What Would YOU Put Into an Assessment Smoothie?

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By Susan Brookhart

Some conferences review and present information for audiences that aren’t familiar with it. For example, I might go to a conference to learn more about an assessment technique that already exists.

But the BEST conferences create new information. The synergy of the event takes speakers’ and participants’ current knowledge, throws them in a blender (or a cocktail shaker, pick your metaphor ?), and pours out a smoothie (or a cocktail) that no one has ever tasted before. This is what I think will happen at LSI’s Dylan Wiliam Formative Assessment National Conference this summer.

Why do I think that? Two reasons. One, the four of us who are speaking in a special panel session, entitled Charting the Future of Assessment Practices, have been asked to do just that.  And two, I know the other three speakers, and I know their work. There are no other people with whom I would rather have two hours to dream about the future of assessment than Dylan Wiliam, Rick Stiggins, and Jay McTighe. And of course, I hope they feel the same way about me.

With apologies ahead of time for over-simplifying descriptions of the greatest minds in assessment—this is only a blog, after all—I’d like to share why I think this mix should produce such a great conversation about the future of assessment. These are my opinions, of course, and I’d love to know if you agree.

I have never met anyone who reads more widely in research from all over the world about things that will, as he puts it, “make education better” than Dylan Wiliam. His ability to frame assessment issues in the context of all kinds of other educational issues—instruction, curriculum, students, teachers, even the nature of knowledge itself—is mind-boggling. Conversations with him are always fascinating. And yet, he retains focus on what I believe is the core purpose of the educational enterprise, namely that each student should learn.

I entered the field of assessment quite a few years ago. At that time, to my mind, Rick Stiggins was the shining example of what assessment could be for students in classrooms. I will never forget his saying, “Students can hit any target that they can see and that stands still for them.”  This insight helped bring many teachers around to the current view that students need to understand what they are trying to learn, long before others (at least in the U.S.) were thinking in this same fashion.

“Beginning with the end in mind” is now a common phrase thanks to Jay McTighe. Articulating learning intentions first, and then designing curriculum, instruction, and assessment is definitely part of the future of assessment. Jay McTighe’s work has helped teachers figure out how to do just that. And his work on essential questions makes everyone stop and think about how learning intentions should be connected to worthwhile understandings and helps us focus on teaching and learning concepts and skills that are truly important.

Then there’s me. Where do I fit in this panel? I share the interests of all these amazing thought leaders. I work hard to keep the teacher’s voice and the student’s voice, which I consider to be still weak in current debates about assessment, in the mix. I am absolutely convinced that if every student had a vision of what they were trying to learn, including the criteria by which they would know how they are learning, and if every teacher were adept at giving feedback and making sure students had opportunities to use it, that issues of accountability assessment would scale back to their rightful place: as checks on a system that is running smoothly.

What do I think the panel will say about the future of assessment? It’s hard to predict! However, I do believe we’ll be in agreement about the overall purposes of assessment, to support and report student learning. We might have some interesting controversies in how that works itself out in assessment systems that we can realistically move to in the near term, and we might have some interesting differences about specific responsibilities for assessment literacy and assessment practice, but one thing is certain—my colleagues are full of surprises! Returning to my metaphor, I’m sure the panel will make a smoothie (or a cocktail) that we will all really enjoy. I can’t wait to taste it.