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Hechinger Commentary


Education journalists frequently address testing-related issues: Are the tests accurate? Do they put too much pressure on kids? Is there too much testing? Do tests narrow the scope of teaching by making anything not on the test seem superfluous? These are all important questions. But it’s also important to remember that excellent teachers use many forms of assessment as part of their teaching: checklists to take note of students’ level of understanding and acquisition of skills; teacher-made, school and district tests; commercial tests built into textbooks. Teachers also evaluate students’ writing, formally and informally. Teachers assess children to measure their progress but also to help the teacher adjust his or her lesson plans.

You’ll see in these videos a variety of assessment methods. In the first scene, the teacher asks questions to check the boy’s understanding of fractions. He’s unafraid to talk about his thinking and uses mathematical language such as “regrouping.” The teacher takes note and praises him. Ask her later why she reacted the way she did. Ask her what she wrote down in her notes and how she will use that information later.

Look at the wall behind the boy. It’s papered with student work. Putting children’s work on display also shows visitors and parents how students are progressing. You might also ask a teacher to tell you what conclusions can be drawn from the work on display.

In the second snippet, the teacher notices right away that the girl erred in multiplying 18 by 25. This is assessment, but not for giving a grade. Rather than correcting her or telling her the answer, the teacher asks the girl if she’s sure and then asks her to try it again. She’s eager, not humiliated. She understands learning is about making an effort and practicing until you get it.

The teacher working with the two girls on the floor is trying different ways to help them learn fact-based writing. She didn’t just teach a lesson and hand out low grades to those who didn’t get it. She observed the students at work, identified where they were having trouble, and decided to teach them to use a tool to organize their writing. After observing teachers, you might ask them: Do you feel you need to change your plans for upcoming lessons based on what you learned about your students’ progress today?

If you see a teacher taking notes on student work, ask after class about what the teacher observed: How many students have mastered two-digit multiplication? (This should yield a specific number.) How do you know? What do your observations tell you to expect from the students on the upcoming state math test? What is hard for your students? What’s easy?

These students certainly will be required to take more formal tests as part of their schooling. But in the classrooms of all good teachers, assessment is ongoing. Journalists should train their eyes to see it and to use it as a starting point to talk with teachers about their students. Those conversations can yield sophisticated stories about student performance and whether that performance is reflected on state tests.

Using assessments to monitor students’ learning and progress looks different in middle and high schools. It’s easy to understand why: Teachers have as many as 160 students each day. Still, it’s essential that teachers know where their students stand. Ask teachers how they do it.

What do weekly quizzes tell a teacher? What does the teacher do with that information? Reviewing collections of students’ work commonly called portfolios is another assessment tool secondary teachers use. Ask the teacher how he or she analyzes those assignments. How does the teacher make sure—before the test at the end of the semester or the end of the year—that students are learning what the state standards require?