Spiraling to assess learning

I talk a lot about assessment. I spend a lot of time learning and studying how the human brain works and how we can better understand what is really happening inside the minds of students in our schools. In it’s purest sense, assessment is simply trying to use an external tool to infer internal understandings. Learning, thinking, remembering, dreaming, hoping, are all ideas that occur inside the human mind. We can’t see what they really look like, but we spend a lot of time trying to make sense of their manifestations. We spend time asking probing questions. We read blog posts and listen to podcasts. We see Instagram stories and Facebook posts all in an attempt to learn more about the thoughts of others, but in schools, we often resort to the complicated, and often misunderstood, world of assessment to help gauge the level of cognitive connection within the minds of our students.

Currently, I am about half way through a manuscript for my next book, tentatively titled, “Making Assessment Work for Educators Who Love Kids But Hate Data”. The goal is to make assessment manageable, to make its value resonate with others, and to try to eliminate the stigma that has been placed upon the word “DATA” by so many. The post you are currently reading will not do all of this. It won’t make you love statistics and numbers. It won’t make you want to go calculate a standard deviation or a percentile score. It wont make you start a countdown until the SAT and ACT are given this spring, but I hope it will at least give you a little insight into my own mind and hopefully allow you to walk away with a couple of strategies to measure what’s going on inside your students’ minds as well.

Before I share my first tip, I want to make sure to provide some grounding principles.

The first important point to understand is: An assessment is not valid or invalid, only our inferences are. Simply put, a test measures what a test measures. We as the the educators take those measurements and we make value judgments. It is our judgments and biases that are either accurate or inaccurate reflections of reality. For example, let’s say I am talking to a teacher (I am a school administrator) and I make the statement, “You are so compliant.” In my head I say this as a compliment. I am proud of the fact that this teacher follows rules and procedures and focuses on what is best for the school. This teachers hears those words, however, and infers that I am telling her that she is not innovative or creative. She hears this as an insult and a critique. We both hear the same words. We both had the same evidence, but our interpretations were both very different.  Assessments are like the words that were spoken. They are a way to translate internal thoughts, externally. It is up to the recipient to make sense of the meaning.


The second important concept to understand is: There is no such thing as a Formative Assessment or a Summative Assessment if we are putting the needs of kids first. Every assessment should be used formatively and summatively. If you create an assessment and slap a label on it, you automatically limit its use and value. If you call an assessment FORMATIVE, does this mean a student cannot use this assessment as evidence of mastery? If you label and assessment as SUMMATIVE does this mean you will not use the results to better inform your practice? If we use FORMATIVE as a term to describe tasks that have little value, how can we as educators trust the results to actually guide our next steps? If we put more stock in what we label SUMMATIVE should we not be using these results to shape our next move? Assessments that are quality should always be used as both a guide and a record of student understanding.


The third important concept to understand: Assessment should come before, during, and after instruction. We cannot just teach Mon.-Thurs. give a test on Friday and keep moving next week if we want our students to really learn and grow. Assessment must inform our next move not restrict it. If a student demonstrates mastery before instruction has taken place, this is not a PRE-TEST, it is PRE-INSTRUCTION. This simply means you do not have to spend valuable time on that content. Like wise, a POST-TEST is simply POST-INITIAL INSTRUCTION. If a student still does not have a concept mastered by your arbitrary deadline, then teach again. It’s OK. As a dad of four kids, I can attest to the fact that none of them learned to talk, walk, or ride a bike at the exact same time. Why should it be any different for the 35 kids in a classroom and the skills and content you are trying to get them to master?


So what can you do about all of this?

In the coming weeks I will share concepts with you such as retakes, redos, and recovery. I will share how using the mean is, well….MEAN. I will share how to use grids and rubrics. I will share how to use Tic Tac Toe for mastery. But today, I will start small and illustrate a concept called past, present, and future testing…aka a spiraled assessment.

Imagine that this Friday you are giving a traditional paper pencil quiz to your students. To make grading easier, you determine to make your quiz 10 questions long (its just easier to calculate percentages that way)…Don’t worry…we will cover grading in a later post as well…If you tend to have quizzes that resemble this ( a weekly check up for understanding) I want you to try this.

On your ten question quiz, I want you to ask six questions relating to the content taught this week. Perhaps you had one learning target, one standard, or six standards, and six targets. That is not really the issue, yet. Whatever it is you taught, I want you to identify six questions that you can ask to determine student understanding. Then I want you to identify two questions you can ask that will allow you to determine whether or not students have endurance of knowledge. Pick a topic taught two or three weeks ago and ask two questions to see if students still remember what they learned. Then for your final two questions, I want you to ask questions about what you are going to teach.

In summary- 6 questions about present learning; 2 questions about past learning; 2 questions about future learning. This is spiraling.

Then what…well, that’s where the fun begins. From here you can begin to make inferences about whether or not you are teaching for mastery and endurance or for short term recall. You can begin to determine whether or not students have sufficient background knowledge for upcoming instruction or whether a review will be necessary. You can determine whether or not students have a solid understanding of this week’s learning, whether they retained what was taught, and if they have any exposure to what is going to be taught.

This is a simple hack that opens up a lot of other conversations. Try it this week, share your thoughts, then come back in future weeks and learn how to take this to the next level. It’s not that bad….I promise. Assessment is the silver bullet to quality instruction, if actually done right and my goal is to help you do it right, or maybe even just a little bit better 🙂




On the 15th of each month, I will send out my 2 Cents to The Lasting Learners e-mail group. Sign up today and get my latest thoughts on leadership and assessment…and honest, it’s only ONE e-mail a month: http://eepurl.com/cQwHA1

Want to read more? Check out Dave’s website for more posts, thoughts, and information: https://schmittou.net


Check out The Lasting Learning Podcast for weekly episodes and amazing stories about life’s greatest lessons: https://anchor.fm/david-schmittou

Watch the raw, uncut, unedited Lasting Learning conversations on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLg9ktfTWahLqhlE-Dyx3jqaARWT8y5jYH

Check out Dave’s latest books on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/David-Schmittou/e/B001K7PRHS%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share



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