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Uncategorized   |   Oct 13, 2021

Stop working off a deficit model with 3 assessment ideas that support student individuality

By Lindsey Lush

K-5 Teacher

Stop working off a deficit model with 3 assessment ideas that support student individuality

By Lindsey Lush

I have a SMART Board in my classroom.

Whenever things go awry in the use of this technology (often due to user error), my students like to say, “This SMART board isn’t very smart, is it?” and giggle at their developing use of pun.

Sitting at my computer screen after being directed to explore the results of the latest adaptive assessment, “smart tests”, required by the district, I hear their little joke in my head and think, “No, it sure isn’t.”

Adaptive assessments, i.e. personalized learning or individualized instruction tools, are (often) computer-based, multiple-choice tests that adjust to get increasingly difficult or easier in response to correct/incorrect answers. Results pinpoint a student’s knowledge to a specific list of skills. From these programs, teachers are armed with “personalized learning plans” for each student.

As assessment tools, these tests, and the learning plans they generate, fail to meet the needs of teachers and learners.

Instead, teachers and learners need assessments (not tests) that are indicators of students’ growing ability to create, question, and discover. We need assessments that can facilitate that growth.

While we may not be able to decide not to administer the next scheduled adaptive test, we can rethink our use of them within our classroom walls and use the time and space we have with students to implement assessments with a different kind of teaching and learning in mind.


Impact on meaningful learning 

In the land of individualized learning, the purpose becomes to increase, not knowledge or understanding, and certainly not curiosity, but a score.

Instead of engaging with what they’re learning, students are asked to concentrate on how well they are learning it. Teachers’ valuable, and limited, time is spent measuring and analyzing progress as defined by the test, when they could be doing a whole host of more meaningful tasks.

Meaningful learning can not be measured in terms of stagnant facts and memorizable terms.

Assessments should reflect the learning that is valued in a classroom, not the values of corporations who want to create a deficit model in order to sell programs to remediate the “deficits” their tests create.

Impact on students’ understanding of their learning

Adaptive assessments are designed so that a certain number of questions will be too difficult for the student to answer correctly. Students, parents, and teachers alike have observed the frustration caused by adaptive assessments designed to increase in difficulty until the student incorrectly answers enough questions.

Subjecting children to frustration-level questions repeatedly is counter-intuitive to what educators know about teaching within a student’s zone of proximal development and scaffolding her learning.

Adaptive assessment programs have algorithms to produce flags for “rushing” when students click through answers too quickly, indicating the frequency of disengagement that teachers can attest to.

Quality assessments should engage both teachers and students in expression of their learning.

Assessments don’t have to be tests

Albert Einstein said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” 

Here I will share effective assessment strategies I have used in my elementary classrooms. These strategies allow for students to demonstrate their understanding while using creativity, problem solving, and inquiry skills. They are challenging and compelling to students and informative to me.

And they aren’t tests.

They won’t produce numbers. They don’t have a rubric or scale attached. Really, hold on tight, they won’t even be summed up with a grade.

But they will assess.

They provide qualitative evidence of a student’s understanding of a concept. They make space for students to express their individuality. They highlight interests, strengths, and areas in need of support and development that you, the teacher, may guide them in growing.

These assessments have a symbiotic relationship with a student-centered classroom where the teacher is constantly learning from observational evidence and direct conversations with the students.

Assessment strategies that allow for student individuality

The Brain Dump

A freeform outpouring of everything a student is able to express in writing (words and pictures) on a proposed topic

What to do:

Give each student a large sheet of butcher or chart paper and allow each student to select a table or floor workspace. Deferring from everyday-use paper creates a sense of novelty and the larger size inspires higher volume production (or just write really big and that’s fun, too).

Instruct students to write or draw; express ideas in complete sentences, phrases, or keywords; create diagrams, labels, or charts based on the current unit. They may express concrete understandings or share lingering questions. Anything they can think of in response to the topic is acceptable fodder for the Brain Dump.

Set a time limit that is appropriate for continuous work but creates a sense of excitement and urgency. I’ve found that students love the energy of the timed Brain Dump. Using a countdown timer is a fun way to build anticipation. Note that the time can be extended if students are actively working. Students who don’t work well under time constraints can have more time. The timer is a fun gimmick, not a restriction, use it as you see fit.

Make the Brain Dump engaging and support students by building in some “lifelines” such as:

  • Notebook Check: 1-2 minutes to look back at their notes to get a reminder, check a fact, or be inspired with another idea.
  • Phone a Friend: 2-3 minutes of collaboration with a classmate. Share their Brain Dump with a neighbor to get ideas or check their accuracy.
  • Shout Outs: periodically set off a signal and shout out a significant keyword, such as: “ORBIT! Have you used orbit yet?” Students may jot the word and add ideas that demonstrate their understanding. Projecting an image (location, object, person) is a possible variation.

Benefits and considerations: 

Brain Dumps recognize student’s understanding on a spectrum. For example, a student may be able to remember a key word, make a connection to the word with a drawing, give the meaning of the word, provide an example, or communicate a deeper understanding with a diagram, comparison, or chart. Students are not punished with an incorrect score or an incomplete understanding of an idea, or limited by the specificity of knowledge expressed in a single question.

In encouraging any written representation, the Brain Dump supports individuality. English-Language Learners may express ideas in their home language. Computers, letter stamps, and magazines/cut paper are other possible accommodations.

Learn more by following up a Brain Dump with student interviews. Students share and explain their thinking with the teacher, a small group, or the class. Take note of students’ verbal articulation of their written ideas as further anecdotal evidence.

Classroom example: 

4th grade Science unit on Space (Learning objective: Obtain, evaluate, and communicate information to compare and contrast the physical attributes of stars and planets).

This unit worked particularly well for a Brain Dump, because student interest varied greatly. While some students researched composition of planets, others explored historical evolution of space travel or current events in space exploration, and some became enthralled with black holes.

Assessing student knowledge of this topic with a multiple-choice test would have limited them to only the information selected for the test. In exploring their Brain Dumps, I discovered learning that was in-depth and well beyond the standards.

Unlike a scored test, there were no qualifications for success or failure. Every idea conveyed was a demonstration of understanding and was celebrated. Incorrect representations or incomplete ideas were prompts for further inquiry. Well-developed depictions could lead to deeper investigation, serve as a resource for other learners, or provide insight to a student’s interests for relationship building and future learning.

Students expressed pride in their Brain Dumps such that I’d never seen from a computer-based or teacher-created test, asking to display their work in the classroom or bring it home to show their families.

Socratic Seminar

A discussion circle, based on a prepared text, in which a small group of students engage in respectful discourse, listening to others’ voices, expressing their own ideas or responses to others, and asking questions to develop a deeper understanding of a topic and its application

What to do:

Provide students with at least two recommended resources, such as an article, opinion essay, poem, piece of art, video, or shared text related to a unit of study. Depending on the age and content, allow for enough time and support for students to access and analyze the resources.

Provide students with an overarching question and ask students to prepare ideas to support a discussion. Ideas can be expressed in written form or discussed with the teacher (for younger students or as an accommodation).

In a Socratic Seminar, a small group of 5-7 students will participate in the discussion while the rest of the class observes, each group taking a turn. Unlike a debate, participants do not attempt to weaken or argue against opposing opinions but to consider and value them.

To begin, ask students to sit in a small inner circle with observing classmates seated around them. Review the tenets of a Socratic Seminar including respectful discourse, use of engaging prompts, listening to each other, and allowing all voices to be heard.

During the timed discussion circle (each small group was given 7 minutes), one student would be selected or volunteer to begin the discussion. As the facilitator, I would sit outside the circle, making notes and coding students’ uses of evidence, probing questions, and connections to classmates.

Following the Socratic Seminar, students were given 5 minutes of quiet written reflection and then open, whole group feedback and discussion.

Strengthen your students’ ability to engage during the Socratic Seminar by providing sentence frames:

  • I agree/disagree with what you said about ___ because ___.
  • Will you explain more about ___?
  • Why do you think that ____?
  • Something I was thinking that supports/challenges what you said is _____.
  • What you said makes me think of/question/wonder _____.

Benefits, considerations: 

A Socratic Seminar is a platform for engaging in respectful discourse, a practice that is becoming less and less prevalent as our society becomes more polarized and opposing opinions are more likely to be ignored or avoided than confronted respectfully. Teaching today’s young people to listen to those with a different stance on an issue, and to do so calmly and open-mindedly, is important to the health of our society.

Socratic Seminars can be especially powerful with a current event issue related to the unit. Students are able to draw on the understanding they’ve acquired from their study to form and support their ideas.

Consider the classroom environment when planning for a Socratic Seminar. Discussions will flourish healthily in spaces where students feel safe and secure. Beginning with low-risk topics is a wise way to build the practice and students’ comfort before confronting issues with deep roots and strong feelings.

Classroom example: 

3rd grade Social Studies unit on the American Revolutionary War (Learning objective: Describe the influence of key individuals and groups during the American Revolution).

After studying the causes, events, and significant figures in the American Revolutionary War, students were invited to engage in a Socratic Seminar to discuss the role of historical accuracy in their own educational experience.

Students were given two informational texts about George Washington, one highlighted his accomplishments as a General and President with particular attention to his perseverance and leadership in difficult circumstances. The second article brought to light his role as a slave owner and record of harsh treatment of slaves before transitioning to a moderate abolitionist stance that he never publicly promoted.

Students were given a series of questions to engage with individually and bring to the table to discuss in the Socratic Seminar:

  • How did the first article make you feel about George Washington? How did the author create that effect for you?
  • How did you feel after reading the second article?
  • Do you believe American history school books and teachers should teach information like this about George Washington and the other Founding Fathers?
  • Is it important to teach bad things and good things about important people in history?

Students were given support in the two days leading up to the Socratic Seminar to access the text through shared reading and small groups. Students were given a document to record notes, questions, and evidence.

Some students investigated further by researching other Founding Fathers’ stances and histories on the issue of slavery. Some brought evidence to the Socratic Seminar regarding George Washington’s accomplishments and role in developing American democracy and eventual abolition of slavery.

They brought their notes and annotated articles to use in the discussion.

Students were able to build and practice effective communication skills and take a stance on demands they have for their own educational experience.

Dream Creations 

An open-ended prompt to create (art, music, written, or verbal expression) a representation of a dream

What to do:

Engage students in imagining a solution to a problem, an ideal scenario, or alternate circumstances (for example: imagine a world where everyone always feels safe, or imagine a community where everyone helped one another) and have an open discussion about what they envision.

Ask questions to deepen the discussion (such as: Who might not feel the same way as you? Are you forgetting anyone? What would make this real? What would change?).

Invite students to create a representation of their dream. They could create a symbolic or realistic visual representation, perform a play, sing a song, write music or a poem, build a sculpture or design a building.

Provide students with a wide range of materials, such as:

  • play dough
  • paint
  • cut paper
  • magazines/postcards/photographs
  • maps
  • figurines
  • LEGOs
  • blocks
  • costumes
  • puppets
  • musical instruments

Allow students to create freely. Observe and question students as they work to develop an understanding of their vision and their attempts to represent it in a tangible way.

Benefits and considerations

Some children may struggle with the open-endedness of the Dream Creations project, but it can work well in a space where children have become accustomed to creative expression.

While the Brain Dump and Socratic Seminar are assessment tools that reflect a depth of understanding and ability to express ideas on a specific topic, the Dream Creation does not require that students demonstrate a level of knowledge.

A Dream Creation is a cumulation of ideas that students have engaged with over the course of a unit, but could also be done as an opening to a unit or in response to a current event or teachable moment in class. Dream Creations are excellent tools of critical thinking as they invite students’ interpretation and synthesis of a concept.

Classroom example

Kindergarten Social Studies unit on national symbols (Learning Objective: Identify significant national symbols).

In the course of our study we focused our discussion on the keywords: liberty (meaning freedom), justice (fairness), and for all (for everyone).

Over several lessons we developed our understanding of these words. We observed and analyzed photographs of the flag in various circumstances (over the White House, on the moon, wrapped around a victorious Olympic athlete, at a Black Lives Matter rally, and at the front door of a home). We discussed the constitutional right to protest when the promises of liberty and justice for all are not being kept and observed photographs of protests. We examined several symbols of the United States such as the flag, song (the National Anthem), statue (the Statue of Liberty), and buildings (Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial).

Students were invited to imagine: “If you dreamed of a world where there was liberty and justice for all, what would it look like?” and share their ideas. We inquired about justice for animals and the planet and wondered if non-living things, like places and objects, could have fairness and freedom, too.

Just as the symbols we’d studied represented ideas that are important to our country, students were invited to create a symbol for their idea.

Students used class time and a wide range of provided materials to make their Dream Creations. They shared the dreams represented by their symbols in short class presentations or one-on-one teacher interviews.

Students were able to explain how they envisioned the concepts of justice, liberty, and equality in beautiful, unique ways.

Individualized versus individuality; Personalized versus personal

I don’t deny that adaptive tests have been individualized, the software’s ability to adjust in difficulty will create an aggregate of questions distinctive to each tester. But as the questions themselves are pulled from a pool of program-specific skills and can only determine achievement in terms of the test’s qualification of those skills as more or less difficult, individualized still equals standardized.

To then manipulate learning to accommodate the test’s demands looks like an education that is custom-made for each child but, in reality, is conformity disguised as differentiation.

A personalized learning plan promises to “give each child what she needs”. But who says she needs it, other than the test itself? And why does she need it, other than to produce a higher score the next time she takes that very same test?

As Alfie Kohn puts it, “Personal learning entails working with each child to create projects of intellectual discovery that reflect his or her unique needs and interests. It requires the presence of a caring teacher who knows each child well. Personalized learning entails adjusting the difficulty level of prefabricated skills-based exercises based on students’ test scores.”

Learning crafted around these test results is personalized, not personal.

The tests are individualized but do not allow for individuality.

These three assessment strategies reflect Alfie Kohn’s definition of personal learning. They are projects that assess learning while making space for discovery and individuality. In using assessments like these, whether your district requires the use of adaptive assessments or not, reflects the values of inquiry, creativity, and individuality in your classroom.

I think it’s the smart way to go.

Lindsey Lush

K-5 Teacher

Lindsey is a public school educator with 16 years experience in Kindergarten through 5th grade classrooms. She has an M.Ed in English Education with a focus on Children’s Literature and Language Arts and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Educational...
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