Understandings of Assessment Must Be Formative

Submitted by Jimmy Pai – Secondary Teacher in Ottawa, Ontario

What does assessment mean to you?

Is it a test? A quiz? An interaction? A response? A student’s glare in a particular direction as she’s working on a problem? Or perhaps a teacher’s noticings of this glare and many moments?

This word, ‘assessment,’ can be a contentious one, depending on what our experiences have been with the word, and how we continue to define it.

For some of my colleagues, it doesn’t matter what colours we add to the word ‘assessment.’ Their negative experiences overshadow everything, rendering all terrain around the word infertile – an area of professional reflection where nothing grows.

For some of my colleagues, somehow the tone completely changes depending on what words or phrases we attach to this word ‘assessment’ – Formative assessment;  Summative assessment; Assessment of learning; Assessment for learning;  Assessment as learning – as if the qualifiers are puppet masters, and we are their strings that clutch onto completely segregated limbs of the same concept.

In a way, it’s kind of like water.  Our experiences may differ depending on what containers we see it in, what creatures lurk within, or whether it had drowned or sustained us in the past.  And so, what is the shape of your water?  Is it a book? An award winning film?  Or perhaps something that powers your coffee?

So what am I getting at?

Assessment is understood in different ways.  This is true for us teachers on the front lines, as well as in literature.

And that is fine.  Just like our learning journey, we are all at different places.  Just like our journey, there may not be a single destination that everyone is headed toward, but there may be more helpful and beautiful areas to explore (but then again, beauty is subjective as well).  Just like how we facilitate learning, we need to appreciate the fact that people are at different places.

And that’s really it.

We are standing on different roads and we are painted with different scenery: perhaps a forest, a city, or a beach.  Some of us may have recently stepped foot onto a meadow.  We may have been chased here by a pledge of wasps.  Or maybe we just woke up from a mid-autumn dream.  Or maybe we came specifically to claim the colours of the flowers as our own.

Appreciating the diversity of where we’re at is important.  But not nearly as important as recognizing that, like sharks, we will suffocate unless we swim.  However we have come to understand assessment, there is no moving our craft forward, unless we move with it.

In other words: our understandings of assessment must be formative.

No, I am not talking about the field of formative assessment that has exploded ever since Black and Wiliam (1998a, or 1998b) wrote about the insides of a black box.  I am referring to the idea that our understandings of assessment, if we were to maintain a position of learning, need to be malleable.

For example, within the past four years or so, I have been working on creating a thinking classroom (e.g. Liljedahl 2016).  In many ways, this completely shifted my interactions with the students, and students’ interactions with each other.  While I have always facilitated group activities and conversations in order to create a helpful learning environment, the elements of the thinking classroom has been transformative for my practice.  Some have misunderstood and reduced the tenets of Liljedahl’s work to simply having kids stand around and working on whiteboards, there’s truly many aspects to explore and consider within the framework.

Shifting my practice in this way was also consequential for my assessment practices.  And since definitions are only useful to me if they are functional, my definitions of assessment have also changed.

And this is what I mean.  As we learn more about learning and more about teaching, our assessments necessarily change.  As we respond to our students in different ways for their different needs, our assessments necessarily change.  As we converse and learn from colleagues about different tasks, activities, and ways of implementing tasks and activities, our assessments necessarily change.  And as we modify and fuel our assessments, our definitions are also evolving.

For me, assessment is not bound by paper.  It is not shackled by desks sorted neatly in rows and columns.  It is not defined by percentages or single letters.

For me, assessment lives and breathes through the conversations between students.  It powers and informs my decisions in the classroom.  It brings my attention to why one of my students have been quiet for days, and that the silence had less to do with the activities in my class, and more to do with the happenings at home.  It prompts me to support students with all the knowledge and experience I can muster.

My understandings of assessment are constantly evolving because I am constantly learning more about my students.  As I learn more about my students, I am constantly challenged to try different strategies of reaching out to them.  As I extend my hands, I am constantly imagining different ways of providing feedback based on what I am learning about them.

So the water flows constantly.

What is the shape of your water?

And, perhaps more importantly: what will you make with it?

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