The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Assessing Learning Without Tests

on May 25, 2016

In deciding what to post today I went back to my file of pieces I had written in the past that were published somewhere else.  I was drawn to a particular essay about my own years as a teacher, a high school department chairman, and a principal, during which schools did not use standardized tests or end-of-course tests to “measure” student learning.

Throughout my career as a teacher I was never much of a test giver. It wasn’t a matter of laziness, but of not wanting to play “Gotcha” with my students. What I hoped to find out were the positives for each student: the things that they had grabbed onto and made their own. Although the ways I used to find out those things won’t work to measure student achievement or the “value added” by a teacher, they helped me to know each student’s strengths, weaknesses, and personal interests and to shape my teaching accordingly. Later, as the chair of a high school English department, and then as the principal of an elementary school and a middle school, I worked with  teachers to help them do similar types of assessment. Often they came up with great ideas I had never even imagined.

As I write this I can almost see the looks of distain on the faces of many “experts”. They don’t understand that my philosophy of education was– and still is–different from the one dominant over the past several years that seeks to prepare all students for college or the workplace and ensure that America’s place in the global economy will always be near the top.  In my view the purpose of education is to enable each student to become a fully functioning adult in all the roles he or she has chosen, or is given to play. If, in the process students attain wealth or fame, and the American economy soars, so much the better.

My versions of assessment are what any good teacher can find in students’ projects, writing, talk, and behavior.  Although at times they were  scheduled events, mostly they were observations of everyday activities and behaviors.  My memories are far from complete, but I can describe several activities my teachers or I used at different grade levels to obtain meaningful information about student learning. Below are some samples for different school levels.

When I taught the elementary grades my students often worked with a partner or in small groups. I encouraged them to build things from ordinary materials, using either written instructions or just their own imagination. Sometimes I asked them to turn the stories they read into puppet shows.  At other times each student chose an animal to read about and then wrote about and drew the animal for a class book.  Often, for homework they were asked to identify math problems in their own lives and explain how they solved them. Estimation was an important part of almost every math lesson.  Students wrote weekly notes to me commenting on my teaching or their own work.  Older students often read aloud to children in lower grade classes.

At our middle school in reading classes students were able to choose a book to read from four or five offered. Often, the books were connected to the history or geography they were studying.  With fiction, teachers asked students to choose one character and keep a diary for him or her over the course of the story, reacting to plot events and other characters’ actions.  Sometimes, in studying geography or history students created an imaginary country on a map that had symbols for cities, highways, rivers, and other physical features. As often as possible they were encouraged to make math a part of other subjects by drawing objects to scale, comparing foreign money or weights to our own, or computing distances or times.

In high school classes student writing almost always accompanied reading.  After a short story unit, for example, students wrote their own stories.  Sometimes they imitated poetic forms or wrote book reviews posted for others to read.  They translated scenes from a Shakespearian play into modern colloquial English and acted them out for an audience. Teachers often shared significant newspaper and magazine articles with students and encouraged them to write letters to the editor when they had something to say.  We also pushed students to participate in community events and projects and to speak at public meetings.

As I listed the learning demonstrations above, others jumped into my mind.  But I never intended to be encyclopedic, only to give the flavor of the things that enabled the teachers I worked with and myself to evaluate student learning without giving tests.  As often possible, good student work was shared with families, other classes, the community, or friends.  In those ways we did our best to be accountable to all our stakeholders.



2 responses to “Assessing Learning Without Tests

  1. Don Bellairs says:

    Certainly good teachers can be successful without any objective reinforcement of their work–until a supervisor’s subjective view creates problems. But ineffective teachers (of whom there are many; we sometimes don’t do a very good job of policing our own) are not exposed if they play good politics. And unqualified administrators who don’t–worse, CAN’T because they don’t know how–support the teaching process can fly under the accountability radar without flexible, objective standards.
    The methods listed above are acceptable teaching methods and should be taught to teachers who are also using standardized tests that provide objective data with which we can evaluate the efficacy of administrators and teachers in our downward spiraling public education system.


  2. Shaari says:

    Sounds like me and why my heart and mind are having a difficult time working in our current system.


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