Begin your assessment empowerment journey with principle #1: Learner context

I am the youngest sibling in my family, and like many youngests, I would hear, “Oh, you’re so-and-so’s little sister” a lot from teachers growing up. I would politely nod while also worrying: Am I going to be compared to my brothers? Am I going to be considered a disappointment because I’m not as smart or athletic or creative? Will my teachers get to know and respond to me?

Sometimes teachers would truly see me; sometimes they wouldn’t. Those experiences inspire me to this day. I don’t want any learner to ever have to worry about how assumptions or comparisons might hold them back. I also know that experiences like these are just a fraction of what so many kids worry about and go through, especially students who are from marginalized groups. Many of those kids are weighed down by much heavier questions: Will my math teacher think I can’t do math because I’m a girl? Will my teacher listen if I ask them to use my updated name and pronouns? Will my teacher always make me speak in English, or can I use other languages to better express what I’m trying to say?

Assessment empowerment starts with learner context

It’s common to make decisions based on assumptions or comparisons. We’re all only human, after all, not to mention tired and overworked. But if we don’t check ourselves, we risk operating as learner managers instead of learner empowerers, albeit unconsciously, which can lead us to making decisions based on limited information, instead of with students and informed by their context: their strengths, interests, funds of knowledge, identities, and needs.

Spectrum of the learner manager and learner empowerer mindsets. The learner manager mindset is applied to learners and is on the left end of the spectrum. The learner empowerer mindset is applied with learners and is on the right end of the spectrum. Being a learner manager can interfere with learning and can contribute to disparity and trauma. Being a learner empowerer fuels learning and can alleviate the effects of disparity and trauma.Partnering with learners to know and use their context is critical for student well-being, agency, and learning success, as well as educational equity and effective assessment processes. This human-first approach is not new. Improvement-science principles shared by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching include making sure continuous improvement processes begin with gathering, analyzing, and using empathy data because, as educator Sharon Greenberg states, “If you want to teach someone well, you have to know who you’re teaching.” Human-centered design, a process, mindset, and approach to solving complex problems, also begins with understanding the people who experience a challenge or structure so that the solution can be successful.

Partnering with learners to know and use their context […] is critical for student well-being, agency, and learning success, as well as educational equity and effective assessment processes.

Assessment empowerment draws on these existing human-centered approaches, assessment scholarship, and the understanding that assessment processes are integral parts of responsive teaching and learning cycles to ensure that both big-picture and day-to-day structures and practices at each level of the educational ecosystem fuel all students to attain their full potential as thriving, self-determined individuals and community members.

The who, what, and how elements of the responsive learning cycle are listed above the 5 assessment empowerment principles. The 5 principles are: analyze and apply learner context, cultivate a community of learning, attend to assessment purpose, engage in responsive learning cycles, and exchange learning evidence information.Let’s start the work of assessment empowerment by exploring that first principle: Leverage learner context.

Breaking down the definition of “leverage learner context”

At NWEA, we define the first principle of assessment empowerment as follows: All assessment structures, practices, and tools are informed by and responsive to learners’ personal and local context. (Context includes strengths, interests, funds of knowledge, identities, and needs.)

It’s important to understand the following key phrases in that definition before we can begin to do things differently as educators:

  • Informed by and responsive to learners’ personal context
  • Informed by and responsive to learners’ local context

“Informed by and responsive to learners’ personal context” means that we know our students beyond demographic data or shortcomings, and we use the information with them to fuel motivation, well-being, and growth. “Informed by and responsive to learners’ local context” means that we also learn, value, and actively use the student’s strengths, interests, funds of knowledge, and identities, as well as the needs of their unique families and communities.

From theory to practice

Here are a day-to-day classroom example and a big-picture school example to help you celebrate how you already apply the first principle of assessment empowerment as well as plan next steps for continuous improvement.

A classroom example

Ms. McKenzie, a ninth-grade ELA teacher, knows her students’ demographic information because it’s available through her school’s data management system, but she doesn’t stop there. She teams with students throughout the year to get to know them better, and she uses the information to inform collaborative teaching and learning moves, including assessment decisions.

For instance, before Ms. McKenzie begins a unit to practice and apply reading complex texts to analyze character development, she partners with her students on a variation of the exercise “What I wish my teacher knew.” The questions prompt students to share information that they choose about their interests, strengths, funds of knowledge, identities, and needs related to reading and character analysis as well as learning or personal interests, aspirations, and concerns. Ms. McKenzie and her students use this information to make responsive decisions in the unit, such as forming flexible learning paths, making meaningful connections to other texts, selecting independent-reading texts, and inviting guest speakers. Ms. McKenzie and her students also use it to shape responsive formative and summative tasks, which are components of the responsive learning cycle. For instance, in pre-unit planning, Ms. McKenzie outlines formative and summative tasks that allow for voice and choice, such as choosing from a menu of options to practice and then demonstrate character analysis skills. During the learning journey, she includes the assessment menu options that connect to students’ context or prompt students to propose their own tasks.

A school example

Just like Ms. McKenzie, Principal Hartt has plenty of demographic information on her school’s student body, but she knows that’s only part of the picture. She collaborates with English language learner (ELL) specialists Mr. Breeden and Ms. Prusko to gather first-person perspectives from bilingual or multilingual students and their families to better understand how they are experiencing classroom responsive teaching and learning structures and processes as well as the school’s multi-tiered system of support (MTSS). The trio draft interview questions that help them gather more information about family funds of knowledge as well as perspective regarding experiences with classroom assessment and MTSS.

With the help of the district ELL services team, including translators, they interview their bilingual or multilingual students and their families. These interviews reveal previously unconsidered improvement insights that benefit the bilingual and multilingual students as well as the general student community. Principal Hartt shares the results of the interviews with the school leadership team so that, together, they can make decisions on responsive teaching and learning as well as MTSS systems and practices that are informed by the wisdom and experiences of bilingual and multilingual students and their families.

Get started

You might be thinking, “But I already know and use my learners’ personal and local context.” Excellent! I’m so glad you do! Now, how can you push yourself a little more? The following reflection prompts can help you refine how you gather and use information with learners.

  • How do I gather, understand, and use students’ context to inform assessment processes that fuel learners and learning? What specific strategies can I think about that are worth continuing? How can I improve upon what I’m already doing?
  • In what ways are my students engaged as active agents in contributing, gathering, and using context to inform affirming and responsive teaching and learning processes? What specific examples of their engagement can I keep encouraging? What are some new ways I can support their active participation?

Or maybe at this point you’re thinking, “Well, this is a nice idea, but how can I possibly find the time it takes to partner with students to really know their context?!” Whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed by figuring out where to start, I think of a quote attributed to Jan Chappuis: “Start somewhere. Go slow. Don’t stop.” Consider starting one of the examples I described above. How could you adapt one or more of those ideas in ways that are relevant for your role, teaching and learning environment, and learners? For more ideas on how to take the next step in connecting with your students, read “Teach using the lived experiences of your students,” “Exploring cultural concepts: Funds of knowledge,” and “A 4-part system for getting to know your students.”

Although they might not always say so out loud, many students have the same concern I described earlier: Will my teachers get to know and respond to me? Let’s partner with them to make sure our answer, especially when making decisions about assessment systems and practices, is an emphatic “Yes!”

To learn more about assessment empowerment, read “It’s time to embrace assessment empowerment,” “Continue your assessment empowerment work with principle #2: Learning environments and relationships,” “More on assessment empowerment: The power of knowing your purpose,” “Assessment empowerment principle #4: Responsive learning cycles,” and “Last but not least: The role of communication in assessment empowerment.”

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