On Assessment

image of rainbow letters on the floor -- telepubies -- an attempt to spell Teletubbies.

Assessment is important. It’s kind of weird to hear me say that, right? I often write about how assessment underestimates our kids, feeding into harmful cultural norms around disability supports and education. All of that is still very true. 

Yet I use ongoing assessment to drive my instruction. I sit down every week to review our data before designing my instructional plans or activities. I use it to know if my teaching is working; I use it to adapt and course-correct when my teaching is ineffective.

How? How do I make assessment work for my students?

The answer lies in both how we assess and what we assess. It lies in what we “count” as learning, what we “count” as demonstrating knowledge. It also lies in how we use those assessment tools. 

What are we assessing?

What we choose to assess is as important as why and how. Too many times, my daughter’s assessments have basically been about assessing her competence. They are normative tools that showcase all the ways she is not reaching neurotypical milestones. We already know she’s neurodiverse. We already know that she has her own route and map to her best life.

There are better ways. We can assess what skills are emerging, and develop plans for strengthening them. We can assess a student’s environment to see what is or is not working for them. We can work with our students to determine what goals they want to achieve, and assess how we are doing to reach those goals. We can focus on grade-level curriculum and standards. There’s so much more to teaching and assessing than a list of neurotypical skills in development. 

Why are we assessing?

image of an alphabet puzzle on the floor, half completed
student uses their alphabet knowledge to put together a floor puzzle

Assessment, for me, is almost entirely about what I can do to better support my students. It’s not about demonstrating what my students cannotdo, which is often the purpose of testing in special education. It is certainly not about setting up a prerequisite where students cannot access XYZ pieces of education until they prove themselves. If I have not yet determined which letters a student knows or does not know, that doesn’t mean that we won’t talk about letter sounds, engage in writing, or enjoy books together. Think about general education students. They don’t always master all of the material in one unit, but they aren’t held to learning that same unit over and over again all year. If you get a C on a geography test, they don’t make you keep practicing the same map as your sole activity each day before you can study early indigenous cultures. Instead, we spiral back through the material throughout the year, scaffolding and supporting students as we go.

And that is what I use assessment for — what do I need to scaffold? Where might I need to more accommodations? Is there something that I should draw attention to more explicitly, even as we move forward with our curriculum? Did I create meaningful experiences that allowed students to make deeper connections? Were students engaged? Did students have the opportunity to show their knowledge through a wide variety of means? Where might we need to include more assistive technology? This reflective process — a process where I adapt to meet the need of my students better — is what makes me who I am as a teacher. 

How are we assessing it?

This is the entire crux of when assessment works, and when it doesn’t. Our students have a million barriers that make it difficult for them to show their knowledge, talents, and skills in a typical setting — anxiety, apraxia, communication difficulties, sensory processing needs, on and on. I am not giving tests. This doesn’t just mean pen and paper tests, but also “testing” of knowledge. I am not sitting at a table with an array of picture cards, asking students to touch or point to something. I am not withholding items or “sanitizing the environment” to force a specific type of communication. And this is true of everything I assess: literacy, math, conceptual knowledge… It’s not about showing something when I want how I want. I don’t think that helps anyone. 

And I know there are those out there who will say, “but you need to be able to show a skill on XYZ.” I was in a webinar this summer where they said “well, even if it’s not a knowledge problem, it’s a performance problem.” I don’t think it is. I think it’s a “our culture is super ableist and expects things to look a specific way” problem. The answer to that problem isn’t to force our students to show up more neurotypical, or to withhold education until they can show skills the way we want them to.

The answer is to be flexible. 

The answer is to observe.

The answer is to listen. 

Assessment is about “capturing a moment”. It’s noticing the things that our students do during the day, the subtle and the dramatic. We take observation notes, photographs, and videos to create student portfolios that stand out stronger than any of our numerical data or graphs. We add student work: their writing, their buildings, their collaborative group creations. It’s messy. It happens during meaningful experiences, sensory-rich and hands-on. It happens when they are exploring alphabet letters, reading books with an adult, or running around on the playground after peers. The thing is: when we want to see learning, when we want to see our students’ competence… it’s everywhere. 

chalk letters on blacktop with a student hand on the D, while they begin tracing with their other hand
student dictated letters & then traced them afterwards

It’s the student whose eyes track the words as you read the title, even when they cannot get their hands to touch the words along with you. It’s in the student who looks at your feet every time you sing “if you’re happy and you know it, stomp your feet.” It’s the student playing with alphabet magnets and periodically naming them to themselves. It’s the moment that you’re passing out Play-Doh tools, saying “take one”, and a student grabs just the red roller. It’s when a student chooses the snack bag that is more filled. Or a student who plays with blocks by separating out all the little ones so that they can keep the bigger Legos only. How much can you learn about a student when, on a Friday, you say, “Today is…” but their favorite activity happens on Tuesday, so they yell out, “It’s not Friday!” All of these are moments where we learned something about what our student knows. They would be ignored, unseen, or discredited by some. And our students would slowly start to shut down, stuck in a world where they have to constantly prove something. 

It’s also about listening and observing the environment to notice what “gets in the way”. For example, a student may be able to locate their shoes in their cubby when the environment is quiet, but not during the “goodbye” song. This doesn’t meant that they cannot follow one step directions, or that they don’t know what ‘shoes’ means. It means that we need to consider accommodations to support the student to be successful. It means not asking students to shift attention rapidly (or when a favorite song is on). It means giving transition time. It means noting that this student uses context clues and routines to increase their independence, which we can use to support them across other activities as well. That’s what I mean when I say that assessment is about capturing knowledge and changing my teaching. It’s not about proof.

Because that’s the thing — I don’t need proof. I know my students learn. I know my students are creative thinkers, problem solvers, competent and capable. I never presume anything less. 

(P.S. – I recommend sharing and celebrating all those moments that you capture with students and their families. They will spend most of their educational career being told what they cannot do, unfortunately. Be different. Show them there’s a different lens.)