Teacher-driven assessment means authentic accountability

As an unapologetic reader of education reform literature, it’s a relief to find a book that is jargon-free, makes sense, and offers a feasible approach to making sure students learn. This summer I hit the jackpot with British educator Dylan Wiliam’s 2011 book, Embedded Formative Assessment. Doesn’t sound like much of a page-turner, but I couldn’t put it down!

Despite my allergic reaction to anything that has to do with testing students as a lever for school improvement, I found myself drawn to Wiliam’s emphasis on student assessment as a valuable tool for change. This author is all about good teaching and, if you ask me, his ideas give teachers an approach that works. I’m excited because these ideas are taking shape in classrooms in our school district and they have tremendous promise.

Formative assessments are simple, informal measures of student understanding that are embedded in the classroom routine—hour by hour, day after day. Students respond to a problem or question that captures a core idea in a lesson. They answer on a Post-it note, scrap paper, white board or by a show of hands. These simple low-tech snapshots give teachers immediate feedback that helps them know if their lessons are working so they can make good decisions about what to do next: re-teach the lesson, work with a few kids who missed the idea, or go forward.

Unlike expensive and often disconnected standardized tests, the results of which are delivered months after the test is given, this kind of assessment provides immediate information that teachers can use on the spot to make decisions that will make their lessons better so more children learn. They provide actionable data that affect results. It’s not an impersonal accountability system, but a redefinition of good teaching that makes responsibility for results a high priority and integral to the job. 

The book contained a couple of interesting observations that made the emphasis on assessment a very powerful idea.

First, teaching is unpredictable. No matter how hard a teacher works at designing a lesson, there is no guarantee that students will take away from it what the teacher intended for them to learn. It isn’t reasonable to expect that every child will comprehend information in the same way, or in the way the teacher hoped. By frequently assessing what students are learning, while teaching, the teacher can monitor the effect of the lesson and figure out any corrective action. The information can help teachers individualize and improve their teaching so that more children learn.

Second, good teaching exists only when children learn. In the good old days, the teacher’s job was to show up and teach. If the student didn’t learn, that was not the teacher’s problem. Today’s emphasis on results means teachers need to pay much more attention to the effect of their teaching. They need to be more explicit about their teaching intentions, thoughtful about matching learning activities to the learning intentions, and able to identify what evidence helps them know what students are learning. With this framework, they can design assessments that can be built into the school day, to help them evaluate if the lesson is working in time to make corrections if necessary.

Formative assessment is not sexy or dramatic or expensive. It works. It is practical and useful. It affects what teachers do, which affects what children learn. It recognizes that teaching requires improvisation and continuous improvement. I like that it expects professional educators to be in charge of making their teaching work—it is part of the definition of being a teacher.

Catching and blaming won’t make effective teaching the norm in every school. When teachers think about results, are willing to measure the impact of their practice in order to modify their teaching so more children learn, you have authentic accountability. This is respectful, powerful and, really, the only way to make change.


Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaesar is a 30-year resident of Cleveland Heights, former director of Reaching Heights, and serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 5, Issue 9, Posted 9:57 AM, 09.03.2012