Beyond Testing: Human Centered Approaches to Assessment

Lisa Wennerth
March 6, 2022
Who are the decision makers in our classrooms and where do they come from?

Teachers are often asked to spend hours pouring depleted time and energy into analyzing and scrutinizing standardized test results that offer, at best, incomplete metrics by which to assess effective teaching and learning. This data does not provide the helpful guidance many teachers need for creating better learning environments or for ensuring that every student walks into and out of their classrooms knowing they matter and are loved.

The technocratic systems: standardized tests, GPAs, points, and grades have become the decision makers in our classrooms. They drive our instruction more than the complex relationships between teacher and learner, irrespective of the fact that the latter provides the rich data we need to inform and drive our methods of practice.

Furthermore, these reductive measures of learning typically communicate what we already know: one, compliant, “bright” students score high on tests and earn high grades; two, non-compliant, “smart” students receive low grades and high test scores; three,  students of color and students in low income circumstances, perform low in both measured categories, and, perform high on behavioral issues; four, student scores, year after year, typically reaffirm the personal high, low, average trend that has followed them through their K-12 experience. This data gives teachers little to work with that actually serves the complex, curious, creative, and intellectual students in our classrooms.

The time spent on administering these tests and analyzing its data is stealing needed time from teachers who truly want to improve their students’ experience in their classrooms. So, why do we continue to use these data points to drive instruction when they are clearly not useful, in fact, may even be harmful?

For one, teachers are expected to be as compliant as their students. Teachers, like students, are also a part of a system (many come from the same educational experience that their students are in) that values and expects compliance, even when they recognize that the tools put in place and the rhetoric of the time is not helping them or their students.

Imagine there is a governing body dictating to a doctor to deliberately ignore the best treatment for a patient because an arbitrary and standardized measurement of efficacy suggests that there is only one correct treatment for everyone. Conveniently free of consequence for the governing body, if the patient doesn’t heal appropriately based on this treatment, it’s the fault of doctor and patient. “That’s what the data show.” This would be malpractice on a gigantic scale, and it is happening in our schools, all the time, every day. This is not the fault of teachers and it’s not the fault of administrators.

It is more important now than ever that teachers and administrators push back. And, I believe it is a moral and ethical imperative that we do exactly that.

So what do we do, and how can we do it?

First, we should slow everything down and reflect deeply on why we teach. Understand that we do not need to lead a disruptive educational revolution tomorrow, we simply have to ignore the reductive methods of assessment that rank, file, and oversimplify our students. We need to do what we know is effective: teach and learn in concert with our students.

For deep reflection, we should ask ourselves what brought us to the profession to begin with? What do we want our teaching legacy to be? Are we in a position to influence and create change? Which do we allow to drive our instruction: rich and compelling discussions with our students or arbitrary measurements like the SAT, ACT, state standardized tests, etc? Do we consistently have behavioral issues in our classrooms? Could these be the consequences of rigid policies and structures that inhibit human development and natural curiosity?

Administrators, celebrate and trust your teachers. Evaluate them and provide thoughtful feedback that encourages them to be their best. Rate your teachers as “excellent” or “exceptional” part of the recognizing that those rubrics are insufficient indicators of what your teachers do, every day, to help students learn in a system that sets them up to look like failures. If a teacher is not excellent, recognize that this is as much a reflection of your leadership as it is representative of their professional abilities. Provide them with the resources they need along with the freedom to explore, experiment, fail, and succeed.

Administrators also need reflection: why did you come into this profession to begin with? How can that inform how you serve your teachers and students? Could you do more to help your teachers become their best selves in the classroom and beyond? Students are most effectively served, when teachers are trusted to be decision makers and empowered to lead their classrooms.

We cannot, ethically, humanely, continue to harm our youth. We all deserve better.

If you are ready to tackle a harmful system and change your practice, but don’t know where to begin, these are some concrete methods that have worked for me. I am happy to share any of these in more depth, just send me a message on Twitter @LWennerth.

  1. Remove grades entirely, if your administration is not supportive, show them the research. If you are still not successful with leadership, get as close to removing grades and points as possible.
  2. As a more humane and research supported assessment practice, provide useful and actionable feedback.
  3. Celebrate every success you see--whatever that might be--let students know that you see and value their efforts.
  4. Allow students to have a say in the course design.

    If this sounds daunting, try it first with a lesson, assignment, or unit. Eventually you’ll get the hang of it.
  5. Talk to every single student in your classroom about their lives every day. Follow up with them about the information they share with you.
  6. Formally survey your students at least every three weeks to see how they are doing in your class.

    Be willing to change everything if the survey data show student dissatisfaction or lack of learning.
  7. Design your instruction around the needs of your learners.

    I provide instructional videos, small group instruction, large group communication, and conferences to meet my students’ various needs.
  8. Remove physical obstacles that get in the way of building community.

    I have pushed all desks to the periphery, we begin each class in a circle (no gadgets, no technology), each student voices their name, and I review the agenda. I then explain where in the room I will facilitate small group instruction and how to access instructional videos. Students then determine where and what to sit.
  9. When not providing instruction, check in with each student.
  10. Play games. If you get to the middle of the semester and you have not yet played a class game, prioritize that. I teach high school students, these games have been successful:

    Scattergories, trivia (not content related), Pictionary, kickball, and free standing object construction with sundry supplies like popsicle sticks, dry noodles, adhesives, coins, egg crates, etc.
  11. Have potlucks, breakfast clubs, waffles and writing, or anything else food related.

Experiment and explore what might be most authentic for you, there are myriad options. In most cases, your students will benefit when you focus less on those arbitrary assessment measures and more on how you can construct the environment and build relationships that allow them the space to demonstrate learning in authentic and meaningful ways.

Lisa Wennerth
Lisa is a high school English Language Arts teacher, online education facilitator for CEA, and department chair. She's kicked the grading habit and structures her classroom for humans.
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