Beyond lists: Authentic assessment for the whole child

Jessica Cuthbertson currently teaches 8th grade literacy at Murphy Creek K-8 in Aurora, CO, and serves as the Colorado Core Advocates State Captain, a network sponsored by Student Achievement Partners. A National Board Certified Teacher with fifteen years of experience in the field, and a former CTQ teacherpreneur, her proudest moment was becoming the adoptive mother of five-year-old Henok earlier this year. Connect with her on Twitter @JJCuthy.

‘Tis the season for making lists. Grocery lists, recipe lists, to do lists, gift shopping lists. The list goes on.

Few things are more satisfying than creating a list and working through it. I believe it might have been educators (not Santa) who created the notion of “checking it twice.” We’re really good at list making.

As a teacher, I love a good list. It helps me plan, teach, assess, and manage my time.

But as a mom, this season I’m searching for a different type of list. An authentic assessment wishlist. One that goes beyond standards, report card forms, and developmental inventories. One that accurately and descriptively captures the strengths and growth areas for my five-year-old son — not in comparison to other five-year-olds or to a set of district benchmarks — but one that is unique to his individual growth.

What I wish:

I suppose I want less assessment and more feedback. Less data, more narrative. Less information about cognitive skills and more about his social emotional needs and progress. Less about reading, writing, and math, and more about curiosity, joy, and frustration.

Instead of a checklist, I want a story — with pictures, video, and work samples. I want to know when he lights up at school and when he shuts down, where he finds success and where he struggles, through his eyes instead of on a standardized form like a report card, checklist, or rubric.

I want to be able to visualize a day, week, and month in the life of his learning.

He’s in kindergarten. So here’s what I really want to know:

  • How many times a day does he smile or laugh?
  • What is he (explicitly and implicitly) learning about his own cultural identity as well as others?
  • How does he respond to praise and positive feedback?
  • How long does he have to sit each day — in a desk or on the carpet?
  • What is the weekly imaginative play to seat work ratio?
  • When does he get to participate (verbally or otherwise) in a whole class or small group activity or discussion?
  • When he participates, what does it look and sound like?
  • As a language learner, how much explicit language instruction and practice does he get each day?
  • Who does he sit with at lunch? Play with at recess?
  • What does he avoid? If given a choice, how will he choose to spend his time? And how often does he get to self-direct his learning?
  • What percentage of the day does he feel successful? Challenged? Defeated?
  • How does my child influence your instructional decision making?

These are the questions I ask myself when he’s at home. I read his face and body language, and notice what he says and does. I assess his mood, stamina, and persistence. I ask him questions to elicit stories about school. And when I get two-word phrases or fragments, I put his ideas into complete thoughts and ask more questions.

I know who my child is in non-school settings. But I don’t really know his school self. Kindergarten Henok is a mystery to me.

What I know:

Here’s what I do know.

I know that he struggles with understanding and following rules and expressing frustration. I know this because he’s on his third behavior plan since school started, and the transition from home to school was more challenging than we ever imagined.  

I know that he must feel lost surrounded by peers and adults who speak a language fluently that he began learning less than nine months ago. I know this because I see the looks of confusion when he speaks — and the way he looks at me to translate his Amharic-accented English for his peers and teachers.

I know that he’s chronologically five, but his social emotional age is closer to two or three or four (depending on the day and his mood). I know this because he is the product of years of institutional care outside of a nuclear family.

I know that he is a hands-on learner who wants to be independent, even with tasks and tools he has yet to master. I know this because he has an innate curiosity — he wants to touch and explore everything.

I know that he craves adult and peer attention — that he wants to be seen and heard — and that these needs are challenging to meet in a class of over 25 five-year-olds. I know this because I’m a teacher guilty of not making personal contact with every kid every day. I also know this because even the best schools are institutions that too often prioritize compliance over creativity.

I know that he loves to learn, especially when he gets to choose the text or task, and that conversely he does not like being told what to do. I know this because like a sponge, he independently developed a fascination and aptitude for letters and numbers prior to the first day of school.

I know that he doesn’t feel the need to comply with any expectations (yet) unless they serve him in some way. I know he is challenging and also that he loves a good challenge.

What I fear:   

I want my son to learn that his learning will never be captured in a single measure or stand-alone assessment. And that his learning journey is so much more important than a number, letter, score, or single snapshot.  

I want my son to learn that his learning will never be captured in a single measure or stand-alone assessment. 

Recently, I asked one of my strongest eighth grade students about assessment. She constantly strives for (and often reaches) the advanced levels on rubric-based in-class assignments as well as state standardized tests. What she said made me sad. She talked about assessment as a hoop she willingly jumps through because she prides herself on earning top grades. But she was quick to add that when it comes to assessment, “If you want to pass the test, you learn your opinion doesn’t matter. It’s not about you or your opinion, it’s about the test or task.”

I hope my son never learns this. I want him to know his opinions, beliefs, and feelings matter. He matters.

Authentic assessment looks beyond standardized tests and district benchmarks to include real-time learning and information about the growth of the whole child.

It’s bigger, bolder, and broader than any single list.

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