The Teacher as Assessor

A little handmade meme has popped up recently in my Facebook feed, shared by Alexandra Penfold, a children’s author and food writer.

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Interesting, no? Being told—by scientific measurement, no less—that you were minimally proficient at the skill that was your heart’s desire and life goal. And then sailing on to the very wonderful career you planned, data be damned.

There are lots of implications here, most importantly that test scores are not even close to reality. The first question I would ask Penfold, if I could, is whether she was ever made to feel as if her skills were ‘remedial’—either by any of her teachers, or by her family. I doubt it.

But I have heard plenty of stories about kids who seemed to be fine, cooking right along, until they were derailed by surprising test results, causing a radical change in plans (different classes, different college, different career). Testing impacts lives—and Penfold probably missed the worst of the data fetishism that has become standard in American public education.

And yet, the alternative—the teacher as sole assessor–has come to feel almost random to us. Do we trust teachers—all teachers—to provide useful and accurate feedback, the kind that nurtures children’s dreams and also pushes them to excel? It’s a tall order.

Teachers develop their personal assessment skills and models over time. And building equity and encouragement into testing and grading (as opposed to using evaluation as sorting or punishing) takes a lot of trial and error. Some teachers are good at using grades and scores as investments in student growth. Others, not so much.

Universities don’t do enough to prepare teachers with a range of assessment strategies—but there are limits to the training even the best college programs provide. The only way to become seriously good at assessment—in ways that help students– is practice over time.

Here’s a story:
When I was a novice teacher (back in the 1970s, when merely suggesting that teachers ought to have common grading scales or practices was considered an insult to one’s academic freedom), one of my assignments was 5th grade beginning band. I met with students in like-instrument groups, twice a week.

There were no grades. Band was considered an elective activity, and none of the elementary electives were graded, largely because the teachers who taught them saw hundreds of students each week. I thought of myself as a Band Director, a more rigorous secondary teacher. I thought part of the reason my students weren’t making the progress I thought they should–backsliding between sessions, snickering when they made mistakes, not taking their learning seriously–was because they weren’t getting a grade.

So I graded them secretly. I had them play, every 2-3 weeks, one at a time, and took notes on a legal pad. I clustered them in groups—the stars, the competent ones, the not-yet-but-maybes, and those who really shouldn’t be in band next year, when they would be meeting daily and at last getting real letter grades. By the end of the year, I had a lot of unshared data on these students.

There was one little girl in the clarinets that I found hopeless. I got tired of switching her hands (left on top, right on the bottom, instead of the reverse) and putting the correct fingers over the holes. She was a sweet girl, chubby, bespectacled and earnest, but her clarinet playing was comprised mainly of squeaking (leaky fingers), honking and miscounting. In my rank ordering of about 20 clarinet players, she was dead last.

The pad went into the bottom of a cardboard box, when I moved up to the middle school the next year. The clarinet player moved up, too. In fact, I taught her for eight years, giving her the John Phillip Sousa award as a senior, as she headed off to the university as a music major.

I found the pad some years later. I had, of course, forgotten all about my earlier assessment of a girl whose persistence carried the day. It was easy to see how her initial failures were largely my fault; by the time I found the ‘assessment,’ I was much better at teaching beginning clarinets. I was also lots better at using the power of the test or grade to enhance learning.

But that’s the bottom line here: assessments have tremendous power, for progress or penalty.

Be careful out there.

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