Friday, March 29, 2013

#Slice 2013: 29 of 31- Thinking about assessment

This month I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge hosted by Stacey and Ruth at Check out some of the comments there to see what others are writing.

While many unintended consequences exist because of the high-stakes testing that exists in education, one of them is a misunderstanding of what assessment actually is and why we should be assessing. There are three reasons that I know of for assessing:

  1. Accountability (we all know about this one)
  2. To determine what students have learned
  3. To guide our instruction
In my work as the district's writing coordinator, many teachers have asked me about the pre-assessments that exist at the beginning of almost every one of our units. "How can I ask them to do something that I haven't really taught them?"

Part of the answer to this question goes back to the Lucy Calkins adage, teach the writer, not the writing. Part of the answer also lies in a question: Why teach them what they already know? They might surprise you. Pre-assessment does not mean that the expectation is to stay with that writing piece and work on it until it is perfect. Pre-assessment is one of the strongest examples of how we use assessment to guide instruction.

Yesterday, we were in a classroom with a staff developer from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and she launched fourth graders into an argument essay unit. Most of them had never written an essay before, so Emily Smith gave a quick lesson on how an essay goes and how to plan for it by having them read a mentor essay. She gave them the topic of dress code to think about and walked them through how to think about reasons and examples. All of this took less than fifteen minutes. 

Then, she sent the students off to write. Within another ten minutes, here are some of the products.

These two examples are pretty solid introductions, especially when we think about the fact that this is the first day of the unit. These were two of the higher examples that I saw, although there were some students who were able to keep going using paragraphs and ordinal words. These students would thrive on various ways to craft an introduction, incorporate quotes, interject voice--they could explore some sophisticated craft moves.

This next example was from a child who was having a harder time accessing his reasons. From an instructional standpoint, he might need verbal rehearsal of reasons--he might even need practice at stating his opinion since I'm not sure he didn't just copy the one that Emily had put on the class chart. 

So the question is what to do next? Do we go back to these pieces and work with them? You could. But, maybe you don't go back to them at all, but just tuck them away so that you can take them out at the end of the unit and celebrate the learning. 

I share this because it was an example of an assessment designed to guide instruction, regardless of whether the teacher continues with these pieces or tucks them away. The students were not stressed, the results are not to be entered into the computer, they do not impact report cards. Assessment can actually be a really good thing for teaching and learning. 

Enjoy your day!


  1. Love your thinking here. Too often pre-assessment is overlooked -or, I know I do at times. But it truly is a gift to guide our instruction.

  2. Too often teachers are in the mental mode of this is what I have to teach, so I will get on with it and not pre-assess. I think this is a great way to use the assessment to know what to teach during a unit of study. I love the way you lay out this thinking and what could result from the pre-assessment.

  3. So interesting to read this, Melanie, because I have been experimenting with this process in our current essay writing genre study. I've used Lucy Calkin's "Breathing Life into Essays" and her Units of Study to guide me, and changed my approach to teaching. My kids have been writing essays and I've been using these to assess and formulate the next set of mini lessons - in other words I use them to guide my teaching. Each new essay is built on new craft "moves" (as TC likes to call it) and now that we have about 8, my kids will pick one to revise and publish next week. It was a completely new way to structure our workshop - and my kids have made great progress. So, once again, thank you TC.
    PS. I'm doing the Reading and Writing Summer Institutes in August - I hope to keep learning from folks like Lucy, Mary Ehrenworth, and Emily Smith!

  4. Pre-assessment definitely presents the opportunity for students to see their own growth at the end of a unit as well as provide teachers with valuable information about student needs. Skipping this chance to really see what students know and are capable of before a unit of study is something that I am sometimes guilty of, and this post reminds me of what we're all missing when that happens.

  5. Thank you for a thoughtful post on how meaningful assessment can be. I love the options you explore in how a teacher can choose to use these assessments--to revise these pieces or to guide instruction on different pieces. I love the idea of celebrating the learning at the end.

  6. Hi Melanie
    Your post reminded me of a similar post I had written at during the start of the year. Please check it out and comment - I would love to hear your thoughts. I wish I had the privilege of teaching with you. When teachers with similar philosophies and belief systems come together it is remarkable what they can accomplish :)