Words Don’t Always Communicate. Just Ask an Eskimo.

We have all heard that Eskimos have many words for “snow”—I looked it up and learned that there are actually 50 words. Similarly, the Sami people, who live in the northern tips of Scandinavia and Russia have as many as 1,000 words for “reindeer” and 180 words for “ice.” These words are used to make distinctions that more fully describe the characteristics and quality of their surroundings—and also serve to point out features that are crucial for survival. It matters, for example, if the nature of the ice is safe enough to walk on.

This is all interesting to know, but I bet you are asking, “What does this have to do with teaching and learning?”

In the English language we often use a single word to describe big, important ideas. Words like “sick,” “communication,” and even “love” are seemingly simple words that are used to express a wide array of conditions and characteristics. For example, we use the word “sick” to describe everything from the common cold to a patient requiring intensive care. It’s true of education terminology as well. We have many words in our field—often big words intended to describe our practices and values. We throw them around as if everyone knows what we are talking about, but I’m not sure if, like the Eskimo, we have made important distinctions that clarify what we really mean.

I think that there are a few big, important words that could benefit from the Eskimo “snow” treatment, like “assessment,” “feedback,” and “growth.” Today, I would like to start with the word “assessment”, and in particular, address classroom assessment.

Not only is assessment an often confused word, it is an often maligned word. Assessment is now being associated with hot debates about the proliferation of high-stakes testing. But let’s get this straight-testing and assessment are not the same word and, as such, have different meanings and uses.

Assessment (note that there is no ‘s‘ at the end) is a process. It is the process of purposefully collecting and documenting, usually in measurable terms, knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs. It is not a single event, a tool, a grade, or a test. It is a process that allows us to evaluate the progress that students are making, adjust our instruction, provide effective feedback, and know when to move on. Additionally, a strong assessment process should lead to higher results—not just produce a score.

Assessment happens in a variety of ways —formal and informal—taking advantage of multiple methods.  Testing is just one formal method you can use.

Sometimes we use the term assessment interchangeably with tests and testing. We talk about assessmentS as being synonymous with the tests we administer. (Maybe this is because it sounds more professional). But here is the key difference: you may assess student knowledge and skills by using a test—or by using other methods of assessment. A test is just an instrument, and testing simply describes the event.  In other words, to assess student performance you may use test results to determine where students are in their learning.

When assessment is viewed as a process, the focus is on collecting and documenting accurate evidence of student learning. You become mindful of how you are going to collect target-focused evidence and you select the right tools for the right job. Imagine if I assessed your blood pressure with a thermometer, or assessed your speaking skills with a written test. The wrong match of tool to targets produces irrelevant, inaccurate information. Instead, a strong assessment process invites the use of multiple methods that are appropriately matched to learning targets. The purpose of assessment may be used to evaluate student learning or to gauge progress. When you analyze the results of any type of assessment you are evaluating what action should be taken next. For example, the results should signal if success or intervention feedback is required.

Next, a good assessment process requires that the evidence you collect sufficiently documents student mastery. Your assessment process should include all the formal and informal ways you have of knowing where students are, relative to achieving the targets. Ask yourself:  Have I collected enough evidence to be convincing? Stop assessing when you have enough evidence that a student has met the target. Assessment should not be used to tell you what you already know. (If you know, then you have already assessed the learning.)

And finally, the assessment process should be useful for you and your students. Think about how students can use the information that assessment produces to judge where they are in relation to the learning targets, and give them the information they need to reflect and act upon their learning.

Just as there are different types of snow and ice, there are different methods of assessment. Just like the Sami who categorize ice by its features and impact, a high-quality assessment process requires attention to both accuracy and effective use. Let’s not confuse item banks and test development for high-quality classroom assessment. And, like the snow for Eskimos, let’s get more precise about how we talk about assessment.

Click here to learn more about the Designing Sound Assessment module series.