Using Assessment Data in the Classroom. As teachers, we have so many tools at our disposal that it can become overwhelming to sort through all the items in the toolbox and select the one that will most benefit our students. So often I have found myself planning that perfect lesson for my students only to get sidetracked by over-analyzing the best tool to use for a given task. Though, in any given lesson, the most important tool I have is the assessment tool.
I know what you are thinking: Assessment? Do you mean testing? Surely you do not count testing as a tool to be used daily? You are right, though not entirely. Assessment as an umbrella term for data collection and testing is a valid part of our teaching practice; however, it is not everything. Assessment as a tool for collecting data on how well our students are learning can and should take many forms. What form it takes should depend on several key points. First, the objective of the lesson, or what it is the children are meant to learn, should help determine how we know learning has happened. From the beginning stages of lesson planning, thinking about how the students will show what they have learned will help to decide what tool we will use to measure the students’ learning. This is called backward planning, and it is not teaching to the test.
Another key question to ask ourselves is, “What will we do with the data we collect from our assessments?” The answer should be to use the data as a means to formatively assess what are student know and are able to do, which, ultimately, will inform follow-up lessons. Thomas Guskey explains in his article, “How Classroom Assessments Improve Learning,” that assessments need to serve as meaningful sources of information that should not mark the end of learning for the students. Instead, Guskey says that assessments need to be followed by high-quality, corrective instruction designed to remedy whatever learning has not occurred. (Educational Leadership, February 2003). I refer to this type of instruction as “Data-Driven” instruction because it is just that. The teacher collects information, or data, on the students and creates their lesson based on the findings. To further support the idea that an assessment should not be the end of learning, think about what we do as our students are working in class. We circulate through out the class as they work, taking note of what the students are doing and saying. When we find that a strong majority of children do not seem to understand the task or standard, we stop, regroup, and reteach. This is assessment in a formative role, and we do it without even thinking about it.
Regardless of what form the assessment ends up taking, we need to be sure it is purposeful and meaningful for student learning; otherwise, the assessment is useless. As with every piece of a lesson, assessment requires planning if it is to be of value. This should seem obvious; however, sometimes there are assessments we are required to administer. Several years ago, when I was teaching second grade, the district I worked for used the then-popular DIBELS assessment for reading. DIBELS is a student performance, data collection system developed by the University of Oregon’s Center on Teaching and Learning. What it is meant to assess is the basic early literacy skills of students in the early stages of literacy development. DIBELS includes an extensive battery of assessments that the school district used for benchmarking student progress. What it meant for my second graders was a few days, three times a year, to assess their Oral Reading Fluency, or ORF. Yes, this completely disrupted our teaching schedule, but it allowed us to discover how many words correct per minute our students could read! Each child, given three short texts to read, timed for one minute, would get an average of their reading, and we could use that to measure their approximate reading level. Or so I thought. What a shock it was for me when our reading coach told me that we were not to average the three scores, just look at the score from the second text!
It was this moment in my career that I had to stop and think about the purpose of assessment and what it meant for our students. This experience affected my view of programs like DIBELS for many years because I felt the data we were collecting was not useful and meaningful to my instruction. My point here is not to complain about big budget assessments like DIBELS (Dr. Timothy Shanahan states in his blog that studies have shown high correlation between some DIBELS subtests and improved student performance – when administered as intended.). Instead, I use this example as a means to reflect on our instructional practice and to urge us to use the most relevant and purposeful assessments for our students when making decisions about our instruction.
Assessment takes on so many different forms in today’s classroom. Everything from formal, statewide testing to quiet observation of students’ effort while they work. Whatever methods of assessment you choose to use for collecting data on your students’ growth and level of understanding needs to be done with intent and purpose. Like the instruction itself, be sure that what you choose fits the students you teach and that it effectively gathers data you can use to best deliver high quality instruction for your class.
Wes Gordon is a TeacherReady Instructor and Fifth-Grade ELA teacher in Pensacola, FL. Wes earned both is Bachelor’s in Elementary Education and Master’s in Reading Education from East Strousberg University. He has taught at both the primary and intermediate grade levels and served as President of the Escambia County Literacy Teachers Association, where he provided literacy development for teachers. He has also worked as a district Literacy Coach for elementary teachers in state DA status schools. Wes has volunteered with the Florida Department of Education as an Instructional Materials Reviewer, making recommendations for text series to be used in the school adoption process.