to show me what she knows about all the words I was going to read. She took up her pencil and began. I started to see what she knew. Not all the words were correct, but she spelled out each word carefully. Then I asked her why she had left so many blanks on the original assessment.
She said wisely, “I don’t like competitions.” I tried hard not to laugh.
“I don’t like to spell in front of people.” she added.
I asked her, “Were you nervous about getting the words wrong?”
“Yes,” she nodded vigorously.
When she was done, I showed her all the words she knew, and we looked at the ones she did not yet know how to spell. Many of the ones she missed, she was able to correct on her own. I gave her a lot of praise and commended her for trying and really thinking about how each word was spelled. This first grader, who originally scored 2/27, had now scored 21/27, given a second chance.
Now, why is that? Did she suddenly remember the sight words? Or is it more about confidence and performance? Does this student need more sight word drills, or does she need more encouragement? I guess it is obvious where I am going with this line of questioning. I know that assessments are useful, but if teachers are not present to their students, then the assessments can become meaningless. I humbly suggest five meaningful and mindful ways teachers can approach assessing their students:
- Remain present and open to possibility.
- Listen with intensity.
- Give specific and positive feedback.
- Find time throughout the day to encourage and motivate.
- Keep yourself and your students curious.