Should We Assess During Virtual School?

I want to preface this post by acknowledging that there are many different perspectives regarding education during the CoVid-19 pandemic; from those who’d like to replicate face to face school to those who’d prefer formal education to be completely suspended until we are able to return and, I hope, many of us who fall between these two perspectives. I’m also not sure there’s ever been a conversation about assessment that didn’t split opinions in some way. I’m aware that not everyone will agree and that’s good – we need different voices to help us move forwards and remain open-minded.

These are my thoughts on assessment right now, and are shaped by my own context. I work in a large IB international school with 1:1 tech and established platforms. We’ve been doing Virtual School for 5 weeks with 97% attendance. We have teams of teachers working together supported by coordinators, coaches, principals and more. We’ve been working on assessment for the past couple of years. For different educators in different contexts views will of course vary.

The argument against assessment

There are many challenges surrounding assessment during this period of virtual schooling. The biggest of which is equity. Children do not have the same access to education right now, some will have parents who are able to support them (possibly help a little too much), some will not. Some will have access to tech, some will not. Some will have good quality learning opportunities provided by their school, sadly, some will not. Devastatingly, some will fall ill, or watch relatives fall ill. Their access to learning is not the same.

In the face of all of this, assessment may seem unnecessary, ineffective, and unfair. It would benefit those with more advantages and further disadvantage those already struggling.

I’d be inclined to agree. But.

I think this makes the (for me incorrect) assumption that assessment is to label children, to judge or punish those who did not do ‘well’, and to measure them against one another. And I just don’t agree with that.

The Purpose of Assessment

Many of the conversations I’ve been having with teachers have been centered on the idea that the purpose of assessment is to understand where children are in their learning. We’ve then been using this to make decisions about how best to help them move forwards. For me, this is absolutely key.

Assessment should be to the benefit of children. It should better empower both them and us to support their learning and help them find their own path and ways to grow.

All those complex disadvantages? Assessment should be one of the tools we use to understand their impact and plan for how best to help our students both during and coming out of this.

Some great work is being done connected to assessment; I see the work coming out of many IB schools really leading the way here. More process less product. More thinking less repetitive recall. More agency for students by supporting them to understand and own their learning, less labelling children.

What might assessment look like now?

As we’ve been working through the purpose, approach to and format of assessment as a school I created this as a resource to share with teachers. We’ve then gone on to have a lot of more specific conversations about how to assess particular skills, understandings and, crucially, what to do with that information once we have it.

Our assessment practices have already been steadily shifting, VS has just brought this into focus. Here are some examples of ways we’ve changed assessment;

Examples of how we’re assessing

Maths assessments: Gone are the ‘answer 20 problems’ instead we have children record themselves solving 1-3 problem (at their level or grade level depending on the teaching choices) and talking us through the process.

Reading: Reading logs can be problematic for a few reasons, so instead we use book snaps, fun reading challenges and book talks to give kids many ways to show us what they’re reading. We support families by providing good quality questions for them to ask their children before, during and after reading. We also use video to check in on fluency from time to time.

Writing: Writers’ Workshop has been great for shifting focus away from product and onto process. We’ve continued this during Virtual School with children working on pieces and uploading them to Seesaw/Teams. Teachers then use feedback (written or voice notes) to give specific guidance which hones in on skills they’re working on. Children can then edit their own work and send it again.

Conceptual thinking: As an IB school this is huge for us, we use lots of different tools to allow children to show their perspective, thinking and passions. From videos to animations to games and more. By giving children inquiries to pursue will let them explore and make connections, then they can demonstrate their thinking to us.

I’m proud that at AIS we’ve worked hard to make sure that assessment is about understanding learning and supporting growth. Our students feel less pressure to perform on set days as their learning is framed as a journey not a fixed point. Our teachers and our families are better informed on how to support each child.

So yes, we still assess. We do it because it helps us understand learning, because it helps us plan to support each child, and because it gives our students agency to know how they are doing.

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