The Sine Qua Non: Thinking Like an Assessor

Throughout my ten years as a teacher educator, I have continually wondered about the work we do: What are the conditions, structured opportunities, and practice preservice teachers need now in order to become effective educators in the future?

In a way, seeking an answer to this question is like pushing a boulder up a hill, because the greatest impact on a new teacher’s practice, and a factor largely out of our control, is their teaching context--their students, colleagues, the school’s values and routines, mentoring. On the other hand, we also know that creating the conditions for teacher candidates to develop some basic repertoires of practice--such as participation strategies--and an inspired vision of their work is crucial to set the stage for their future practice.

With this in mind, my colleagues from University of New Hampshire and Southern New Hampshire University and I were particularly interested in how new teachers learn what’s been recognized “as a sine qua non for today's competent educator” (Popham, 2009, p. 4) and is one of the most challenging elements of teaching for new teachers to understand and practice successfully: assessment literacy. Assessment literacy is broadly defined as the knowledge and skills teachers need to effectively develop assessments, and interpret and use their results, for a variety of educational purposes, and to communicate those results to a variety of educational shareholders (Brookhart, 2011). In our study, we focused on a particular aspect of assessment literacy, the formative assessment process, which includes:

  • Creating opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding of standards and objectives

  • Analyzing evidence of student thinking and learning in order to

    • Uncover the patterns of understanding across a group of students

    • Provide helpful and specific feedback  to individual and groups of students that are aligned with standards and objectives and

    • Design next steps for instruction that are informed by this analysis  

Specifically, we were interested in the relationship between beginning teachers’ assessment literacy while they were in their teacher preparation program and during their first year of teaching. To study this relationship, we analyzed six recently graduated teachers’ performance on the New Hampshire Teacher Candidate Assessment of Performance (NH TCAP), a robust performance assessment completed during their student teaching; and interviews with and observations of these same teachers during their first year of teaching. Collecting these qualitative data on individual teachers’ experiences and learning that span the preservice and induction years is essential for understanding what really impacts beginning teacher learning.   

Here’s what we found: Across our cases, the teachers’ assessment literacy on their TCAP was strongly related to their assessment literacy during their first year of teaching. For example, teachers whose feedback to students in their TCAP assessments focused on correct and incorrect responses tended to continue using this kind of feedback during their first year, and teachers who aligned their assessments on the TCAP with key outcomes tended to do the same one year later. However, when there was growth in teachers’ assessment literacy, we attributed it to the collaboration and collective practices the teachers were engaged in their schools (e.g., collectively analyzing student work).

Another key finding related to the importance of alignment. When there was alignment among teachers’ assessments, outcomes, and instruction, teachers saw students’ performance as evidence of true understanding, and consequently gave students relevant feedback to further their progress. When there was misalignment, teachers’ understanding of student performance tended to be surface-level, and their feedback was vague and did not guide students’ progress toward learning objectives.

What did we learn from this study about beginning teacher learning of assessment? First, thinking--and teaching--like an assessor is hard, but important. I’m grateful that at UVEI we emphasize backward design and teaching for understanding throughout our program. Second (and this is not new learning, but important to reestablish), learning to teach is a complex journey, shaped by individual proclivities and motivations and contextual practices and values. It has always been fascinating to witness and take part in the journey with those inspiring individuals who choose teaching.

I want to leave you with a quote from Deborah Ball that captures the importance helping beginning teachers develop both a mindset and the skills to think about student thinking, to think like an assessor:

“What you do when you’re teaching is you think about other people’s thinking...You don’t think about your own thinking; you think what other people think. That’s really hard.”

Commentary by Christopher Ward, PhD

Chris Ward is the Graduate Studies Coordinator and member of the Program Faculty.  Along with colleagues at the University of Washington and Vanderbilt University, he received the Best Article of the Year award for the article, Situated Motivation, published in the journal, Educational Psychologist.

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