Whenever I think of assessment in the classroom, I am reminded of a rubric I created a long time ago to go along with a short writing assignment for my grade eight Language Arts class. You can see it below. Many would agree that rubrics are excellent tools — they show the students exactly what the expectations are and the scale we’ll use to assess their work. True. However, as a young teacher many years ago, I used this rubric alone and nothing else. I did not have an assessment and evaluation strategy to support my students and learn from my classroom practice. My students submitted work, and I evaluated it. That was it. What I’ve learned since is what every experienced teacher knows very well: that assessment for learning — an ongoing process that provides students with timely and meaningful feedback, informs us about how well the students are doing, and gauges the effectiveness of our classroom practice — must be an integral part of our role as classroom teachers.
Let’s look closely at my rubric. What exactly is it telling Terry about his work in my classroom and his grasp of the content we’re studying? Here’s one point of view: Terry received a rubric with detailed descriptors. If he takes the time to read them, he will see what he did well and what prevented him from getting a better grade. He can also see that he received a very good mark (80%) and a nice comment. Doesn’t this note contribute to Terry’s understanding of how well he’s doing in my class and how well he’s grasped the material? Perhaps. But here is another point of view: What does “Well Done!” really mean? What does it really teach Terry? How helpful is it in ensuring that he does well on the next assignment? Is it a scaffold that he can use to improve, to scale new and more challenging heights in Mr. Glogowski’s class? Is Terry (who is 13 years old) going to take the time to read the descriptors carefully? Does he truly understand how he achieved that A-, and how to repeat that success next time?
My point of view is that, based on this rubric, Terry now understands one thing very well: That assignment is now behind me, I’ve jumped through yet another hoop, and quite well. In other words, as a teacher, I missed an opportunity to engage Terry in a conversation about his work and his learning because the one thing that this rubric does very well — when used alone and not as part of a larger, more complex assessment strategy — is the following: It terminates opportunities for conversations with students about their work. The work is done, the grade assigned. It’s time to move on to another topic, another assignment, another hoop.
What if, instead of writing that short comment and assigning a grade, I took the time to write the following:
Terry, you took some risks with organization but it worked out beautifully. I know you know that topic sentences need to be at the very beginning, but by starting with an anecdote you totally pulled me in! Let’s chat about this next time we discuss your writing.
I also want to ask for your permission to share your work with the class tomorrow — there are some good examples here of how to be an effective storyteller. Is that OK? Talk to me if you think this would make you uncomfortable.
Finally, when I read this piece I see another important thing: Ever since you stopped giggling with Michael in class during writing time, your work has improved significantly. Did you notice that too?
Be ready to discuss your next draft with me tomorrow.
Is this assessment? I certainly think it is. It points out to Terry what makes his work good, provides loads of constructive encouragement, and shows that writing — and learning — is a process, one that involves conversations. Of course, in order to make this work, I would first have to ensure that the assignment requires several drafts, but that’s just basic common sense. How else is Terry going to become a good writer unless he understands that writing is a process? But what did my original rubric teach him? That school is about handing things in and getting a grade. My second attempt shows a very different conception of school and learning.
In too many classrooms, work is assigned, handed in, receives a grade … and any opportunity to engage students in thinking about and learning from their work is lost. In a classroom devoted to meaningful, timely, and effective feedback, and to assessment for learning, not mere assessment of learning, we engage students in conversations that provide them with the support and guidance they need to be successful. These conversations and the feedback we give also provide us — the teachers — with valuable information on how well we’re reaching and supporting the learners in our classrooms. And yet, in many classrooms around the world, assessment for learning is just not present, which begs an important question: what’s stopping us from providing this kind of ongoing and meaningful support to our students? Why is it so challenging to implement?