Build a Positive Culture with Assessment

I think one of the things that is often overlooked when it comes to establishing a positive and supportive culture in our classrooms is assessment. As teachers, we can sometimes feel as if we have no control over it. I’ll admit that I know I have felt like this before in the face of common assessments and standardized tests. But we have more control than we think, and we need to work to reclaim not only the term but also the use of assessment in our classrooms.

I first learned about the idea of construct and consequential validity when I read Beyond Standardized Truth by Scott Filkins. In this book, Filkins explores both ideas of validity, and argues that “What happens to the student as a result of taking a test (including accounting for the instructional time devoted to participating in the assessment) is as central to the test’s educational validity as the quality of its construction” (19). He breaks this down further by posing a set of questions to help differentiate between the two. One of the questions that I think is most important is this: “Is the student in any way harmed by the assessment?” (19)  

As teachers, we spend a lot of time thinking about the validity of the construction of our assessments. We ask ourselves, Does this measure what we want it to? We think about whether or not the items are inclusive and that they honor students’ identities in order to reduce bias. We ask whether or not the assessment matches our learning targets and whether or not it is of appropriate difficulty, but we rarely ask what our assessments do to the learning environment. Will our assessment leave students feeling empowered or defeated? Will they feel as if we have prepared them along the way, or will the expectations of our assessment surprise them and damage their sense of self-efficacy, motivation to continue,  and trust toward us? 

Even if just one student’s motivation is negatively impacted by our assessment, our entire learning environment suffers. Sometimes we are quick to acknowledge this about external assessments like the ACT or SAT when we see students’ reactions as they receive their scores, but we sometimes avoid their reactions when they receive their results from our own assessments. And then there are even those teachers who pride themselves on how difficult an assessment was, rather than celebrating how many students succeeded.

Regardless of the norms that we establish or the countless times that we reiterate to the class that we “care” and are there to “support them,” it all means nothing if the way we assess them feels like a kick in the stomach or a slap in the face.

Rick Stiggins reiterates a similar point as Filkins in The Perfect Assessment System, where he argues for educators to rethink how, when, and why they assess in their classrooms. And this line stopped me hard: “You might show me the most valid and reliable assessment in the world, but if the results it generates lead students to give up in hopelessness, it may not be a high-quality assessment, for the simple reason that it may do far more harm than good” (84).

He continues later by writing that “assessment FOR learning” is important because “A student’s emotional response to assessment results will determine what that student decides to do about those results: keep working, or give up” (85).

Stiggins mentions that students who seem to always encounter failure in their assessments, can begin to think along these lines:

“This hurts; I’m not safe here”

“I can’t do this either”

“Why is it always about what I can’t do?”

“Feedback hurts me—scares me”

And these responses are in direct contrast to the type of mindset we want to cultivate in students. Those who develop positive views of themselves begin to want more success and embrace feedback, while those who experience negative consequences begin a downward spiral that can affect the rest of their educational experience. 

If we want students to take risks in their thinking, to challenge themselves, to try something on, we have to create spaces where they can try again. We have to embrace the messiness, the idea that first attempts aren’t always right. We can prove to our classes that we will support students with assessment, using our informed practice to help all kids learn.

Brookhart and Moss argue in Learning Targets that learning targets help develop students who are “assessment-capable” or “students who regulate their own learning” (79). And if we want students to really be capable of embracing and using assessments and feedback, we have to be mindful of the messages that our assignments send to students. If they are one-shot assignments, then we tell students that we don’t value mistakes or the learning process. We expect them to get it within one opportunity, something that anyone who has ever learned anything knows is not the case.

We also cannot forget that very real reality that assessments–and I use the term broadly here to include many kinds, including essays, performances, tests–are experiences for students. They do not just do these things; rather, they do these things under particular conditions and experience effects afterward. There is a direct connection to an emotional state of mind and well being that we cannot separate and we have to think long and hard about.

We must also think about how this contributes to the culture of our classroom. Do we want students who value their grades or who value learning? What do our assessments reveal at the end? This can also lead into helping students develop different types of goals. Sometimes students buy into the idea that performance goals matter more than mastery goals. As Moss and Brookhart also mention that students that choose performance goals (like getting an A on a test) are “more extrinsically motivated and rely on rewards or praise from others” (67). We can work to help students become interested in mastery goals, who want to “increase their competence,” put in effort over longer periods of time, and “expect to receive feedback on how well they are doing and how to improve” (68). The latter is the culture around goals that I would want in my classroom. 

I end with a final reminder that we have students in our classrooms who have not felt successful in very long time, if ever at all. With the start of the year upon us, I ask us all to think about the ways we can assess students to inform instruction but to also support and build students’ confidence and winning streaks. We can ask how our assessment will impact students’ motivation, and we can actively work to develop an assessment culture where everyone learns and thrives.

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