Saturday, August 25, 2012

Assessing for Independence

How will you know if your students use what you taught them when you are not around?

If a student falls in the forest and there isn't a teacher around to see it, did the student perform?

Independence is what we strive for as teachers. We want our children to take the skills and knowledge we teach them and use it independently, away from us. We want them to apply what we teach them in reading when they are curled up in bed reading for fun. We want them to be able to read for fun. We want them to be able to use their math skills at the grocery store without thinking twice. We want them to be able to understand the way the world works scientifically so that they can understand the world around them when they are outside examining an ant away from any adult.

But most of our assessments are teacher directed. We take anecdotal notes on our reading conferences- when we are one on one or in a small group with students. We take running records- when we are one on one with students. We look at how they perform on tests and quizzes or during discrete trials- unnatural settings where we are probing their knowledge in a way the real world will never do. These are great ways to assess where they are with their knowledge in school- but how do we assess what they know when we are not around and how they will use that knowledge independently?

A literacy coach asked this question last week at one of our balanced literacy training and I haven't been able to get the question out of my head since. How do we assess that our students are able to use a skill independently? How do we know that when we teach them to make text-to-self connections that they do it even when we are not around at times when they are reading for fun? 

The literacy coach discussed strategies for doing this with upper-grade students during independent reading time when they are reading books for pleasure- not teacher assigned. Ideas like looking at whether or not students are they putting sticky notes in to mark words they don't understand. 

Once I started thinking about how I will know what my students do independently when unprompted by an adult I started to change how I thought about even presenting the material. Instead of wanting to know how they will read on a running record I started thinking about how they will read when I'm not over their shoulder. It completely changes the long-term goal.

Once I realized that it changed my long-term mindset I was almost ashamed of myself. The long-term goal never actually changed. Of course I teach for independence. We all do- it's why we are paid to do what we do- not to teach kids to take a test, but to give kids skills and knowledge to help them be successful in life. But we haven't been assessing for that. 

It takes creativity, patience, and a dedication to being a "kid watcher" to assess for independence. It takes building a classroom environment where you can release responsibility to your kids so that you have time to sit back and notice what they are doing when you are not telling them what to do. It means reshaping how we think about assessments and those independent activities- how can we structure independent activities so that it shows us where the children are and where they need to go next?

I'm excited and challenged by this way of thinking. For kids like mine, for whom independence is essential, it is an excellent question to always be asking myself- "How will I know they can do this when I am not around?"

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