Authentic Assessment

By Julie Mountcastle, Head Teacher & Director of Creative Arts

 Photo:  Quentin Jones

Photo: Quentin Jones

Take a good look at this treehouse. An observer might notice that it is tilted quite dramatically, with bits of roof missing and boards akimbo. It needs a new board on the side to make it safe, and a whole lot of structural help. However, when we look with a different and positive perspective, we see that the roof is intact, and that the beam beneath the structure in the back is large and well tethered to the tree. The house itself seems to be built with an incredible respect for the structure that the tree has given it. Most importantly, the enormous branch that serves as the central support for the structure is strong and stable. This is a treehouse to build up, and not to break down.

We assessed the same treehouse with two different lenses. You might notice that it feels better to look at the treehouse through the latter, more positive lens. I'm sure the treehouse builder would agree. This is the job of the teacher: to build. The analogy of the treehouse is particularly apt because the parameters of structure must be different for every tree, just as they are for every child. We must consider what they’re made of, what supports them, their roots, and who they really are. There is always something beautiful to be built. However, if the focus is always on what’s wrong, some of what’s inherently right will certainly be missed, or at least underdeveloped.

We use assessment every day. From the moment before we cross the street to the development of goals for a long-term project, we are constantly assessing. If it were not for assessment, we would be unable to appreciate our accomplishments, or to measure the risk of a new venture. Assessment is critical, but it must be done authentically, and that can sometimes be messy.

Assessment is key for student achievement. The seeds are sewn at the start of Kindergarten, when students begin thinking about goals that they'd like to achieve, and skills that they'd like to master. Each week at Slate School, students meet together to share the goals they have chosen for themselves for the week and to discuss the efforts they commit to make toward achieving their goal. The goals and commitments are shared because we are a community, and we support each other in attaining our personal goals. On Friday, students reconvene to share how their plans were fulfilled, and we subsequently celebrate their effort and grit. Progress toward goals is assessed separately so that when Monday rolls around again, children are able to modify their own commitment to further advance their progress and plans.

This is meaningful assessment on three levels. First, the goal is 100% student driven. For example, children may choose to find and observe earthworms every day for the week, or master chopsticks on the keyboard, or find the answer to three new questions about their project topic. Second, this practice of reflection, assessment and adjustment is infinitely transferrable. Students routinely use these skills to improve their performance in sports, or in pursuit of mastery of dance steps, or learning new piano pieces. Finally, since students periodically review goals and commitments from the past, they eagerly become accountable for their own learning.

Authentic assessment of student progress by educators is also critical for student growth. This is a task to be accomplished with the utmost care, and through observations that are vigilantly documented. Educators must be intimately familiar with student behaviors that demonstrate mastery of well-researched, developmentally-appropriate benchmarks, and they need to maintain carefully curated records. Students immersed in learning about their interests are often so passionately engaged that they don’t even recognize their emerging mastery. It is the educator’s role to alert the student to their accomplishments and guide them toward their next powerful understanding or milestone. Meticulous records are created by the educator to mark their mastery and next steps. In this way, assessment is a lens, and it is most effective when identifying success, while also recognizing misconceptions and areas for direct or small group instruction. The weekly practice of honest reflection, combined with personal goal and commitment, ultimately benefits the students, as they are truly able to participate as the primary stakeholders in their own education.

There are many options for collecting and curating student work. Portfolios are lovingly filled with documents, photos, and expressions of learning on paper, including art work, poetry, stories, or any variety of texts that support understanding. More often, assessment occurs by observing students in action. For example, educators often observe noteworthy conversations between students who are sharing thoughts and respectfully considering opposing ideas or solutions. It is even more common to see peers teaching each other, or discovering some connection between projects that previously seemed completely disparate. During these conversations, students offer the educator ample opportunity to assess. As an example, the educator may assess whether the children are using domain-specific language, speaking in complete sentences, asking questions that extend their understanding, making connections across the curriculum, and asking for clarification when something is not quite clear.

Nurturing a child's questions helps to develop lifelong learners in ways and depths that far exceed standard paper and pencil assessment. The student-driven questions offer the educator an opportunity to guide instruction. Teachers are also asking questions designed to move students along in their learning. Are the students developing plans to use the new understanding? What tools do students need in order to follow this plan, and what choices do they have at their disposal for sharing their learning as it develops? The educator makes observations that form a prescription, not to fix something broken, but to make something great that is even better. New enticements are created to specifically support necessary learning. Some enticements are as simple as providing puppets for student retelling of a story, or primary paints and paper for color mixing, or a bowl of marbles to represent the number of rabbits sighted in the courtyard. Small groups of students with complimentary needs are convened for direct instruction before the students eagerly run off to practice with their new tools and skills. Educators fill the tank and ride along as the students drive toward their further understanding.

There is solid evidence that authentic assessment in student-centered classrooms results in enormously successful outcomes. So why don’t we do it everywhere, every time? For one thing, it can’t be standardized. Data driven educators with large class sizes have less time for the thoughtful conversations with students, parents and colleagues that are needed to maintain authentic assessment at its most meaningful. Trees come in different shapes and sizes, and the building doesn’t look the same for everybody, so it’s hard to compare one child or one treehouse to another. However, true assessment is multi-faceted and requires more than a spreadsheet to understand student success. It’s messy. It’s beautifully messy.