by Megan Davenport, Rubicon International

I have been thinking a lot about assessments lately. The debate about what types of assessments, and how many assessments we should give, intrigues me. On one hand, I strongly believe in measuring student progress and ensuring that all of our kids are learning what we want them to learn. On the other hand, I hate the kind of teaching and thinking that high-pressure assessments can promote.

How can we better use the assessment results that we do have?

Sal Khan: ‘Let’s Teach for Mastery’

In his talk, Khan sets the stage by explaining how his cousins “thought they didn’t have the math gene” because they had gaps in their math knowledge that made it impossible for them to understand some of the higher-level concepts. How many times have we heard a student say “I hate math” or “I’m just not a math person”?  

He then outlines the problem that kids take an assessment at the end of a unit and move on to the next topic regardless of how students performed on the assessment. For example, a student that scored 75% on the assessment is moved right along to the next topic despite a 25% gap in knowledge.

Because of this, kids have a shaky foundation that makes it impossible to grasp higher-level concepts. Khan argues that all kids are capable of mastering math, just as they are capable of learning to read, but that we must make sure that they master every concept along the way to get there. His talk is compelling, and he wraps up by sharing that in today’s world it is possible to tailor instruction like never before. Some of his ideas might not be quite as feasible as he presents given limits to technology, etc., but his point is great and should be taken to heart.

So, what can we do?

When we review assessment results, whether from a standardized test, benchmark assessment, or in-class assessment created by the teacher, how can we make sure to embrace the results and not move students on without mastery? Here are a few ideas: 

• Common Assessments & Shared Instruction

During my last year of teaching, I worked with the 3 other second grade teachers to create short, targeted common assessments on foundational math skills (adding, subtracting, etc). We then reviewed the results together and grouped students based on their results. We spent 45 minutes per day in math groups based on these results in which students were matched with the group at their ability level rather than necessarily staying with their classroom teacher. This was a HUGE success.

Not only did the students grow tremendously, but we, as teachers, grew tremendously as well. We found that each of us had skills that our students had mastered more than the others in our grade level, as well as opportunities to improve our instruction. We gave short common assessments at the end of each week that allowed students to change groups as soon as they demonstrated mastery. We, as teachers, as also rotated through who taught which group to keep instruction fresh. This kind of grouping is very common in reading, but why not try it in math, social studies, science, or beyond!

• Embrace the 21st Century with Online Tools

Teachers are no longer the keepers of information. Students and teachers can now use a variety of free online tools, such as Khan Academy or Gooru that help tailor learning based on student mastery. This means that students can all move at different paces as needed, and the teachers help ensure students are progressing, rather than focusing solely on delivering content. These tools are both free and open to use, and there are many more paid applications available.

• Montessori Approach to Personalized Learning

Maria Montessori is often considered the real personalized learning guru. Though many are familiar with Montessori preschools, the Montessori approach to elementary school is not nearly as well-known. I highly recommend reading this article that talks about personalized learning and shares concrete strategies about how the Montessori approach, such as adding flexibility and more independent pacing,  can be adapted for a general elementary classroom.

• Leveled Groups

This is kind of an “oldy-but-goody” in elementary classes, but there is a huge opportunity to use it more in middle and high school classes. The idea here is to group students by mastery (much like in the first example) and tailor instruction to each group. While the teacher is working with the individual groups, the other students are working independently or in small groups on practice materials for their levels. Though this does take a high level of planning and preparation by the teacher to have differentiated work ready for each group of students, it provides the flexibility to make sure that all students are mastering content and not moving on before they are ready.

Do you use additional strategies with your students? Share your ideas with us at [email protected]!

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