First I want to clarify assessment and grading because there are similarities and differences between these terms. I know that teachers frequently express concerns about “having enough grades” as well as “what makes sense to grade.” Grading is a requirement of most schools in our nation. Assessment, however, is what teachers do to figure out whether students need scaffolding or can move forward. Many assessments, however, can be used for grades. But the primary purpose of assessment is not giving a grade.
Assessment is all the work students do. It includes their reading, writing, homework, tests and quizzes, independent and collaborative projects, discussions, self-evaluations, conferences, behavior and attitude toward work, and teacher observations. Each week or bi-monthly, teachers can review a variety of assessments to determine the kind of support or scaffolds they offer students. Teachers base their decisions on multiple assessments or on one key assessment that sends a red flag about the student’s understanding of a skill or strategy. Some students “get it” and can move forward with a task. Other students might benefit from working with a peer expert and/or their teacher.
There will usually be a few students who require scaffolding from the teacher. Some will need one-to-one support while others can be organized into pairs or small groups with the same or similar needs. Scaffolding means reteaching a lesson or providing additional practice during brief and frequent conferences. Over time, the teacher or peer expert gradually releases responsibility for doing the task to the student.
I suggest that teachers create a file folder for each student and keep representative assessments in the folder. These assessments enable teachers to show parents their child’s progress and/or needs during conferences, can be used at child study meetings, and when discussing a student’s progress with administrators. Assessment folders are documentation of students’ strengths, their progress, and provide the rationale for scaffolding.
Grading is evaluating students’ work by assigning a number or letter grade. Teachers give grades because school districts require grades on report cards. Some school districts go overboard and require a specific number of grades per week. Such policies, I find are regressive, and discourage teachers from using students’ work to assess their needs and help students progress. For example, Student X has passed the exam for the first eight weeks of Algebra I with a D. If the student receives no support, she will probably fail Algebra because she lacks the background, the underpinnings for moving forward. In fact, the student should have received support long before the exam.
The concept of assessment seeks to improve students’ learning and understanding before low grades and failure become a pattern. Grading students is often not in the spirit of assessment and support but to fulfill a district requirement. Like state tests given in the spring, final exams and six-week tests can be and often are used to judge a student and a teacher. We need to ask ourselves: What is the goal of education? Not to increase the failure rate and diminish students’ self-confidence and self-efficacy, but to help every child learn, reach his or her potential, and through formative assessment, respond to their needs.
Finding Time to Scaffold
A question teachers frequently ask is, How can I find the time to confer with one or a small group of students? Here are some suggestions:
- Make the rounds as students work independently or in small groups to get a handle on their learning and progress every day. Sometimes a brief meeting that responds to students’ questions can clear up anxiety related to a task or completing the task successfully.
- Hold formal conferences while students work independently. Try to confer with three to four students each time class meets and students are reading or writing. Focus the conference on one topic and meet for three to five minutes with each student. This means you might have to meet a student two to four times. Working in small bursts means students have time to absorb the scaffolding.
- Pair-up students who can work together to move forward because they “get it.” You can also ask a peer expert to help a classmate who’s almost there.
- Provide help with a tutorial for students who require more than a short conference. You can meet with the student before school starts, during lunch, or after school.
Be Positive When Conferring
Always find positive things to say during a scaffolding conference. Point out progress, great effort, thoughtful questions, and help the student understand that he or she is inching forward. There’s nothing like those small and large successes to give a student the feeling that hard work pays off and that independence is on the horizon.
Books to Investigate
Here are books you can read and study and discuss with colleagues. You don’t have to read the text from the beginning to the end. Instead, zoom in on the parts that can answer your questions.
- Assessments For Differentiating Reading Instruction by Laura Robb, Scholastic, 2010.
- Teaching Reading in Middle School, 2nd edition, by Laura Robb, Scholastic, 2010.
- 25 Quick Formative Assessments for a Differentiated Classroom by Judith Dodge, Scholastic, 2009.
- Understanding and Using Reading Assessment, K-12, 2nd edition, by Peter Afflerbach, 2011.
Documenting a Scaffolding Conference
Use the conference form below to document scaffolding conferences.
Topic of the Conference:______________________________
Summarize what the student practiced:
State positives you noticed:
Explain the content of a follow-up conference:
Describe student’s behaviors; questions:
Check One: ____Schedule another conference _____Work with a peer expert ____No follow-up necessary
The Principal’s Corner
The principal can create a school culture that values formative assessments by providing grade level teams and departments with the time to review assessments, share concerns with the group, provide supportive feedback, and scaffolding suggestions. Setting aside time sends the message that reviewing students’ work, behavior, attitudes, and teacher’s observations is crucial to the learning and continual progress of each student. Here are some suggestions that might work for your school:
- Work with the central office and plan a school calendar that builds in three to four early dismissal days so teachers can meet, share, and help one another.
- Create a schedule that provides teams with three common planning periods a week and ask teams to set aside two periods a month to review formative assessments. Attend these meetings to show how much you value them.
- Offer to bring in breakfast once each month so teachers arrive at school early and spend thirty to forty minutes reviewing formative assessments.
- Ask teachers to suggest alternative meeting times if they don’t have common planning periods or several early dismissal days.
Responding to the needs of each student can bring along reluctant, ELL, learning disabled, and struggling learners. Find times to for these discussions should be a top priority of principals and school leaders.
Evan Robb, Principal Johnson Williams Middle School and author of: The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007.