Student-centered assessment literacy: A conversation between two teachers

School equals tests, right? While we aim to transform schools to hubs of joyous learning, for many reasons, school is often considered one giant escape room of tests. Tests to end a week, a unit, a quarter; tests before winter, spring, summer breaks; tests to graduate from kindergarten, eighth grade, senior year; tests to explain your value to an employer, college, or program.

But students are so much more than test takers, and educators are more than test facilitators. Assessment serves a deeper purpose of guiding teaching and learning and providing temperature checks on our learners’ journeys. Educators have always known that tests that aren’t connected to learning are a waste of both their and their students’ time. Useless at best and demoralizing at worst, tests for tests’ sake are out, and student-centered (human-centered!) assessment is in.

I sat down for a conversation with Erin Beard, 17+ year educator and current professional learning leader at NWEA. Together, we defined student-centered assessment and ideated on ways to involve learners in their learning, empower educators to stay connected to the purpose of testing beyond generating grades, and equip school leaders to maintain a healthy cycle of meaningful assessment. Here’s some of what we talked about.

We’ve all been part of ineffective testing and, hopefully, also a part of a goal-centered collection of learning evidence. Let’s start off with, what exactly is student-centered assessment?

My sixth-grade math classroom definition of student-centered assessment: “I need to do a temperature check on your math nutrients to see how my teaching is going, so I can adjust what I’m doing and so I can get you more of what you need.”

Erin’s definition is a bit more elegant. And that’s how this conversation is going to go: smart, sassy teacher meets wiser, sager teacher and professional learning expert.

In Erin’s words (for the rest of the post, italics indicate quotes from Erin): My eleventh grader posed the following question to me: “What do these tests determine about my being?!!” She was asking the right question! The learner and learning-centered intent of assessment can get lost, resulting in testing events that don’t seem to relate to anything. This is frustrating and even demoralizing for students and educators. We want students (and educators!) to think, feel, and say, “Assessment processes are interesting and fair. They help guide the learning decisions that my teacher, peers, and I make to keep growing in our own unique ways. I know what we’re learning and why. I know what I need to do, and I am motivated to take next steps. I’m not afraid to ask for help or try new things.”

We were students once. How could we tell when assessment was student-centered—and when it wasn’t?

I like Erin’s distinction that student-centered assessment is with my learners, not to them. This manifests in my classroom with me asking my students what I should assess them on, based on what we’re learning; inviting them to share ways they could demonstrate their learning; and involving them in the feedback cycles of their work.

I know this sounds small, but as a math teacher, I include my students’ names wherever possible on our work. I never understood why a teacher thought I would care about a hypothetical “Sally” getting on a train going 45 miles per hour. Now, if she had turned that into my classmate, it would be more relatable! Students are better learners when their imagination and buy-in are activated, and we don’t see that when the problems are impersonal and abstract.

When there is a math problem on the board, like 455 divided by 11, I ask, “We have 455…whats?” “Baby cobras!” “Okay, baby cobras, and why am I dividing them by 11?” “Because 11 zoos want to share them!” And now we’re off, talking about dividing these cobras and what in the world the remainder now means. Should I (gulp) cut up a cobra?! “Noooo!” Students propose all kinds of solutions, including that I could take home the extra snakes. Thanks.

I wrote about one of my teachers, Mrs. Strain, and described how she created and sustained human-centered teaching and learning processes, including assessment processes. My experiences in her classrooms are still my go-to examples of what human-centered feels like.

I’ve certainly had plenty of the opposite experiences, too. For example, I remember crying out of anger and frustration when I earned a C in a high school economics class because the class discussions were about football and motorcycles but the assessments were about supply and demand without any mention of football or motorcycles. I felt that my teacher didn’t know anything about me and didn’t know how to make sure that the assessment processes supported us to practice and then independently demonstrate the learning goal’s knowledge and skills.

Why is it so important that our learners deeply understand the purpose of assessment?

We know that the factory model of education creates barriers, and we need to shift to becoming learner empowerers. With a learner empowerer mindset, actions, including assessment processes, are accomplished with students. It’s where we partner with our students to employ responsive practices throughout the learning journey. Part of this includes collaborating with learners to put the purpose of assessment processes into their own words and schema.

For example, we should guide students to make connections between the shared learning goals, such as content standards, and their own interests and aspirations. When learners can make their own meaning and connections to purpose, they are more likely to engage, succeed, and thrive. Just like any shift, this is challenging! Especially if we’ve never consistently seen, heard, or felt the learner empowerer model in action.

The ideas and research behind student-centered assessment aren’t new, so why is implementation so hard?

For a long time, the learner manager or factory model of teaching and learning was expected. This is what I experienced as a student and how I was trained as an educator. Implementing something new is especially hard when it’s so different from what was done to us.

How can educators involve students more in the process of collecting and acting on evidence of their learning? How can students be copilots in their assessment processes?

First, we must build a strong classroom culture—including how we talk about assessment—from the start. In my classroom, it is very clear that learning is the focus, that learning looks different on everyone, and that “grades” serve a future purpose rather than solely a retrospective on the past. 

I had to reframe how I talked about assessment processes with students. I practiced emphasizing the words learning evidence instead of score or results. This helped us remember we were learning together and deemphasize the need to score high in all things right away. We’d talk a lot about our purpose for being together— learning—and that the learning journey looks different for everyone. I reassured students that it would be pretty ridiculous if they already knew everything.

I’d also keep “back pocket” responses to statements such as, “I’m going to fail this quiz.” I‘d say something like,“Well, wait a minute, let’s look at this quiz as an opportunity to see what you know and to see what’s next for you. That way we don’t waste your time on stuff you can already do.” This reframe helped us remember that assessment processes shouldn’t be a gotcha. They are opportunities to gather information that moves learning forward.

Second, we must partner with students before, during, and after assessment.

Assessment isn’t a stand-alone thing. When we remember that teaching and learning are full of all sorts of processes, including assessment processes, we can remember to partner with our students before, during, and after the test, quiz, or product. Then, the actions we take are informed by them, making the learning journey far more meaningful, relevant, and positively impactful.

Partnering with students to gather and use learner context information (students’ strengths, interests, identities, funds of knowledge, and needs) is critical. Knowing our learners both disrupts our biases and informs our plans. For example, begin your next teaching unit by surveying students’ interests, which then inform menus of options during the learning journey, including assessment questions. This student likes to make videos? Great! If that works for the learning goals, that works for assessment!

Involving students can look like:

  • Students author questions or prompts, exchange them with peers, answer them, and give each other feedback.
  • Practice exercises include relevant assessment choices, like the video option above.
  • Students analyze the success criteria and make study questions, prompts, or tasks together…with emojis!
  • Students take a practice assessment together and coauthor the answer key.
  • Students work in pairs or groups to reflect on practice results, create feedback, and brainstorm what that feedback means they need next in their learning.

Finally, we must involve students in the “grading.” Students can and should be involved in the “grading” as much as possible, both before an assessment and after. In my classroom, I distribute a fresh assessment to the class and we step through it together, capturing different ways of expressing understanding, coauthoring the “answer key” with a more holistic approach. This way, students have a second-chance relationship with the assessment and can more fully engage with the “original” one. Boom! Our answer key just became a rich reflective practice.

What are ways that principals, coaches, and other leaders can support educators and learners to use student-centered assessment processes?

First of all, leadership needs to explicitly endorse this approach and explain what it looks like in a classroom. Teachers were students once, and we have all been modeled to differently. We need dedicated professional development time and a shared vocabulary of the best practices of student-centered assessment.

Second of all, teachers are the best teachers! Get us in a room together and let us share what we do that is working, and let us partner with other teachers to pilot a new and maybe scary idea, like having students author and administer an assessment all on their own. Give us time and a platform to share how it worked out. Formalize the joy of a design-thinking cycle, where even if our prototype was a failure, we are encouraged to iterate on what was effective.

From grades to growth

When I was a new teacher, the buzzy emphasis was on formative versus summative assessment. As I dove into this concept of student-centered assessment, I wondered, “Is it new? Is it different? Is it an approach? Is it a mindset?” And I’ll freely admit, I had to battle a bit of teacher-buzzword fatigue, a reality in this profession. Yet, I went on a little mind-connection journey that helped me buy in.

First, I believe that growth matters. Second, I believe that growth is relative—and different for everyone. Third, if I’m to foster my learners’ growth, I need to measure where they are and how it’s going. Finally, I must center my learners in that measure of growth.

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