How a Balanced Assessment Strategy Helps Identify Learning Gaps
External Uncertainty and Internal Chaos
Not in a hundred years has the educational landscape been so uncertain. In just the last few months, schools have faced mass closures, digital triage instruction, and are now confronted with nebulous guidelines for re-opening for the fall term. On top of it all, federal testing requirements were waived across the board, and districts are preparing for a new school year in the absence of external assessment data for the first time in memory. This lack of external data and guidance can quickly lead to a chaotic internal environment. Here are a few ways that a balanced assessment strategy can help you navigate these waters and future proof your district from further uncertainty.
Internal Assessment of all Shapes and Sizes
Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to assessment, as is typical of federal testing requirements and state-level summative assessments, you should strengthen your internal assessment practices to address the full spectrum of student needs. Three ways to do this are via formative assessments, benchmark assessments, and summative assessments.
Formative assessment is a continuous process by which students and teachers work together to meet learning objectives. At the most effective levels, when students are actively assessing and working to better themselves, formative assessment is “…the continuous process of assessing one’s own mastery of content and skills, and discerning and pursuing next steps to move forward toward a goal.” Class discussions and questioning strategies, classwork, homework, quizzes, peer review, and much more can all be examples of good formative assessment that help identify and address learning gaps as learning progresses.
Benchmark assessments are regular, interim assessments that measure—or benchmark—student progress toward annual goals and/or performance on a final summative evaluation, “…which in turn transfers into subsequent years of teaching, learning, and assessment.” Using benchmark assessments as a part of your balanced program can tell you where large groups of students are at a given point in time and to predict their future performance on a summative assessment experience. Adjustments to instruction—re-teaching concepts, future scope and sequence—can be made based upon the results.
Summative assessment represents the culmination of the learning program put forth by the school/district. Summative assessment tells you whether or not students learned what they were meant to have learned during the course of the school year. Internally-developed common summative assessments, such as final exams, can not only help you determine whether or not students have
learned, but where the gaps may be in the scope and sequence of the curriculum, and can be used to inform the development and use of curriculum maps and make improvements to the next year’s instruction. Especially in an online environment, these don’t just have to be tests! Effective online summative assessment can also encompass long-term project-based learning and other performance-based tasks.
Robust Classroom Observations, Walkthroughs, and Engaging Instruction
Classroom observations and teacher evaluations shouldn’t just be an exercise in checking boxes. They represent a genuine opportunity to engage in conversations not only about student learning, but the teacher’s contribution to the student’s learning through the use of high quality data. Observing teacher-student interactions in a formal observation environment can tell you a lot about where students and classrooms of students are in making progress toward annual goals, and should be a part of any internal balanced assessment strategy.
John Antonetti and James Garver proposed using classroom visits to actively listen to learners and focus on items of student control and learning rather than simply focusing on teaching behaviors. When you talk to the students themselves and try to ascertain how a classroom is set up for them to direct their own learning, you gain a clearer picture of each individual learner as well as a larger view of the potential curriculum and professional practice gaps between classrooms.
As part of this formal and informal observation component of your overall strategy, are you looking for truly engaging student instruction? During observations, what percentage of students are demonstrating both high levels of attention and commitment to the tasks at hand? Observations that look for and address student engagement help complete the picture and will tell you way more than any external state-mandated summative assessment ever will about the whole child.
Self-Reliance and Your Learning Management System (LMS)
Many districts try to do most, if not all of the above, within the physical environment of the school. Administrators, teacher leaders, and instructional coaches dutifully roam the halls, popping into classrooms to see if learning objectives are posted and if students can explain what they are learning that day, or to quickly observe and later follow up on teacher strengths and potential areas for support. Teachers physically engage in formal and informal assessment strategies of all types to gather data on what students know, have learned, and are able to do, and they use that data to drive the next day’s instruction.
So what happens when the entire system is upended? And even when there isn’t a pandemic on, when schedules are disrupted or other calamity days occur, is your school positioned to continue conducting observations and assessing students in a meaningful way in an alternative format?
There are a ton of assessment management systems out there. A good LMS will incorporate such a platform into its structure, allowing your teachers to do things like design aligned common formative assessments, mirror external state-level tests, and to gather, break down, and share high quality student data across classrooms and teacher teams. These tools are online, cloud-based, and seamlessly shareable, allowing you to be almost completely self-reliant and prepared for anything, including future school closures and/or the cancellation of external assessment programs.
Classroom visits can also take place virtually. How are the modules structured? Are students participating in meaningful online discussion boards? Can students explain the online learning objectives efficiently and substantively? A good learning management system makes teacher-student-family-administrator collaboration easier and gives you a better picture of how each student is actually learning.
Stability for School, Students, and Families
The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the need for districts to be able to maintain internal consistency amidst external factors beyond their control. A balanced, internally strengthened program of assessment, combined with the power and simplicity of your learning management system and assessment management solution, will help give you a more holistic picture of each student. More than just reporting grades, a true internal assessment strategy will help identify learning gaps and help students, families, and educators fill those gaps, no matter the learning format and no matter how uncertain the external environment.