Tying Instruction to Assessment

Good teachers assess student performance constantly. I can get more from a five minute student conversation than a five year review of test scores. Excellent teachers are experts at assessing their students in real time.

I worked with an educational consultant on a project in China, in both Beijing and Yichang, which is a third-tier city I call China’s equivalent of St. Louis. Yichang is near the Three Gorges Dam and sits on the third biggest river in the world.

The consultant was a former English teacher from the Boston area who started consulting for a team of Chinese 30-somethings who built an education-related startup with the support of the government. China is deregulating its education industry, though China’s deregulation differs wildly US education deregulation. Rather than the US model of using public funds for privately-run schools, China is allowing third party contractors into traditional government schools to create competition in-house.

The Beijing startup designed and implemented a program they hoped to replicate in other top-tier Chinese public schools. Their model grafts an American high school onto an existing public school.

Middle-class Chinese parents increasingly want their kids educated out of China. They want to position their kids to be successful in the global job market, so they need to get their kids into top US universities. In case you’ve not noticed, US higher education is still American’s Number One export. China’s parents look for the best option to prepare their children for success on US exams like the AP, SAT and ACT.

The Beijing startup sought to offer an alternative to parents. They wanted to offer high quality American high school education in China’s schools. Families could stay together until college, like in the rest of the world, at the same time students maintain global competitiveness.

The consultant was helping the start-up design its academic program. She was a data-sceptic, and like most US educators dubious about data, she trusted her teaching instincts more than any testing regime.

The consultant went further. She wanted no part of 21st Century Learning. That’s today’s shorthand for getting kids technology skills they’ll need to succeed in a digital future. Her solution to students who used their smartphones too much was to ban them. Prohibiting phones was a synecdoche for the entire Beijing and Yichang project. When I proposed introducing assessments that could be shared across classrooms, I could feel her getting uncomfortable. She told me hours later that, after forty years in the classroom, she trusted her instincts more than formal assessments. She had yet to see a test score, other than a test she designed for her own students, that helped her know what to teach the next day.

Deescalating her stress, I reminded her that good teachers have always blended instruction and assessment. They do it in real time, and it’s essential for good instruction. Teachers ask questions and assess what students understand and then speed up or slow down instruction based on the feedback. If a lesson’s learning goal is extracting themes from a text, and if none of the students did the reading homework, the teacher changes the plan.

Tying instruction to assessment happens at the organizational level as well. Gauging stakeholder commitment to work is always a first priority for schools. In business it’s a market analysis, and angels fear to tread too near businesses that haven’t done one.

Good teachers have been tying assessment to instruction forever. Startups are designing digital tools to help. When they are here, high-testing will be nothing more than daily assessment for learning.

John Heintz lives in Shanghai, China. He is a writer, teacher, researcher, editor, podcaster, blogger and thinker on the education, economic, legal, justice and social issues facing the global community. Most known for his work in education, John Heintz explores a range of issues in his writing for Second Rail Education, including most recently an analysis of misunderstood effects of technology on elementary education.

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