Beyond Trial and Error
Developing early career teachers’ classroom assessment practices
Evidence suggests that new teachers are not confident taking on formative and differentiated approaches to assessment. What supports could help them refine their assessment skills?
TAKE A MOMENT to picture your classroom. Imagine you are planning an upcoming unit for your students. Would you start by designing a summative evaluation, then backward plan your lessons? Or would you first create your formative assessments and let the information you gather from these tasks guide your subsequent lessons, learning activities, and final assignments? Would you perhaps review the curriculum expectations with your students and ask them to design personal learning plans or co-plan an inquiry for the unit? Or maybe none of these approaches would work for you and your students.
While there is considerable latitude in how you implement assessment policies within your own classroom to support teaching and learning, research shows that how you approach your assessment decisions has tremendous impact on the learning culture in your classroom. A teachers’ approach to classroom assessment not only influences what students learn but also how they learn.1
Our aim in this article is to reflect on the experiences that shape teachers’ approaches to classroom assessment, in particular those early in a teacher’s career. teachers become more aware of the classroom assessment practices, but to outline how teacher education and in-service mentorship can support early career teachers in effectively interpreting and implementing assessment policies that meaningfully support student learning.
Approaches to assessment
Previous measures of teachers’ classroom assessment literacy have tended to diminish the influence of classroom context, instead focusing on teachers’ assessment knowledge (e.g. norm vs. criterion assessments) and/or specific skills (e.g. test construction). Through this approach, assessment literacy was understood as a set of learnable skills that teachers were required to know and use. By overlooking the importance of the classroom context, teachers could be scored, compared, and ranked through a multiple-choice test on their classroom assessment knowledge and practices. However, such a de-contextualized measure of teachers’ knowledge and skills does not accurately capture teachers’ preparedness for classroom assessment practices.
In contrast, recognition of the significance of the classroom context deters the scoring and ranking of teachers’ knowledge and skills, as an assessment practice appropriate in one context may not be in another. For instance, the construction of multiple-choice questions may be appropriate for a teacher in one grade or subject, but may not be used by another teacher, yet both could have sound assessment practices for their context. Furthermore, a teacher with multiple classes of the same course may value producing reliable assessments that can be used across sections, while a teacher with a range of dissimilar courses may value producing assessments that reflect the specific learning progress of each class.
Teachers’ classroom assessment practices are also shaped by their own teaching and learning experiences.
Initial classroom experiences
For a new teacher, few things are as daunting as the first days of school. Pre-planned routines can devolve into trial-and-error, and a well-crafted philosophy of education can gravitate towards just trying to get through the day. While these feelings generally dissipate over time, they may profoundly impact early career teachers’ approaches to assessment.2
Compared to teacher candidates, early career teachers with less than five years’ classroom experience are more than three times as likely to focus on adhering to reporting mandates set out by assessment policies. Unlike teacher candidates and later career teachers, who both tend to support differentiated approaches to assessment, early career teachers are more than three times as likely to endorse an equal assessment protocol for all students (in which all students receive the same assessment tasks) and almost four times as likely to value producing consistent assessment tasks (utilizing similar assessments across courses and/or years).
Early career teachers’ orientation toward a more standardized and summative assessment approach may be fuelled by their need to simply survive the first few years of teaching, and is likely further intensified by the current accountability climate of Canadian schools. Importantly, as teachers pass the five-year mark and develop more extensive classroom experience, their approaches to assessment begin to gravitate towards more formative and differentiated approaches. Given that this shift towards standardized and summative approaches appears only within early career teachers, it is important to consider the supports that could be provided to help teachers early in their career enact a more balanced approach to assessment.
Teacher education programs
Teacher education programs play a central role in the development of teachers’ approaches to assessment. These programs are typically the first instance in which teachers are explicitly exposed to theories of teaching, learning, and assessment and are also when they first venture forth into the classroom as a teacher. While there are a plethora of experiences that shape teachers’ approaches to assessment (such as coursework, instructor pedagogy, and practicum experiences), stand-alone assessment courses are the dominant source of assessment education across Canadian teacher education programs.
Within stand-alone assessment courses, teacher candidates are expected to acquire knowledge and skills related to classroom assessment practices. What is rarely addressed is how to utilize their assessment knowledge and skills to navigate the principles of teaching, learning, and assessment that permeate our educational system (e.g. outcome-based accountability, transparent and equitable practices3). While some of these alignment issues are likely addressed in curriculum courses and during practicum placements, the role of assessment education should be to support teachers’ capacity to align their assessment knowledge and skills to their approach to assessment in order to navigate these underlying principles. If this doesn’t occur, teachers may start their careers without a firm understanding of how their approaches to assessment can be used as a bridge between the knowledge and skills they have developed and underlying principles of teaching, learning, and assessment.
Mentorship of early career teachers
For the past 40 years, formal mentorship via teacher candidates’ practicum experiences has dominated our models of teacher education.4 Upon certification and securing a teaching position, depending on school board and province, some teachers have the opportunity for formal early career mentorship, whether from their administrator or more established peer teacher (e.g. the teacher induction program in Ontario), but these opportunities do not necessarily maintain a consistent focus on classroom assessment. However, informal mentorship can provide crucial supports for early career teachers to better equip them to confidently take on a range of assessment strategies.
As teachers move beyond the first five years of teaching, subtle yet important shifts in their approaches to assessment occur. The most apparent is that the prioritization of more standardized summative assessments diminishes in favour of differentiated and formative approaches that support students throughout learning. Furthermore, within their formative assessment practices, experienced teachers are far better able to distinguish and prioritize assessment for and as learning practices, a distinction that appears more ambiguous for teacher candidates and early career teachers. Based on these findings, it appears that experienced teachers are better able to use fluid assessment practices that suit individual students’ needs, rather than being driven by accountability mandates that tend to emphasize summative assessment results.5
Given the changing nature of teachers’ approaches to assessment over their career, more established teachers could play an important role in mentoring beginning teachers as they negotiate current accountability mandates and assessment responsibilities in the service of student learning. For example, more experienced teachers could help early career teachers understand the alignment between the knowledge and skills they developed during teacher education and the expectations set out by classroom assessment policies. This mentorship could equip teachers to effectively interpret and implement assessment policies in ways that are meaningful to teachers’ practice and effective in the service of student learning.
IN PREPARING TEACHERS for the realities of current and future classrooms, there is a need to focus on the drivers of teachers’ classroom assessment decisions. To effectively navigate the pressures of classroom assessment and support student learning, early career teachers need ongoing support tailored to their career stage. With this support, we hope that early career teachers’ pronounced shift towards a standardized and summative approach to classroom assessment could be moderated toward more balanced approach that equally values formative and differentiated approaches aimed at using assessment to support and promote student learning.
We would like to thank Dr. Lorraine Godden and Alice Johnston for their feedback throughout the writing process.
Understanding your Approaches to Assessment
It is worthwhile, particularly for teachers new to the profession, to critically reflect on what influences shape their assessment decisions.
The Approaches to Classroom Assessment Inventory is a professional learning tool to help teachers identify and develop their approaches to assessment through scenario-based questions and a personalized assessment profile.
In addition, the following questions offer a good starting place when making an assessment decision:
- What is the purpose of this assessment? Am I trying to measure student learning, guide future lessons, or support students as they navigate their own learning?
- What aspect of the assessment process should I focus on? Do I invest more in the design of assessments, how they are scored, or how I communicate the results to my students and their caregivers?
- How is this assessment fair to all my students? Is it fair because all of my students will complete the same task? Is it fair because I will differentiate this task for all of my students?
- Am I using this assessment because I have used it with previous students and it has proven to be reliable, or have I created a new assessment task that is rooted in the learning experiences of the students I am assessing?
First published in Education Canada, September 2018
1 A. Coombs, C. DeLuca, D. LaPointe-McEwan, and A. Chalas, “Changing Approaches to Classroom Assessment: An empirical study across teacher career stages,” Teaching and Teacher Education 71 (2018): 134-144.
3 Ontario Ministry of Education, Growing Success: Assessment, evaluation, and reporting – improving student learning (Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 2010); Manitoba Education, Citizenship & Youth, Rethinking Classroom Assessment with Purpose in Mind: Assessment for learning, assessment as learning, and assessment of learning (2006).
4 A. J. Hobson, P. Ashby, A. Malderez, and P. D. Tomlinson, “Mentoring Beginning Teachers: What we know and what we don’t,” Teaching and Teacher Education 25, no. 1 (2009): 207-216.
5 Coombs et al., “Changing Approaches to Classroom Assessment.”