Sunday, August 29, 2010

Rethinking Beginning Assessment: How Soon Is Too Soon?

Early Assessment
In many ways I miss the earlier days of my teaching. I miss the first few weeks of school when we could get to know our students and build our community of learners. We can still do that, but there is now this pressing need to assess our learners early. We are in the first days of school and students are leaving my room to be assessed by intervention teams.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm all for having helpful information about my learners. I'm all about knowing where they are and where they need to go. I think it's important to know what they have under control to find ways to support their learning. I assess my students often, and adjust my instruction accordingly.

I've worked on the intervention side of instruction so I understand the need to get students identified quickly, placed in groups, and positioned for thoughtful instruction. But I'm wondering - just wondering - what would happen if we slowed down a bit in those first weeks? What would happen if we gave learners a few weeks to get back in the groove of school? What would happen if we spent time getting to know what our children CAN do through observation and reflection? What would happen if intervention teams started with the students whose previous year's data demonstrates, without a doubt, they will qualify for services? What if, within the other slots, intervention teachers went into classrooms and worked alongside the teachers to get to know students?

Assessment vs. Observation
So how soon is too soon to assess? This difference between assessment and observation is critical at the beginning of the year. Intentional observation, instead of formal assessment, during the first four to six weeks of school allows children time to get back to what they knew and get comfortable with the teacher and learning environment. It allows us to get to know our students as individuals. This time, will allow the rest of the year to be more focused and intensive in instruction. This time, allows me to see what students know, the strategies they utilize and how they respond to instruction.

In our district we are fortunate to have strong data from our previous year's teachers. I start my year by looking at the previous end of year's assessments. Using previous year's assessment information I can find out strengths of my new learners. I look for strategies they have in place in literacy. I can also find commonalities among students. I place books in baskets on tables which I think would match my learners. Then I watch. I provide opportunities for writing. Then I watch. There are times for conversation. I listen. As students read, write, and talk I confer alongside them to add to what I know about each child as a learner. Read aloud, shared writing, and interactive writing also allow me to discover strengths of my new learners.

Observing Students in the First Weeks
During my time as a Reading Recovery teacher we were taught to begin our weeks of instruction with "Roaming in the Known". My trainer was adamant we respect this time to get to know our students, establish a rapport, and discover all children COULD DO. It wasn't a time to teach, it was a time to observe. It was a time to see what children knew about language, the ways they construct knowledge, the strategies they use to read and write, their ability to monitor and self-correct, and note learning strengths. It wasn't a time to record what they couldn't do. It really wasn't about what they couldn't do. It was about discovering what they had under control to use their strengths to teach into new learning. I use this "roaming in the known" thinking to guide my observations in my classroom during the first weeks of school.

In the first days of school I prepare my assessment notebook, and take notes about what I notice students are able to do. I also take the time to find out about their interests and attitudes about literacy. Here are some questions I consider as I work with students during the first weeks of school:
  • How confident are learners?
  • What are their attitudes about reading and writing?
  • What do they prefer to read and write about in our workshops?
  • Do they read and write with purpose?
  • Do they have a sense of story?
  • Is there a match between literacies (is there a match between what they know in reading and writing, or a difference between the two)?
  • What oral language structures do they use (do these carry over to their writing)?
  • Do they monitor and self-correct?
  • What is their experience with books, writing, and story?
  • What strategies do they have in place for reading and writing?
  • What do they know about letters and words?
During the first days of school these questions will guide my thinking as I observe my students during various learning opportunities. Discovering and celebrating all they can do in the first days of school, instead of quickly assessing my students, will give me time to see all they know and how they transfer this knowledge to new situations. It also gives me time to get to know them as readers, writers, thinkers....and the amazing people they already are.


  1. Cathy-
    What a great post! Such wonderful reminders about the importance of slowing down to observe and listen to students. My struggle is now taking this rich data and figuring out how to organize it into our online grading tool?! Thank you and hope you had a good first week!

  2. Cathy - Love your thinking!! I too spend the first 3 - 4 weeks doing the careful observation along with some quick conferences, reading with children informally, writing with children, and building the structures of our workshops. Only then am I ready to start doing the more formal assessments.
    I love the phrase, "roaming in the known!" Will be thinking about it in the next few weeks.

  3. Cathy,
    Another outstanding...and very! You make so many excellent points about slowing down and using data already collected! There is a lot to be said for giving students time to get back into the 'groove' of I teacher I know I need time. I also appreciate the emphasis you place on observation! We learn so much more about our students when we 'kid watch' (to borrow Yetta Goodman's term) students in during authentic literacy experiences than we do looking at just data numbers. Thanks for sharing your thinking!

  4. I like how you get to know your readers and writers. It is great to have time to get to know your students before testing them. Relationships are critical to our the learning that goes on in our classrooms.

  5. Cathy~
    I could not agree more! What we see today will be so different tomorrow. Taking time to sit and think about our learners, who they are, their likes interest, their interactions with others and their response to our new routines and procedures can tell us so much! I would be remiss not to mention how these observations and noticings will strenghten our formal assessments-later, once we are ALL settled back in to the business of school.

  6. I love your guiding questions for observation! I'm also feeling the pressure to do formal assessments next week...but it's so much more important to get routines started and watch how students respond.

  7. I love your list. I'll try to use some of these thoughts as I try to gather my thinking about each child in the quiet cool of this weekend!

  8. What a great list of questions. It's important to observe and watch as they settle in. It's unfortunate the state of Ohio requires the KRAWL to be done in the first month and with my attendance schedule for kdg. that's ten days. Discovering our students is a joy if we watch and allow.

  9. What a novel idea... getting to know your students so you can reach them in more effective ways. Unfortunately, legistators don't see it that way and force us into assessments that begin before the marker on the new name tags is dry. Here in Indiana, we begin the M-ClASS the second week of school and need to have these long-winded, time-consuming tests given to 22-27 second graders by Sept 17th! Sounds like the perfect recipe for making kids hate school!

  10. I really loved the list of questions and things to think about and observe in children. I always resist the temptation to force and do too much at this time of the year. Thank you for the reminders!

  11. Cathy,
    I love your reminders!
    -Kim Dornburgh

  12. I'd love to hear your recommendations for kinder teachers on how to begin the year. It's nice to know what kids know and where to start, but I also feel guilty sending them with a strange adult to quiz them in the first few days of school!

  13. Kathy, Thank you for the reminder of the importance of slowing down to watch and listen to see what our kids CAN do. I so agree with you that these first weeks are so important to establish routines, get to know our students as learners, and spend time just talking, reading and writing with them.

  14. Absolutely powerful!! I understand and agree with you!! This year we had all received the pressure of assessing And running guided reading groups by the third week of school. And I couldn't help but wonder....I don't know them yet very well as readers and writers for me to start loading them with reading lessons
    So fast too soon.

  15. Good morning everyone,

    I just read in Carol’s weekly update that 4th and 5th grade will not be starting the year with AIMSweb. I am a little confused. The 4th and 5th grade staff got better training than last year’s staff and everyone I have heard from at both Jefferson and Addams feels they are ready to start using AIMSweb and would prefer it to NWEA. Also, I am available to support the teachers with questions. I have already prepared the manuals and probes for the 4th and 5th grade staff in both buildings. This year’s 4th grade students have already used AIMSweb for a year and are familiar with the format. It doesn’t make sense to me to go back to NWEA again this year.

    If we are going to be using NWEA as a benchmark assessment, I will need training in accessing the data system, as I find the reports mostly unhelpful. Also, NWEA does not provide any progress monitoring resources to the teachers. Do we have progress monitoring resources in mind? The teachers will need something to use to measure the impact of interventions on a regular basis to support the Response to Intervention process.

    For the second and third grade teachers who are using AIMSweb, what is the assessment window?

  16. How refreshing to find someone that feels the same as I. I am a math intervention teacher. I want to be in the classrooms more but feel resistance. Of course, in that resistance lies what I need to do (Casey, Katherine). I fully support the use of mClass beginning the third week of school. Do you think it is possible to balance giving the assessments and observing for richer analysis?

  17. Thank you everyone for your thoughtful comments.

    Anonymous, in our school some of the kindergarten assessment is done by other adults - but in the classroom. These same adults are also in the classroom often over the first days of school working alongside the children. This helps the students to feel more at ease, and provides extra eyes and hands. District timelines require kindergartners to be assessed quickly to allow for early intervention placement. This can be tricky since formal school experience before K varies greatly. Personally, I'd be more concerned with a K who has had preschool and other formal experience compared to one in a similar place who has not had these same learning opportunities. Giving students time to see how they respond to instruction seems ideal.

  18. Hey Cathy,
    Thanks for your posts. I've learned a lot from them. I like the idea of slowing down and observing. Actually teachers and schools often want to assess student quickly and to know them quickly, not to know what they can do, but what they can't do. Our assessments get in the wrong way. We really need to reflect. This post is really a great reminder.
    However, I'm Chinese, and because of the differences between languages and educational systems, I can not fully understand your posts. That really gets me down. So I need your help, Cathy. Can you explain something to me? e.g. what do you mean by "a sense of story"?
    Looking forward to your reply. :)

  19. Thank you for this post. I often feel that pressure to get up and running with assessments and groups right away. I do know, though, that building a community of learners and really getting to know each student is so important.

    I think about my own son, who is very shy and yet capable. If you assessed him the first days, he would appear to have very different skills than he really has. It just takes him a good 10 or so days to get used to a new teacher etc., and is very shy until that time.