Staying the Course with a Smart Assessment Plan
It’s a cool Saturday morning in October. Everybody is gathered at the Tim Nixon Invitational Cross Country meet in Liberty, Missouri.
Parents gather on the sideline straining in anticipation to see their child at the starting line. They are lined up somewhere among 300 other anxious high school runners, waiting for the official to fire the starter’s pistol. When the gun goes off, the runners take off on a 5-kilometer journey, and the parents head over to the finish line to get a good view at the end. At least, most of the parents do.
See, my son was one of those high school runners striving each week to do his best and meet his goals. I have my own history in cross country as a high school runner and a middle-level coach. Both of us ran for a remarkable coach, Tim Nixon. Coach Nixon instilled in us the value of setting goals and the importance of positive and constructive feedback. He had a gift for making all runners feel valued and successful.
Before we even showed up for a meet, we discussed his time goal and what it would take to achieve that goal. My son was dead-set on wanting to break 17 minutes. Not a shabby goal for 5 kilometers (3.1 miles). It meant he needed to run each mile at an average of 5 minutes and 30 seconds.
So when the rest of the parents ran to the finish line to get a good spot, I would head into the woods to the first mile marker. As my son ran by, I would give him specific information. Every race, for four years, nerves and excitement would get the best of him, and he would cross that first mile way too fast. I would read his time, let him know he needed to slow down, and give him a quick update on competitors he wanted to beat. He could choose to use this feedback and make adjustments, or ignore it—but I was committed to providing it either way.
The same thing would happen at mile two, and again at mile three. My feedback each time was aligned with his pre-race goal and intended to set him up for success at the end. Then I would blend in with the rest of the parents and cheer his finish. You only have two types of feedback you can offer at the finish line—“Yay, you did it!” or “Better luck next time.” My hope was that the extra time and effort I put in to connect with him at each mile marker increased the chances of me celebrating with him. So what’s the point? I believe that learning is like running a race. We create a path or course for our students to follow. We get excited at the beginning. We start with some direct instruction or another strategy, and then we turn the responsibility of learning over to the learners. We wait at the “finish line” to see how it went. This is usually in the form of a summative assessment. By the time we score the summative, we have the same two choices for feedback—“Yay, you did it!” or “Better luck next time.”
But what if we took the time to build in some “mile markers,” or quick check-ins, so we can provide that specific and productive feedback that focuses on a successful finish? Some call these formative assessments. And if we want to make sure all students have the same access to success-creating feedback, a content team or grade-level team might want to create common formative assessments.
Let’s start to see learning as a journey instead of a final destination. And let’s be intentional with planning for success instead of hoping for it at the end. If this makes sense to you, consider these points as you build a race plan:
- Each mile marker (formative assessment) should be predictive of where you expect learners to finish. This includes the level of difficulty and complexity. Break out your DOK chart or Bloom’s Taxonomy. Some states list this on each standard also.
- Don’t think every assessment has to be a quiz or test. Let’s shift our vocabulary from assessments to evidence of learning. That allows us to use a variety of data points.
- Be specific with your feedback. A grade or point total is not good feedback. Up your game and use specific and descriptive information that lets the learner know where they are and what they need to do to close the gap if they are struggling. Be prescriptive.
- Create a culture in your classroom where feedback is valued. Take time to model a one-on-one conference. Help students to see the connections to their own success.
- Give students opportunities to reflect on their own learning and learning strategies. In other words, gather feedback as much as you give it. Students who own their learning are far more likely to be successful.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, expect to be surprised! As a coach, my most memorable moments were times when an athlete would out-perform their own expectations and mine. They couldn’t wait for the next race. Imagine your classroom full of students who can’t wait for the next opportunity to show you what they know and can do. Learning might not have a finish line like a cross country race, but let’s create a culture that celebrates the journey, and let’s ensure that every child feels like a champion.