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Everything I Know About Assessment I Learned from Star Wars

star-wars-899694_960_720The Force is Strong
The forces driving educational assessment are powerful. We are bombarded on all sides from testing and measurement packages that promise to deliver results. Repel this force and build your own toolbox of robust and flexible classroom assessment practices.

Teach Like Yoda
Yoda is a patient tutor and also a no-nonsense teacher. By perching on Luke’s shoulder he develops an understanding of the problem from Luke’s view and creates a personalized learning path that is built on step by step progress towards mastery of the Jedi way. Use embedded formative assessments throughout your teaching and learning to continuously monitor students’ fulfillment of their learning goals.

Why Can’t Anakin Learn?
Don’t be like Anakin when he says, “I’ve heard this lesson before” and Obi Wan replies, “But, you haven’t learned anything.” Anakin wants others to think he knows everything but this may be a ruse to avoid showing his weaknesses or fear of making mistakes. Foster growth mindsets to increase resiliency and bolster success.

Obi-Wan’s Truth
There are many viewpoints on fixing education but as Obi-Wan explained, many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view. Seek a balanced and galactic perspective:

  • Minimize the politics: Maximize research-based practice
  • Gaze through a wide-angle lens: Bring together local needs with large-scale principles
  • Teach the whole child: Blend content knowledge with critical thinking, non-cognitive, and social-emotional competencies
  • Utilize a comprehensive spectrum of measures: From traditional strategies to on the spot formative assessment

As Yoda said, “That which you seek, inside you will find.”

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Pre-Assessment for a Purpose

Pre-assessment is like assembling the ingredients before you begin baking to make sure you have the right types of leavening and flour. Sometimes, after mixing the ingredients, pouring it in the pan, and popping it in the oven you discover that it is way overcooked when you take it out. Whoops! Forgot to calibrate the oven temperature.

In the classroom, a pre-assessment is generally given at the start of a lesson. Teachers use them, like a thermostat, to check the current status and consider adjustments to the dial. After a KWL, they may back-track to previous content in order to fill in any lingering gaps. In response to a Plickers pretest, students may be regrouped.

Pre-assessment should stretch beyond recall of prior learning. It can be used to pique student’s curiosity and uncover 21st century skills such as collaboration and critical thinking. Students with well-developed problem solving skills may easily jump into inquiry learning or case studies, while others in the group immediately assert their own answers and solutions. When students are pre-assessed on their ability to sequence the problem solving process, the knowledge and skills they display then informs teaching and learning.

Higher level thinking involves making connections to and building on prior learning. But how does a teacher know their student’s abilities before starting a lesson? Using graphic organizers such as or to display incoming thinking can be reciprocally used to assess learning outcomes after instruction. A specific-to-general chart  checks for understanding of the meaning of an event or theory.

The key idea to keep in mind is that there is no one pre-assessment that serves all purposes. When selecting a method consider how you will use it:
**Support standards and learning targets: Check for proficiencies, prior experiences, and dispositions
**Align with the taxonomy: Ask students how is this related, how does it compare, what do you predict?
**Guide instructional strategies: Plan for direct instruction, inquiry, reciprocal teaching, or producing
**Inform interventions, content, chunking, pacing, and resources

Purposeful and targeted pre-assessment is an engaging, fun, and illuminating way to support all learners.


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Pre-assessment: Where Teaching and Learning Begins

What is Pre-assessment?
Pre-assessment is an action or strategy at the start of instruction that displays student’s incoming knowledge and skills and in turn informs teaching and learning. It can occur at the start of a lesson, the beginning of a unit, or the introduction of a new idea, concept or skill.

Why Should I Use It?
Much of the emerging research on effective teaching and assessing confirms the value of starting where the students are in their sequence and cycle of learning as this is most likely to increase their success. John Hattie, in his research on Visible Learning, found that formative assessment has an effect size of .9, nearly at the top of the list.

How Can I Use It?
Pre-assessment is used to identify incoming knowledge, recognize misconceptions about a topic, raise student’s curiosity, and immediately engage them in new learning. It informs planning and guides next steps for the teacher and the learner. This may relate to complexity of content, alignment of instructional processes, resources, pacing, and grouping. If it makes sense to use a GPS when traveling then it also makes sense to use a pre-assessment when teaching to ensure everyone is on the right pathway to success.

Strategies Without Technology
Corners: Select a position and provide an annotated defense based on prior learning.
Entrance Slip: Students map what they know about a topic, respond to questions, or record their ideas.
Predictions: Students predict the content and purpose of upcoming learning.

Strategies With Technology
Padlet can be used for brainstorming or displaying incoming knowledge.
Lino is a type of electronic sticky note where students can post and sort their responses by category.
Google Forms can create quick quizzes that provide data on each student’s knowledge.
Plickers lets you poll your class as each student holds up a card displaying their answer. Cards can be scanned with your phone producing a class graph or individual student report.

Coming up in next:  Strategies for a purpose
Followed by: Responding to the data


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“Whad’Ya Know?”

At the beginning of each episode of Michael Feldman’s NPR show, “Whad’Ya Know?” he asks this question and in unison the audience replies “Not Much, You?” It’s a brilliant illustration of effective pre-assessment that begins by identifying learning outcomes and what students need to know about them. Think for a moment about what is really important in teaching, learning, and assessing. Is it proficiency on the standardized test, content knowledge in biology and civics, or mastery of skills for success such as problem solving, creativity, and social-emotional intelligence? The work of teaching and learning should start with that question:  “What’Ya Want” learners to know and do at the end of the day, the unit, the grade, the school level, and beyond.

Once we identify what is important to know and do and then utilize strategies to engage, guide, and support learners, it is time to determine and substantiate learning outcomes. Multiple measures and multiple ways to demonstrate proficiency provide opportunities for all learners to be successful. Chad may excel at selected choice tests while Tessa may succeed with a “show what you know” assessment. The essential element here is that the assessment aligns with the visible learning targets. So, while Chad takes a test, Tessa create a Prezi in which they each show that they can define, explain, and sequence photosynthesis.

As Yogi Berra said “It’s not over till it’s over”, so it goes with assessment. After we assess student learning outcomes, decisions need to be made about how many are expected to show mastery, at what level, and what to do about those who don’t. It is not realistic to expect every student to earn a perfect score but it is realistic for the majority to achieve a pre-determined set point in relation to the learning targets. Then, decisions need to be made about what to reteach, how to reteach, and how to enrich for those who have achieved. “Whad’Ya Know?” The cycle is endless and I hope you know more than when you started out.

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Less Testing, More Assessing

Although testing is a form of assessment, assessment is not the same as testing. Assessment is defined as a process of collecting evidence of learning that is used to inform educational decisions.  With testing, the user is given a score such as 1 meaning they got one right or maybe that’s their golf handicap. 36 can mean a perfect score on the ACT or a failing score on a 100 point test.

There is a growing movement to reduce over-testing and decrease the reliance on test scores to measure students and evaluate teachers. Call-outs from parents and educational groups often stress the need for better accountability based on multiple measures that highlight growth and inform improvement. Some believe that the tests narrow the spectrum of student learning. In response, they urge schools to provide a balance of opportunities that include the arts, technical skills, and a toolbox of strategies for success in learning and in life.

These noteworthy ideas come with challenges. Over the years there has been little professional development on classroom assessment strategies and minimal inclusion of it in pre-service programs. The changing nature of teaching, learning, and assessing requires improved abilities to assess learning outcomes as well as increased skills in determining students’ proficiencies in collaboration, digital literacy, creativity, real-world problem solving, and more. The current emphasis on data-driven instruction overlooks the value of qualitative data that is produced by alternative types of assessments such as rubrics and checklists as well as student’s self-assessment or their personal insights into where they struggled in grasping new ideas.  Yet it is these assessments that are windows into a child’s mind that in turn inform instruction and guide responses to learning.

The transfer from heavy reliance on standardized test scores to an increased emphasis on classroom assessments is built on three foundations of professional practice:

  1. Guidance for teachers on the development of multiple types of classroom assessments from selected choice to projects.
  2. Support for interpreting, utilizing, and responding to the results of classroom assessment.
  3. Inclusion of classroom assessments in determining student mastery of standards.

In addition, teachers need to recognize the differences between testing (“You scored 36, or 100, or 800”- depending on the test), evaluation (“You are proficient”), and assessment (Here’s what you do well and how you can do better). What does this all mean? – We need to reduce the emphasis on testing and spend more time assessing.

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Stop the Pendulum

As I sat at my desk this morning catching up on recent news and views I couldn’t help but feel like I was swinging on the end of a pendulum. Not so much Edgar Allen Poe’s the Pit and the Pendulum where doom awaited the narrator but rather like a lab rat in an experiment where I never moved forward towards success but rather covered the same ground again and again. For decades educational assessment has been plagued by a pendulum of reforms and initiatives.

The swings have gone from linear learning to non-linear learning, from teacher led to student directed, from predetermined to emergent, from standardized to differentiated, and from differentiated to personalized. Yet, we still assess students by asking them to read regardless of whether they are learning through phonics, or whole language, or another emerging initiative. We argue about the value of standardized testing vs. performance assessment in a world where students need to do both well. One test cannot possibly hold all the answers. Assessing a narrow spectrum of knowledge is not acceptable if we aim to assess the whole child. A multi metric system is far superior.

Instructional opportunities are lost when teachers spend the better part of a year learning a new curriculum or preparing students for the latest test. Essential learning is lost when students spend time unlearning prior learning, such as double digit addition, and relearn it in a new way. Even Bill Gates said “We may not know for a decade if this stuff works” (Harvard Interview, 2013)

pendulum maze

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Differentiating Assessment

We are all different when it comes to life and learning. In the classroom a teacher may find Amadan with his nose in a book while Suzu is gathering and organizing a group to work on a project. There are vast differences in our digital literacy as well as our EQ (emotional quotient). We all need adjustments and adaptations to support peak performance. In relation to classroom assessment, consider modifying the content, process, and product. Here are a few suggestions.

Control the amount of vocabulary: Change a 4 part multiple choice question to 2 choices and make sure your question stems are fully comprehensible. For example:

When only the smallest part of the moon is visible, the moon is in which phase?
A. waning phase                               B: new moon phase

Original question: When only a small part of the moon is visible, the moon may be in its…          The distractors also included                   C: first quarter            D: closing stage

Embed frequent formative assessments: Pre-assess before teaching so that you know where to begin. If you don’t have student clickers try Plickers as a way for students to post their individual answers to questions. Use technology such as Zaption to stop a video and check for understanding before moving forward. Prior to the summative test, students can write summary statement or respond to review questions on Padlet where gaps in understanding quickly become evident.



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Assessment Audits

The purpose of an assessment audit is to gauge the condition of educational assessment systems and practices. An audit provides a big picture view of how well the elements of the system are working individually and collectively as well as a close-up view of assessment in action.

The outcome of the audit identifies strengths and areas for improvement. It focuses on the disparities between what is and what is desired. This in turn informs an action plan that identifies necessary adjustments and changes to structures, methods, and resources.

During the audit questions are bound to arise about assessment priorities, practices that are in place, strategies for aligning the purposes of assessments (formative, interim, summative), as well as the district’s commitment to balancing student learning and engagement with large-scale mandates. All of this is done with a focus on best practice in assessment.

The process is built on a clear purpose for the audit and a willingness to make improvements. This in turn guides professional conversations and collaborative planning.

Fundamentally, an assessment audit it is a formative assessment that describes where we want to be, explains where we are now, and informs ways to close the gap.

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4 Ways to Strategically Boost Your Assessment System


  1. Maintain Traditional Systems: Support testing with PD, resources, and time. Rely on test preparation programs and strategies.


  1. Improve Traditional Systems: Refresh and expand existing strategies to support higher and deeper thinking and provide opportunities for applied learning.
  1. Seek Alternative Opportunities: Supplement testing with projects, demonstrations, and portfolios assessed with rubrics, learning logs, self and peer measures.


  1. Inspire Disruption: Invigorate the assessment system with sophisticated, innovative and engaging strategies for teaching, learning, assessing, and accounting.

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Assessment Systems for Everyone

Assessment is a process. It involves gathering information on what students know, understand, and can do. It then requires an analysis of the evidence in order to make accurate inferences and informed decisions about students, instruction, and policy.

Assessment systems are built on policies that define learning outcomes, prescribe assessment methods, and regulate reporting, and decisions. Assessment systems are complex in that they incorporate the content, timing and focus; the strategies, breadth, and purpose; accountability and response to an array of assessments.

It takes a whole village to build an effective system that integrates:
1. Mission, purpose, and values
2. Complex learning with practicable assessments
3. Relevance, objectivity, and fairness

Some questions all educators need to be asking about emerging assessment systems are:

  • What are we measuring and why?
  • Who are the assessments serving and benefiting?
  • How are we measuring?
  • What are the effects of accompanying incentives and consequences?

These are our children who are pushed to achieve, our teachers who bear the responsibility, and our communities that deserve graduates prepared to contribute to our complex world. Let’s make sure the assessment systems are the ones we need, not the ones our policy makes think we deserve.

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