When we hear the word assessment, we often think only of multiple choice quizzes or tests, which can feel overwhelming and cause anxiety for students and teachers alike. Viewing assessments as ends in themselves, or as something a teacher, administrator, or policy maker does to us or our students, offers little opportunity for student learning.
We can shift our assessment practice, however, toward cultivating a classroom that is more joyful and just, as author Linda Christensen describes.
Joyful Assessment Is Informal and Frequent
The joy first comes in getting to know our students for the amazing individuals they are and the strengths they bring to our classrooms. Informal assessments begin on day one for joyful teachers, and they use every opportunity to watch, listen, and learn students’ talents, strengths, and interests.
As we get to know what brings joy to our students, we begin to note their readiness levels for our content, their entry points, and the ways they might learn best.
For example, my first assessment as an eighth-grade ELA teacher was always a letter exchange to and from my students. From this I was able to holistically assess where they were as readers and writers, while identifying a few individual skills (such as their sentence variety, idea development, or audience awareness for writing). Initially assessing their reading and writing as a whole gave me the qualitative information I needed to know how to best engage and begin to teach them.
Now that I serve as a staff developer in an elementary school, I work with many teachers to use surveys to assess individual strengths, interests, and opportunities to engage and motivate our younger students. We’re better able to personalize learning from these assessments and allow students opportunities to be both celebrated for their strengths and supported in improving in their areas for growth.
These types of informal, qualitative assessments continue throughout the year. My favorite way to assess students is to circulate around the room with a clipboard while they’re working and record notes on their progress or insights into their struggles. Then I use these notes in conferences with our students about their learning or to provide actionable feedback. These notes help color the quantitative data we collect from standardized assessments and help us paint a fuller picture of each individual learner.
Students also regularly assess themselves and confer with their teachers on their own strengths and areas for growth. We’ve created individual data folders for our students to track their progress and set their own goals. They feel empowered with this knowledge and encouraged by their teachers. As I always told my middle school students, I now tell our elementary school students: Your success is my success, and we find joy in that partnership for learning.
Use Grading to Promote Joy and Justice
Traditional grading practices have meant sorting the students in a given classroom by the speed and ease with which they learn, their organizational skills, or their willingness to comply with teacher requests. Tracking students along a bell curve might give an accurate representation of interest, innate talent, or prior motivation in any given subject, but it does nothing to promote learning, growth, or equity.
If instead we set goals that are responsive to our students as individuals and keep accurate notes of where a student is performing right now with any given skill or understanding, rather than assigning grades based on fixed delineations of student ability, those grades we do give become exponentially more valuable and more fair. If we could adjust grades to match a student’s developing skills, it would allow students who come to the classroom with gaps a fair shot at catching up to peers when learning is personalized and supported, because students, teachers, and parents all know exactly where they need to focus their efforts.
Neuroscience shows that all students can learn at high levels, and research finds that the number of high-performing students will increase when students in our classrooms have explicit communication, clarity as to what they should know and be able to do, and expectations that they can and must achieve. Helping students to see a clear path forward empowers them to move toward or beyond grade-level skill proficiency and explore the questions that interest them most.
We design rubrics with our colleagues and students that are clear and specific for how students can demonstrate proficiency for any given skill. Giving the kids clarity and requiring them to score themselves each time they attempt proficiency teaches them self-efficacy and assures them that the grading is fair. There’s no room for favoritism or bias with clear rubrics, and when students do achieve proficiency, we experience the joy in that accomplishment together, because we know they’ve achieved a lofty goal.
Having students help design the rubrics we use to assess them capitalizes on the research in Hattie’s meta-analysis that shows how “self-reported grades” has one of the greatest effects on student achievement. This essentially means that when learning is clear and students take part in the assessment process, they learn more. Bringing in student voice and agency in terms of how they’ll be graded fosters joy in empowerment and a sense of justice that students will have a say in how they’ll be graded.
Assessment that’s joyful and just is rooted in the belief that all students are capable of achieving and learning at high levels. These assessments celebrate, set goals, and design instruction for students as unique individuals who deserve to be seen and heard. As students feel empowered, they’re more motivated to achieve goals along a clear learning progression toward self-actualization and joy in a more just society, where each of us is fully valued and supported in our growth.