Care is What Matters. Assessment is the Tell







Speaking glibly against high-stakes testing is easy but their effects are like residual pesticides.  They linger in systems long after their application. The ideas that prompted their widespread use persist even among those who might disavow over-testing.

Sometimes detection of toxic testing residuals can be tricky.

Standing in front of you is your child’s teacher, their principal or superintendent. Or maybe it’s a candidate for your local school board or a politician. What matters most is: Does this person care about children? Care is the gatekeeper. Almost everything else follows.

Of course, you don’t ask, “Do you care about children?”  That is too easy and subject to obfuscation and pandering.  You need something indirect but revealing– something a bit weasel proof. You only get to ask one question. (Well maybe one, a two-part question if you can get away with it.)

Everyone claims to care about children, but there is a long continuum from does to doesn’t.  To make things murkier, what caring means is not self-evident.  The meaning of care is influenced by values, cultural norms, and biases. It is these very subjective inclinations about which you want to know.

Ask, “How do you want students to think about assessment?” and “What will you do to encourage them to think that way.”

These questions are meant to reveal three things about the adults with whom we entrust children’s care and education:

  • Do children’s perspectives matter to the adults in charge?
  • Do the adults think about assessment primarily as a means to sort children into achievement categories or to provide information to students they can use improve their learning and to teachers so they can help children learn?
  • Do the adults recognize that because too many children have become habituated to assessment as an opportunity to win praise or scorn, recognition or humiliation, it will take persistent adult efforts to shift to students mindset to assessment for learning.

Children experience care when they are known, valued, and respected.

Assessment is ubiquitous and pivotal in children’s lives in school.  Children have care radar.  They know when they are known, valued, and respected. What tasks children are asked to do in school and how adults and peers respond to their performance frames whether or not children experience care. That, in turn, determines students’ level of effort, learning, and self-confidence, and yes—joy. Assessment is The Tell.

For better or worse, most students are compliant and produce some oral or written response to the classroom tasks they are given to complete. Then, teachers and other classmates provide direct, indirect, intentional, and unintentional feedback about that work.  All of that is assessment—not just classwork and formal assessments—but also the way children experience minute-by-minute interactions about their learning.

When students perceive personal judgment in response to their work, they learn that the goal of school is to please others. They hear you are worthy because, “You got it, so I am pleased with you.” Or, “I am disappointed in you because you failed to get it!”  There are alternative responses that convey, “You didn’t get it yet, but you will. Here are some suggestions you can use to improve.” The totality of the quality of responses contributes to whether or not students feel care.

How can assessment demonstrate to students that they are known?

I’ve seen this demonstrated in myriad ways in classrooms over many years.  A teacher takes the time to make a substantive personal comment about a student’s work that conveys that she has taken the time to notice.  Walking by a student’s desk, a teacher quietly says, “I saw you have begun to use more detail to support your conclusions in your science notebook.” Or, on a student’s way out of the door, the teacher makes a homework suggestion. “Try to write a bit more tonight about what you said in class today about the difference between weather and climate.” The child hears, “The teacher is listening to me.”  That is assessment that shows care.

When educators know individual student’s strengths and gaps in understanding, their idiosyncrasies and inclinations, and how they respond to different kinds of feedback, students experience affirming and motivational care.

So, when asked, “How do you want students to think about assessment?” a response that conveys care might be: “I want students to say that assessment is how I get feedback about how I can learn more.”

How can assessment demonstrate to students that they are valued?

One day some years ago I was visiting an elementary classroom during a mathematics lesson.  The teacher asked several students to show how they had solved a problem on a classroom whiteboard. The teacher had purposely selected students who she had observed to have different ways of solving the same problem (some more efficient than others) and others who had come up with an incorrect solution. This was assessment, but not of the let’s-show-who’s-smart-and-who-isn’t variety that struck fear in the heart of so many children of my generation. Instead, this was designed to support students through self- and peer-evaluation, with some focused teacher questioning.  No one was embarrassed. Each child expected that they needed to get up, explain how they arrived at their solution and the respond to questions from the teacher or fellow students– and then use feedback to hone their thinking.

I have observed this strategy many times.  More often than not, some children who arrived at the correct answer weren’t so sure how they got there. Feedback strengthened their understanding and confidence. Children who foundered either realized their conceptual or procedural error or were helped by others.

This strategy, which involves peer as well as teacher feedback, can be used with daily classwork, periodic quizzes, and end-of-unit summative tests.

That is assessment married to care: People value what I think and want to help me.

How can assessment demonstrate respect?

One measure of care is whether children’s intellectual capacity is respected. Although students, teachers, program evaluator need to know how children progress toward an expected level of learning, the primary role for assessment in schools should be improvement.  When adults act like the ability to learn is malleable rather than fixed it reveals respect.

Periodic formal assessments are a regular feature of most classrooms. How they are handled determines whether student experience respect for their ability to learn. For example, some teachers who act on the former provide students feedback children about gaps in their learning and another chance to demonstrate what they’ve learned. Statements about progress or achievement (or grades, if they are given) are not final. Teachers who act on the latter might believe, that changing a grade for “slower learners” is unfair to students who pick up concepts quickly. Children, of course, get the message: Teachers care about competition and grades, not me.

Respect is demonstrated when students see assessment as a way to get information about how they can improve. That conveys to students that there are expectations, but that they are always capable of improvement. Students who think the goal of assessment is getting grades, come to believe that they cannot be trusted to want to do better without some bribe or punishment and behave accordingly.  That is when teachers hear, “Is this going to be on the test” in response to an assignment.

Of course, students cannot know what a well-developed, evidence-based scientific conclusion or an essay about the contributors to a historical event looks like without instruction and iterative practice. They can use assessment as a learning tool by comparing their work with exemplars and thinking about how to improve.  That demonstrates respect and care.

The nature of the tasks and response to their work sends a message to children about what matters most. We all know the affirming feeling of being known, valued, and respected when we interact with others. We all know the pain of their absence and how it shuts down our best thinking.

The majority of teachers will find these care-showing suggestions familiar.  Many, however, if asked might tell stories about how externally-imposed pressures of high-stakes testing too often thwart their best intentions. That is why it is so critical to buttonhole administrators, who can run interference and politicians who make education policy.

Listen for whether supervisors and policymakers think about assessment as a means to rank students from worst to best—a winner/losers framework—or a way to get information to use for improvement.  Kids understand this distinction deeply.  When grades are posted or called out verbally, when the same so-called bright kids are regularly praised for correct answers and good grades, when some are given recognition for accomplishment and others not for specific kinds of effort, but for just trying hard, students get a clear message:  Assessment is about finding out who is better and who is worse.  That doesn’t only feel bad.  It demotivates because it tells children that not doing well on a task that they are just learning is shameful.

Children want to feel successful in school.  That happens when the feedback they get on their work reflects that they are known, valued, and respected– and provides specific guidance about what they need to do to improve.

Last week, I spoke with an old friend who is a university professor who I had not seen in over thirty years.  When he asked me what I was doing, I told him that I was working on elementary science classroom assessment development. He replied, “I hate assessment.” Of course, he did not mean that he thought assessment was unimportant.  He meant, “I hate what all the focus on numbers and consequences are doing to education.”

Too many students, parents, and educators feel that way.  Contrary to the anti-union shibboleth, educators are not afraid of accountability. They want the responsibility for that which they control and the respect that should accompany it. They want to be able to show the care that they know enables best teaching practices and students’ best learning.

So ask.  Care is What Matters. Assessment is The Tell.

Arthur H. Camins is a lifelong educator. He works part time with curriculum developers at UC Berkeley as an assessment specialist.  He retired recently as Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts, and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone.


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