Assessing to teach

Emily Clifton is a teacher in Talladega County, Alabama and has been teaching fourth grade for 10 years. She is a highly qualified educator, that has hosted several student teachers, been asked to speak at CORE Academy and STEAM by Design. You can follow her on Twitter @clifton_class. 

In the beginning, I became a teacher to empower students to be leaders of their own learning. Sure, I wanted to make a difference, but honestly, I wanted my students to make a difference in themselves foremost. When I was in elementary school, I was taught one way to solve a problem, one way to complete an assignment, one way to learn; it was how my teachers were taught and how they taught me.

It was time for a paradigm shift! In my first year of teaching (2007 – 2008) I fell into the “first year” teacher trap. I started teaching my students the way I was taught. It was the “one way” method. Throughout my first year, I consistently noticed that no matter how eloquent my lesson plans were, no matter how well I executed those plans, my students weren’t owning their learning. Don’t get me wrong, several of them made straight A’s, but a month later, they couldn’t tell me what they had learned. Obviously, what I was doing was ineffective! I realized that I had a classroom full of 25 students with different learning styles, different diagnoses, and different backgrounds. Of course my “one way” teaching style was ineffective.

Luckily, I worked for a county that had a consistent support team to save me from my perpetual failures. In the year 2008 I was introduced to Problem Based Learning (PBL) at a Talladega County Training Seminar. This training from Buck Institute literally saved myself and my students. Basically, PBL allowed me to marry all of my subject areas and enabled me to break out of my comfort zone and become a more flexible facilitator of student learning.

In the PBL format students become empowered to decide how they want to pursue learning on a topic.

  • It all starts with a question! One essential question that students can answer in a variety of ways.
  • Then you move into what is it that you want your students to learn. Basically, what knowledge do you want your students to possess at the end of the project.
  • Finally, you think about all of the different mediums that students can use to gain that knowledge.

That’s it really all there is to it… three easy steps. Sounds simple, right? Of course, student voice and choice are at the heart of PBL, so that makes assessment a precarious process.  Project Based Learning is all about authentic learning. Students are usually creating, researching, writing, and analyzing data about a topic all at the same time with PBL. Therefore, my assessments often are conversations with students about their work, or quick check-ins on their progress. For the final result, although, I usually use a rubric to assess all aspects of the project.

Throughout my teaching career, I have devised solution after solution, rubric after rubric, assessment after assessment to evaluate my students’ learning. Every time I think “I’ve got it!” I have a precious student that asks “Mrs. Clifton can I do________ for my final project?” Of course, I want them to take ownership of their learning, so I say “yes!” Then it’s back to the “drawing board” for assessment. However, through all of my trial and error, there are a few constants.

  1. Plan a general rubric to assess the parameters of the project. This will assess the basics…like spelling, punctuation, correct grammar, following the directions, etc.
  2. Then, go back to that essential question. How do you know that students fully understand the problem? Include this in the rubric.
  3. Next, have a part of the rubric labeled for process. Did the students embrace a growth mindset throughout the project? Did they persevere in problem solving?
  4. Finally, have a part of the rubric labeled for presentation. Can the students articulate their thinking and their final product?

Of course, this final rubric is only one way that I assess my students. Another method that I use quite often is formative assessment. I love to just drop in and listen to my students as they discuss their thinking. One constant in my classroom is that my students know that I am not interested in the “correct answer”. I am interested in hearing their thinking process. I am interested in listening to my students. Imagine that? What I wouldn’t give for someone to just listen to me. This is what empowerment is all about. My students know that I really genuinely want to know their thinking. This formative assessment I keep in a reflection journal. It is just a composition notebook of anecdotal records that I keep on my students.

One final way I assess my students is through traditional classroom assessments. I mean, we all have to turn in grades, right? However, my classroom assessments are not “Scantron” assessments with all multiple choice questions. There might be a few Depth of Knowledge Level 1 Questions that are multiple choice or recall, although, the majority of the questions I utilize are open ended questions where students can share their thinking. They might even be asked to draw a diagram or label a math problem with their thought process. Again, it is all about that paradigm shift. If I want my students to own their learning, I need to allow them to demonstrate that learning to me. These assessments are summative and are often are at the end of a unit or project.

In conclusion, I leave you with one final thought. What do you want to accomplish in your classroom? Do you want students who can spout facts and vocabulary for an assessment? Or do you want students who have a deep ownership of their learning — students who can walk away with a learning experience? For me, it was simply a choice of breaking out of the mold and becoming a more flexible, understanding, and maybe even “risk taking” educator.


Emily’s post is part of CTQ’s November/December blogging roundtable on authentic assessment. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on this page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted, and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media.

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