It’s time to embrace “assessment empowerment”

As we near the end of this chaotic COVID school year, assessment processes are top of mind. This final stretch is usually marked by classroom summative tasks or projects, standards summatives including state tests, and, for those using an interim assessment like MAP® Growth™, a last chance to course correct instructional methods and help every student reach their grade-level standards. This time of year is usually the perfect opportunity to celebrate growth and achievement in grade-level standards as well as gains in social-emotional learning, and it’s ripe for planning next steps in the learning journey. But there’s nothing usual about the 2020–21 school year.

This year, our familiar assessment processes are up in the air, and with this uncertainty comes an extraordinary opportunity to rethink one critical thing about assessment: how we talk about it. I, along with my NWEA colleagues, believe it’s time to strengthen our understanding of the term “assessment literacy” and bring the heart of it forward. We can do this by embracing the term “assessment empowerment.”

My “assessment empowerment” learning journey

When I first started teaching, I wasn’t fully prepared to use assessment processes in my classroom. I began my career using assessments in ways that managed my learners instead of empowering them. For example, if a student asked, “Why are we learning this?” I would respond with something like, “Because it’s on the test.” I cringe a little when I think back on my former self. Clearly I was thinking about and using assessments as a reward for what students remembered—and as a punishment for what they didn’t.

Unsurprisingly, that mindset did not motivate my students, contribute to their learning, or provide them with opportunities to have agency around their learning. A specific example of how this played out stands out in my mind: During my sixth year of teaching, I noticed that my ELA freshmen were incredibly reluctant to complete the life challenge speech assignment, an assessment of informational speaking skills. Some refused to do the speech because of the topic (they did not want to share a life challenge in front of the whole class). Others just didn’t want to do a speech, period. The assignment was a miserable experience for my students and for me. Looking back, I understand how it left out my students’ interests and voices. I contributed to frustration, learning barriers, and even disparity, toxic stress, and trauma by creating an assessment situation that required students to be vulnerable in front of their peers and me without first properly partnering with them to create a safe space or structure for that to successfully occur.

We firmly believe the first step in this process is making a shift in our language that places the learner- and learning-centered intent front and center. The term “assessment empowerment” helps us do just that.

As I began to learn more about the research behind student-involved assessment and trauma-informed practices, I realized I had opportunities to better serve my students. When I understood the learner- and learning-affirming intent of assessment literacy scholarship, I made a choice to start shifting my language, which also affected my actions. For example, I used words of partnership with my students—words that supported their individuality and reflected my belief in them—to build and strengthen my relationships with them. I began practicing the routines of effective learning teams and worked to create safe spaces.

My students and I also collaborated to check and celebrate our hard work meeting rigorous learning goals, and we practiced ways to leverage assessment processes as part of our normal cycles of learning. For example, students would help write quiz questions or we’d practice discussion partnerships before peer feedback exercises. Eventually, assessments in my classroom were not “gotcha” events. I could ask my students, “Why are we learning this?” and they could tell me their authentic reasons for learning as well as the pathways they could take to meet and excel past our rigorous goals.

My shifts in language and associated actions were tremendously important for my learners’ success. I saw in real time how the changes helped, especially for preventing and mending students’ experiences with disparity, toxic stress, and trauma. That freshman speech turned into the Quest Project, where students, along with a mentor of their choice, would find opportunities for local community service and share their experiences with the class in an informational speech. Rather than being another dreaded assignment, it empowered learners and learning.

The power of language

Now I’m a professional learning content designer at NWEA, and I create learning experiences and materials for educators around a variety of assessment topics. In doing this work, I’ve noticed that many other educators had experiences like mine. That’s why my colleagues and I are exploring how NWEA can provide professional learning experiences and materials that support the shift from assessment actions that manage students and adults to processes that empower students and adults.

We firmly believe the first step in this process is making a shift in our language that places the learner- and learning-centered intent front and center. The term “assessment empowerment” helps us do just that. By making shifts in how we talk about assessment, we can move beyond managing learners and educators to empowering the use of assessment processes in ways that affirm authentic learning and self-determination.

[U]sing the term ‘assessment empowerment’ helps us remember the underlying intent of our assessment processes.

This idea of shifting from a learner-manager model to being a partner in assessment processes that empower learners and learning is not new. In fact, the term “assessment literacy” is often used in existing research and resources to describe effective assessment systems, conditions, and components. The intent of assessment literacy scholarship is to fuel learners and learning; however, because the enfranchising aim is not in the term itself or because of misapplications of the term, the underlying intent of assessment literacy can be lost or misunderstood (most notably, teachers can feel pressure to teach to the test).

In the complicated, ever-changing day-to-day life in classrooms and schools, using the term “assessment empowerment” helps us remember the underlying intent of our assessment processes. It keeps the aim of enfranchisement at the front and center of our minds, and it prompts us to choose assessment processes that move away from learner-manager habits. This seemingly small step—a one-word change from “literacy” to “empowerment”—can lead to a cascade of actions that positively impact our learners, families, and educators.

What “assessment empowerment” looks like

Consider this scenario: Suppose that as a teacher, you’re expected to give your students interim assessments. If the learner- and learning-centered intent of assessment processes has been lost or misunderstood, this might be presented to you as “Administer interim assessments to determine your students’ zone of proximal development (ZPD).” Your objective is to check data so you can adjust instruction.

The actions here are the right ones and reflect important assessment literacy components—using data to make decisions—but the steps and words as communicated leave out important pieces of the equation. The expectations specify the formal components of assessment literacy processes, but they miss an opportunity to present and think about how assessment can fuel ownership, meaning, and confidence. When we use the formal components of assessment processes without learner- and learning-centered actions and language, we risk continuing to operate as learner-managers, which can disengage students, families, and educators and lead to no gains in achievement, or even losses.

Now let’s consider the same scenario expressed through understanding the new term, “assessment empowerment.” The same purpose can be described in language that includes learners, educators, and families as partners in the journey, like this, “Collaborate with your students to use their ZPD information from this assessment to craft their next growth goal. Write a note with them about the goal that they will take home to their family.”

By making shifts in how we talk about assessment, we can move beyond managing learners and educators to empowering the use of assessment processes in ways that affirm authentic learning and self-determination.

In this example of assessment empowerment, we frame the same objective in terms of exercise, partnership, and growth. You’d still rely on the same processes—using your students’ ZPD—but you would also think, speak, and act in the context of connecting your students with actions they can take. The language here sets up learners so they experience assessment processes and growth from a perspective that fosters ownership and self-efficacy—and isn’t punitive. Notice, too, that the weight of these processes does not fall solely on any one person’s shoulders; the experience and actions are shared between students, families, and educators.

Next steps

Adopting the term “assessment empowerment” will help you fully realize the learner- and learning-centered intent of assessment literacy scholarship as we all work to move it forward. Imagine the possibilities that can stem from this one-word change, especially in terms of educational equity!

To help assessment empowerment processes thrive in your classroom, school, or district, I encourage you to continuously examine your thoughts, intentions, and actions around assessments. To get started, try our suggested discussion prompts, either on your own or with your team. My colleagues and I are using them to ensure we reflect the foundations, intent, and promise of assessment empowerment across our professional learning experiences and materials. We invite you to join us on this journey.


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