Assessment Education Reform Grading Lesson Planning Pedagogy Student Choice Teaching

Measuring Up: When Assessments Move Beyond The Growth Chart

Talking about how to fix our assumptions about assessments.

Assessments are like parenting in that we do- what was done to us.


Our assessment strategies and parenting strategies stay the same as long as how we turned out confirms the strategy. If we turned out okay than how we were raised must be a good practice. Unfortunately, we too often fall prey to confirmation bias when we consider information or past practices in such a way that it confirms our existing beliefs.

I never had to worry about confirmation bias with teaching and parenting, since little of what I experienced worked well for me. When I became a teacher and parent I entered both as Tabula Rasa: a clean slate willing to learn what works and what doesn’t. As a parent of 16 years and a classroom teacher of 22 years, I’ve grown to value assessments that double as experiences—experiences both for me, my students, and my son. Far too many teachers and administrators will reward students who are on task with their learning for 55 minutes, but then want the assessment results to be conveyed and understood in minutes, if not seconds. The entire experience of reading the novel The Grapes of Wrath is squeezed into a quick test score, downed in one simplistic gulp. That type of assessment may taste sweet to a busy administrator or teacher, but that same cup of wine tastes bitter to the student, and it should. Here are four alternatives to the standard bitter distillation of classroom learning that we call assessment.


Whenever I have my phone out at a meeting or during a keynote, I often get taken to task for not paying attention. Not only am I paying attention, but everyone on Twitter can see what I’m thinking and learning, because I’m tweeting it out. When my learning is done I can go back to the hashtag and review what I and others learned. Just today I used the Twitter search box to remind myself what I, and others, learned at the UCI writing project conference back in 2014 by looking up the #UCIwp hashtag. I felt like a time traveler.

After your students collect social media shares from a class or event, they can then use the website Storify to create custom curated stories of their social media shares and learning. Then they can present these stories, share them online, or submit them. You can create a learning story with younger students by having them record their thoughts on colorful Post-Its and then have them arrange them how they think they should be arranged on a large piece of poster paper. Reading through a collection of Post-Its or Storified tweets is like looking through the text messages my son and I share with each other each day. Over time they tell the story of his development, and my parenting.


Some of the best conversations we have are those we have with our past, present, and future selves.

An important goal of teaching, and parenting, is to create future adults who live decorously, acting in a way that the situation, community, and environment deserves. Students need to learn the art of metacognition and not to rely on helicopter parents or teachers to constantly correct them. Metacognition is the collaboration strategy that gets ignored far too often. Some of the best conversations we have are those we have with our past, present, and future selves. When my students write online, they can use WordPress analytic tools to ask themselves important questions. Why did my views go down in December?


Why did this piece of writing get more stars than that piece of writing. Why did this piece of writing get some comments, but this one didn’t? Why was my writing more popular in Egypt than it was in France? Just like a blog analytics page, my son doesn’t need me to assess every part of his life for him. He can tell if he has made good choices by the changes in his friendship circles and how adults in the community react to him. At some point he has to take ownership of his own life. How are we providing opportunities for students to take ownership of their lives?


Just last week I was listening to the podcast Data Skeptic. The podcast topic was Goodhart’s law which states, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Standard rubrics become opportunities for gamesmanship rather than a demonstration of learning. But you can tweak standard rubrics to make them better. I like to tweak rubrics by using single point rubrics and student created rubrics. My friend, Sean Ziebarth, and I have been using “spec sheets” for years. A spec sheet shows students what the minimum requirements are for earning a B-. We don’t tell students how to earn an A and they use the spec sheet as a starting point, instead of a target. Similar to spec sheets, a single point rubric includes only one criteria column and students must fill in boxes to the left and right of the column based on what they need to work on and what they did to exceed the criteria. A few years ago I had my students create their own global Advanced Placement essay rubric. (Here is the AP English rubric assignment) Then they translated the rubric criteria into metaphors using an object of their choice. One group created a potato rubric. Their rubric went from raw potato to tater tots. Then they used their potato rubric to evaluate student created 1-pagers. The big key was they figured out what was important, not me.


When my son was growing up, we set the agenda for him we knew what was best for him. But as he gets older, we are finding out what matters to him by the criteria he chooses to focus on.


We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience. – Dewey

One of the best, and yet most difficult, times as a parent are those late night talks with your child. It’s late at night, when they can’t sleep, that they start asking the deepest questions and sharing their most intimate thoughts. This deeper analysis happens when we allow students to use reflection as our assessment strategy. What’s better, an 88 on a The Grapes of Wrath test, or a two- to three-page reflection on their learning, as they interacted with the novel? A recent (2014) Harvard Business School research study concludes that reflection is the most important part of the learning process. This study just confirms what educational philosopher John Dewey said many years ago: “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” My students write their reflections which take the form of online writing, movies, vlogs, podcasts, works of art, original theatrical scenes… all of these take learning to a place beyond a test score, or a letter grade. Every time I read one I learn something new about them as a student and as a human being.

But the best part of reading these student reflections, of listening to my son talk deep into the night, isn’t my assessment of them, it’s my assessment of me.


Reading and listening to reflection becomes an integral part of my development as a teacher and as a parent. It’s my opportunity to reflect on what worked and didn’t work for them and therefore what do I need to do differently. How can I transform my teaching and parenting? The ultimate goal for me is that I’m not only working to be a better teacher/parent than my teachers/parents, but I’m trying to be a better teacher/ parent than I was just the other day and isn’t that the ultimate goal of any assessment?


*this post was originally featured in the Fall 2016 OnCUE magazine. I republished it here so that I could add links to content and for those who don’t subscribe to the magazine.


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