Spend More Time Teaching, Less Time Testing

With teachers back in the classroom this year, determining where students stand academically and what they need to accelerate learning is critical. But what’s equally important is making students feel welcome and engaged as they come back to school — after more than a year of distance or hybrid learning — facing many unknown challenges in the months ahead.

The last thing teachers want is to get students settled back into a routine, only to have them pulled away for long periods of time to take a battery of assessments. We want to keep students’ social and emotional well-being in mind. Yet, we need somehow to know where they are so we can help move them forward. We need to find a balance.

"How can we determine where students are at without creating unnecessary stress?"

"How can we determine where students are at without creating unnecessary stress?" Tom Hamilton, head of product development for Savvas Learning Company, asked an audience of educators attending a recent EdWeek Leadership Symposium.

Realizing that this is such an important topic for educators this year, Tom offered three key solutions to help educators achieve that balance.

Get a baseline with a short, diagnostic screener.
Continuously gain insights through formative assessments.
Leverage digital tools to capture and organize data.

1. Let students show us what they know

Get a baseline with a short, diagnostic screener. “We don’t want our students to take long tests to identify what they don’t know. It’s very demoralizing. So we’re suggesting that you assess what students do know,” Tom said. “Rather than identifying weaknesses, let’s focus on their strengths and reinforce those strengths. This strategy will help students feel positive about their classroom experiences.”

He goes on to suggest educators use a short, beginning-of-the-year diagnostic screener to give teachers and administrators baseline data that will help with grouping while providing individualized strengths and areas of improvement for each student. These diagnostic screeners can be done in the span of one class period and can adapt to where the students are at, then provide valuable data and guidance on support where needed.

“There are many different ways to assess where students are at, but long, tense, one-on-one testing may be causing more stress than necessary.”

2. Gain insights through continuous formative assessments

Continuously gain insights through formative assessments. Every minute of instruction time is crucial, especially in a year like this one. So stopping class to take sometimes days-long tests and assessments interrupts the instructional cycle. Formative assessments are a great way to gain valuable insights through a variety of daily classroom activities and tasks. They allow teachers to continue instruction while students continue to learn.

“One challenge with formal assessments is that they tend to be narrow with multiple choice or right-and-wrong answers that don’t give much insight into what students are thinking. They don’t tell us what parts of the problem they understand and what parts they don’t,” Tom said. “So gathering data by allowing students to respond in a variety of ways, like through a presentation, or writing a letter, or drawing a picture — these are great ways to get at student learning in fun, engaging ways.”

One example Tom likes to suggest for formative assessments is incorporating open-ended tasks in instruction. Open-ended tasks are activities and problems that have more than one right answer. Students can come to a conclusion using different types of thinking that gives teachers valuable insights into their strengths and areas of need. “Open-ended tasks allow all students to contribute to class, promote great discussions, and give the teacher great formative assessment data.”

3. Leverage your digital tools to capture data

Leverage digital tools to capture and organize data. During remote learning, teachers have had to get very comfortable with all types of technology. So why not continue to use those digital tools and leverage those skills to help efficiently capture student data?

“I think we’d all love to get back to the classroom, and we don’t want kids to be sitting in front of a computer all day long, but there’s a lot of great tech that can help with generating data that can engage the students as well.”

One example of this technology that Tom believes will become important in the coming school year is adaptive practice. Adaptive practice assignments are personalized to fit students’ needs as they work.

“With adaptive practice you’re letting the computer help with identifying those gaps and helping students practice them in the context of their current learning. So you’re not setting aside today’s lessons to focus on something from last year. You're integrating it into the cycle of practice and it’s individualized for each student.”

Start off on a positive note

This time of year, we’re looking to see what students have attained in this unusual learning climate. So consider your assessments a way to provide knowledge and guidance through engaging activities that elicit lively discussions and writing opportunities. Lean on those digital tools that you’ve mastered to help you efficiently capture those moments. Welcome students back to school by allowing them to show off their strengths and build their morale. While there are many unknowns ahead, hopefully these ideas will help you start off on a positive note and keep that momentum going throughout the school year.