A teacher came up to me in the hallway, holding printed reports. Her grimace conveyed her frustration before she even spoke. “How can my students have such nice growth from fall to winter, only to see them slide back in the spring?” She was referring to our screener results, the computerized assessments we have our students take in fall, winter, and spring. They are supposed to serve us as initial indicators for which students need more support and which students need enrichment.
Unfortunately, educators too often end up in service to the assessment. For example, the teacher and I discussed the context in which the assessment took place: the middle of May, beautiful weather, and we are asking pre-adolescents to put forth their best effort on a test that has little to no meaning to them. “What should we expect at this time of the year?” I wondered aloud with the teacher. It didn’t resolve the issue, though. We left this brief conversation with more questions than answers.
When we limit ourselves to only one way of assessing student learning, we become dependent on the tools we use. An outcome is usually a number or a level. The assessments that lead to these results are often commercial products with little opportunity for local control. We can blame the tools, but what good does that do?
This lack of agency over the results of student learning could be described as “mindless assessment”. We accept the results as gospel even if they cause anxiety rather than inform our practice. To question them runs counter to the proclamation by the assessment companies that their technologies are “valid” and “reliable” to ensure fidelity within RtI. Yet when you look closely at the research to support some of these tools, many of the studies are self-funded and self-selected. The anecdotal and circumstantial evidence we collect in classrooms is, conversely, often viewed with skepticism.
So what can we move toward as a profession assessment-wise that can give back some control over the outcomes of learning to students and teachers? I don’t prescribe one approach over another. Rather, I would direct our attention to more mindful literacy assessment. The concept of mindfulness has been heavily researched with positive results. One scientist, Dr. Ellen Langer, defines mindfulness within her book of the same title as:
- continuous creation of new categories,
- openness to new information, and
- aware of more than one perspective.
Mindfulness is about being more aware of the present and worrying less about the past or the future. When people are mindful, they notice what is happening right now with an objective point of view. They resist judging, although they do question sources of information from a place of curiosity. As I read Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018), I couldn’t help but notice all of the connections between mindfulness and the authentic assessment practices she describes. In the rest of this post, I categorize some of these ideas within the context of mindful literacy assessment from past, future, and present perspectives.
Forget the Past (at least for a while)
One of the best aspects of a new school year is the opportunity to begin again in our learning journey. Students have a new teacher who knows little about them other than what might be passed up through the faculty grapevine and reputation.
Instead of reviewing their assessment data from the previous years, what if we came into a new classroom with expectations that all students will be successful? Could we hold off on passing judgment about a kid until we got to know them a little better?
Regie advocates for this. In the very first section on engagement, she calls for teachers to build trusting relationships as a priority during the first days of school. It isn’t about just literacy. “We simply cannot underestimate the power of positive relationships on the health, well-being, and achievement of all school community members” (10). For students to be able to learn, their basic needs have to be met. A strong relationship between student and teacher and as a classroom community are essential.
But what about all the time we are losing by not addressing reading and writing from day one? I hear you. What is being asked – slowing down and getting to know one another – seems contrary to the norm. Yet to be open to new ways of seeing each other, ourselves, and the world (the essence of mindfulness), this time in developing trust and relationships has to be a priority. The assessments will be there waiting.
Keep the Future in Perspective
The discussion described previously between the teacher and me is one example of the larger concern about student evaluation in general. I see a pattern where the further the assessment is removed from the context of the classroom, the less accurate yet more anxiety-producing them become. This is largely due to the desire of outsiders to publicize school report cards that are dependent on standardized tests. As Regie notes in her book, what information these scores reveal is limited at best.
We knowingly ignore the wide body of research that confirms that test scores primarily reflect family income. (312)
I have studied this phenomenon myself in my state of Wisconsin and I can attest to the accuracy of Regie’s statement. She offers sage advice for educators who worry too much about ensuring that their students reach expected goals and outcomes (318):
If we focus on the process, the product will improve.
This process that Regie speaks of suggests practices that help teachers focus on the present.
Easy to say, hard to do. I know. I am in classrooms regularly and I can confirm the challenges inherent in moving toward more mindful and authentic assessment practices. Classroom routines, room arrangement, and a strong community with a focus on student independence are a prerequisite for this level of practice.
Once these conditions are established, ongoing formative assessment can begin. Assessment for learning (vs. “of” learning) is always mindful: it resists categorization, it is open to new information, and it can guide teacher and student to consider multiple perspectives. Results are typically qualitative and anecdotal. Formative assessments don’t serve as the total answer to the assessment conundrum but rather as an important piece within an evaluation framework.
Conferring notes are one such example of ongoing formative assessment. Teachers can use technology, such as a stylus, an iPad, and a notetaking application such as Evernote or Notability. One of our first-grade teachers uses Notability to not only write information about each reader and writer but also to audio record the students reading aloud an independent text or their own writing. Students can listen to themselves reading and then self-assess their fluency.
Paper and pen/pencil are a tried and true technology. Another one of our teachers uses different colors of ink for every time she confers with her readers and writers. This gives her and her students a visual way of distinguishing the conferring notes.
Done systematically, conferring notes and other forms of ongoing, formative assessment can serve as a counter to the sometimes anxiety-inducing interim and summative evaluations. They breathe life into what can be a stagnant process. More responsive assessment practices conducted during instruction provide a richer picture of students, helping teachers see each kid as a unique individual. In addition, formative assessment guides instruction in response to each learner needs. As Regie notes, “quality formative assessments have the potential to create equal opportunities to learn for all students” (314). I would add that it also helps everyone be more mindful of what’s most important.
This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.