Effective teaching revolves around the practices of setting learning outcomes, choosing and enacting instructional activities, and assessment. While much focus has been placed on what and how we teach, assessment has been diminished to the annoying but necessary task of grading and recording scores. But what if we are wrong about this? Could assessment mean something different altogether?
When first responders are called to an emergency, they are trained to first assess the scene and ensure it is safe. In a short amount of time, they need to determine if there are unseen risks, identify any potential hazards, and then make appropriate decisions about how to respond.
Similarly, I can go to Meijer and assess the cereal aisle. I can see what types of cereals they have, the brands they carry, I can read nutrition labels and compare prices. I am not giving each cereal a definitive ranking, I am not scoring them on some master cereal scale. I am simply gathering information that will later help me make a decision. Should I buy cereal here or try a different store? Is this cereal truly “healthy”?
The Latin root of the word assessment is “assidere” which means to sit beside. When we think of assessment we should think about the process of observing our students and gathering information. So often we confuse assessment with evaluation, which has to do with giving a score or appraisal.
Assessment helps you know how to proceed. It’s the road sign offering options of where to go next. Evaluation is the conclusion, the trip summary. We assess so we can address. The purpose of assessment is always directed towards a next step. When we evaluate, we’re saying something conclusive about an end product, based on a set of values or criteria.
Why does this difference matter?
In an English thesaurus, evaluation and assessment are often given as synonyms. So why are we emphasizing the differences and what does that have to do with our math classrooms?
I’ve written before about the one simple practice that has transformed my teaching. It has to do with understanding students’ reasoning and getting curious about their thought process. Anybody that’s been through at least a week of a teacher education program would be able to tell you that a critical component of teaching is “assessing student thinking”. For the longest time, what I thought was meant by this was evaluating student thinking. As teachers, we need to see if our students are on the right track, if they’re “getting it”, and we do this by seeing if their answer is correct and then giving points accordingly. But what if our even bigger job was to understand student thinking, to identify how they’re making sense of a problem, to find out what connections they’re making between the current content and what they already know?
If assessing is the goal, then the questions we ask students while monitoring groups are aimed at gathering information about and from our students. It’s like trying to make visible what’s happening on the inside of their brains. Only then can we make an informed decision about how to proceed, such as what advancing question to ask next, or what to emphasize in the debrief.
When I focus on evaluating, my primary goal when monitoring groups will be to catch errors. “Did you use the right formula for the volume of a sphere?” or “Should the slope of your line be negative or positive?”
When I focus on assessing, my primary goal when monitoring groups will be to make visible and extend student thinking. “Can you explain what you meant when you wrote ____?” or “How is this different from what you did in question 2?”
Students’ answers to these assessing questions will help me know how to proceed. If a student explained that they got to the solution by trying a bunch of numbers I might probe further about how they chose the numbers they tried, or I might ask them to clarify how they determined which numbers work and which numbers don’t, or I might even suggest an alternate strategy, such as looking at a graph. If I simply evaluate and say yes, you’re right, or no, try again, I am limiting students’ learning opportunities in two major ways: first, I am communicating that the most important part of an answer is whether it’s right or not. Second, I am shutting down the possibility of making additional connections or deeper conceptual learning because students know they’ve already “arrived” because they got the answer right.
Evaluation says right or wrong, A- or B+, satisfactory or needs improvement. We know there is a time in the semester when we are required to make these kinds of evaluations. My argument is that we should use them much more sparingly than we are now because they in almost all cases, stop the learning. A good score says to a student “Great! I’m good at this!” A bad score says to a student “Great. I'm terrible at this.” Evaluation is a parking lot. We’ve arrived. Nothing to see anymore.
What do students do with our assessments? What do students do with our evaluations?
Assessments (informal, formal, observational, conversational, and written) are meant to provide information that can be used to make decisions, like when a first responder assesses a scene or when I assess my cereal options at the grocery store. For teachers, assessments are used to make instructional decisions. For students, assessments give clarity about what they know and don’t know and can push their thinking forward. Note that it is the assessment itself, whether informally done by a teacher asking questions as they are working in groups, or more formally as they are working on a problem, that gives them that information, not the grade that they may earn as a result (the evaluation). Even if feedback is coupled with the grade, research shows that not only do students not benefit from that feedback, but they also don’t pay any attention to it (Butler & Nisan, 1986). When students receive an evaluation (i.e. a grade) learning stops. When students and teachers gather information about a student’s understanding through questioning, rich problems, or conversation, that information becomes a trellis to support future learning.
So far we’ve talked about the process of assessment, in essence what we are doing when we are assessing. We’ve also discussed how this is different from evaluating, and why it might be productive to focus on one over the other. In an upcoming blog post, we’ll discuss what should be on our actual assessments (i.e. homework, quizzes, and tests), if our goal is to uncover student understanding.