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Meaningful Assessment
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Last week our dryer broke. It was one of those guaranteed-to-happen-at-the-worst-possible-time things—right when we had a backlog of laundry and visitors coming in from out of town. So we called a fluff-and-fold place here in our neighborhood, and sent out our piles. They came back in tidy squares the next night, and when they did the delivery guy said into the intercom “Hi this is Daniel from ______.” When I let him in I shared that my name is also Daniel, and he shot back—”do you know what your name means?” Having grown up in both a Christian and a Jewish household, I’m pretty familiar with the Old Testament, so I responded “yes, God is my judge.” He shared that he was expecting a son who he hoped to name Jaden, which he said means “God will judge me.” I replied that the meaning always makes me think of the 2Pac song “Only God Can Judge Me,” a fragment of my 1990s adolescence. This other Daniel laughed, and went on his way.

It was one of those random windows into another person’s life that happen every day (if you can give yourself the head space to notice—which isn’t always our impulse, as Louis CK so brilliantly noted on Conan recently and a parent sent my way, especially in this world of cellphones and instant access)—but this one has stuck with me during this first month of the middle school year. I suspect that’s because Wildwood uses Wiggin and McTighe’s Understanding By Design to do its curriculum mapping and planning, which encourages teachers and administrators to start at the end, with the hoped-for outcomes for kids. And in thinking about our outcomes I’ve been reflecting a lot on how we assess those outcomes, and how assessment can sometimes feel like judgment. Amidst that I’ve been thinking about the choice that other Daniel made, wanting his son to know that he will be judged, rather than just to know that there is a judge out there. I’ve been thinking about my daughter Sonia, newly in a transitional kindergarten class at our local public elementary, already keenly aware of how many points or stamps or stickers she can be rewarded with for completing her homework. But mostly I’ve been thinking about learning—about how we can do our best every day to be sure that our middle school kids are learning—and what role assessment plays in the learning process.

Assessment, of course, doesn’t necessarily come at the end. This week our faculty are talking about Pre-Assessment at our faculty meeting, as part of a series of workshops on assessment and differentiation that Lori Strauss, Wildwood’s director of upper school, and I designed for 6-12 professional development.

At its best, assessment is a spur toward future learning, a moment in an ongoing dialogue between teachers and students. And so I’m also wary of drawing too direct a correlation between assessment and judgment, especially in a progressive school that works hard to separate the two.

That said, I want to share what I hope is an illustrative story about why they’re linked in my head. The very first time I worked in an organized way with middle school students was as a sophomore at U.C. Berkeley, when I followed my older sister Hannah in working with the Youth Support Program, which paired college student mentors with middle school kids at Willard Junior High in Berkeley. I worked with a 7th grader named Jose, a first-generation student three years removed from Mexico. He was a smart and hardworking boy, who was well behind his grade level in reading and math. Toward the end of the semester that Jose and I were paired, we spent several weeks studying for a math test that was looming, meeting after school every day to sit together and work through homework and practices problems. Jose went into that test feeling more confident than he had ever felt about math. When he received an F on the test, he was crushed, and brought the test to me full of the failure that the F symbolized. We went over the test, and it turned out that it had been graded incorrectly—his actual grade should have been a B-, which would have represented the highest grade he had gotten on a math test in his schooling life. The somewhat happy ending to this story is that Jose and I went together to his teacher with his test, and she recognized her error and gave him the grade he earned, and Jose felt vindicated.

As an educator, I think all the time about all the kids who have similar experiences to Jose but who don’t have an advocate there with them to set the record straight. Certainly the role of race in this specific instance (or in general) shouldn’t be discounted. But in the context of this blog post, what concerns me is that Jose felt judged in that moment—judged to be stupid, bad at math, someone who wouldn’t be helped even by exceptional preparation. This is the downside of assessment—tied to Carol Dweck’s work, which I mentioned in last month’s post—wherein kids are made to feel they have been judged to be smart or not in a way that is an indelible character trait. Middle school is a moment when that type of judgment can weigh heavily, as I also wrote last month, because of the native insecurity of these years.

So how do we assess in a meaningful way, a way that offers growth-oriented feedback without leaving kids feeling judged? The State of Oregon has made a move recently to mastery-based assessment, which only considers whether students understand academic content, ignoring behavior. While I appreciate the attempt to reflect on academic skills, in the second decade of the 21st century to discount soft skills and character education seems like a move in the wrong direction. I’ve been gratified to see that the math teachers in Division 2 are using Class Dojo to keep kids and families in the loop about classwork—for both the Habits of Mind and the Habits of Heart. One of the great promises of the next decade in educational technology is that kind of real-time feedback—which is one of the topics we are exploring this year as we consider what it means to assess meaningfully and effectively.

To judge means to speak the law, to decide what is just and right. But what is just? The law, in the case of school, cannot be only behaving well in class, any more than it can be as simple as knowing all of your vocabulary words by heart. It is more than mastery and it is more than behavior, and more even than their sum. When we assess, as Denise Clark Pope likes to remind us, we sit beside—because assessing should be more about assistance than about judgment. And what we are assisting our students in is learning—learning how to gain mastery of content, and how to be effective students, but most importantly we are helping them learn how to be complex people in a complex world, a world that will need their full-hearted and broad-minded assistance.

So this month, spend some time sitting beside your middle schooler—as you might have once when they were younger, and as you might still do anyway. Ask them questions about the subjects they are grappling with on their way to mastery, and ask them questions about the community of students they spend time in every day. They might roll their eyes at you, or laugh, or grunt some monosyllabic answer—the sights and sounds of adolescence—and that’s ok. Just sit with them for a while, because in doing so you let them know that you are there not to judge but to assist, to support, and to love.

Until next month,

Dan

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