If you didn’t reach this post through the video, you might want to start with my first Challenge video, which leads into this conversation!
Meaningful evaluation of skill mastery is best achieved through continuous, harmless assessment of relevant mastery.
Testing kids is stupid. It’s not an effective way to truly understand what they know and how they can apply it. Beyond the form factor (multiple choice and fill in the blank responses are silly ways to truly understand a person) and the modality (people who organize information in certain ways will do better on such a test simply for that reason, and therefore discriminates against those who don’t), it’s also a single point of reference that doesn’t provide meaningful, comprehensive data about growth as well as mastery. In order to truly assess skill mastery, we have to constantly assess it in a variety of ways.
Too often we forget that the purpose of assessment is to understand our kids and their skill mastery. Assessment is not about accountability, responsibility, or compliance. None of those things are content area standards, and therefore not only should not but I dare say rationally and ethically cannot be included in any kind of assessment. High-stakes and pressure-oriented tests can in and of themselves be psychoemotionally traumatic to the developing child mind. Additionally, those who manage their information and time differently than other students may be at various stages of skill mastery development at any given time. Imposing a punitive timeline on skill mastery is foolish. Assessment is not an analog to what is too often callously termed “the real world.” This is teaching and learning, not a factory. We don’t fire kids for not doing what other kids do at certain times of the day, week, or year. Behaving that way is harmful to children, and therefore inappropriate in education.
When studying composition with Dana Wilson at Ithaca College in the late 90s, I wrote a duet for Saxophone and Snare Drum called Kölcsönhatások, the Hungarian word for “interactions” or “interrelations.” The ways in which an individual connects ideas, patterns, information, thoughts, and experiences are unique and sometimes unpredictable. Consequently, every individual will create meaning and relevance in the course of learning in an entirely unique way. This means that we cannot assume how our students understand and can apply a concept or skill, nor can we preconceive all of the methods they may use to do so. This has significant ramifications for the scaffolding we provide for the assessment.
The only assessment that matters is skill mastery. Ancillary and unrelated elements like “promptness” ought to be removed from the conversation entirely. This is one of Rick Wormeli’s cornerstones, and one I was slow to adopt but now champion: students must be able to fail, and fail, and fail, without being punished for it. Failures and zeros, points off for lateness and noncompliance, these are all silly distractions from the essential collaborative process of understanding a student and how that student understands and can apply concepts and skills in a relevant, authentic way. Fans of standards-based assessment will certainly understand this point: Grading homework as late does absolutely nothing to understand a student’s skill mastery, and is therefore not only unnecessary, but I believe is an improper distraction and may go so far as to say is unethical, as it introduces mechanisms of coercion, control, and compliance where they simply do not belong. It is not our job to create a certain kind of person or ensure students behave in a certain, normative kind of way. There are plenty of people in our diverse society, and there are many, many ways of being. We all have successful tardy friends and prompt friends that are kind of a mess, and certainly every kind in between. We need to stop injecting personal, adult ideas of who students should be into our work with them.
I believe that the only assessments we can give that account for all four of these “CHARM” elements is omnimodal assessment: Allowing any demonstration method or mechanism that works. In Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children, I outline that I do understand this involves quite a bit of work for teachers, designing rubrics and assessment scaffolding and framework that allows such a variable and unpredictable intake of skill mastery demonstrations, but I believe the time and effort can be more than offset by not loading the year with “throttle points” of testing dates, as well as eliminating a great deal of the “work” we have kids do. We’re obsessed with productivity in this country, and a productivity mindset – make more, do more, show more – lends itself to lowering quality, deep, significant explorations of ideas and understandings. This is not to say that we don’t want our kids practicing their skills; to the contrary, we do, but we cannot presuppose how much practice any given kid may or may not need to develop mastery, and certainly having a kid beat a dead horse is as useless for that kid as it is for you. Why grade things neither of you need graded?
Instead of a traditional framework of percentages like this…
- Tests 30%
- Quizzes 20%
- Homework 20%
- Projects 20%
- Classwork 10%
…consider a revolutionized CHARM-based omnimodal framework like this…
- Skill Mastery Demonstration 100%
- Standard 1 20%
- Standard 2 20%
- Standard 3 20%
- Standard 4 20%
- Standard 5 20%
- Formative Assessments (Quizzes) 0%
- Practice (Homework) 0%
- Classwork & Collaboration 0%
Notice that I’m not saying “don’t use quizzes to check in with your kids formatively” or “homework has no use as practice.” I’m just saying don’t grade them. Numbers are terrible reflections of the comprehensive understandings of how kids learn and what they know and can do, but if your district or school requires them in the gradebook, so be it. Just don’t count them for anything. Give them a weight of “zero,” and stick to the only thing that matters: skill mastery.
We will evaluate and respond to anything a kid does, but the only things that “count” are their authentic, relevant skill masteries within the standards we are charged to instruct. If we do this, their summative post-tests that the state imposed upon them will take care of themselves.
In omnimodality, we need to create rubrics that are comprehensive enough to take any form of skill mastery and yet flexible enough so as not to exclude any form of skill mastery. Consequently, instead of talking about the features of a project as we do in many rubrics, instead create a framework around the standards and skills within the intended scope of learning.
Here are two previous videos of mine that might help if you’re struggling with this idea:
Teach for mastery, and assess for mastery, free of preconceptions about how your students may truly, deeply understand and apply.