Director's Corner: On Assessments

As you all know, there are no report cards or grades at The Magnolia School. We appreciate the questions Professor Carol Ann Tomlinson (University of Virginia) asks about traditional grading methods…

  • "Is there an opportunity for struggling learners to encounter excellence in our current grading practices?
  • Is there an opportunity for advanced learners to encounter struggle in our current grading practices?"

…Because we think the answer to these questions is a resounding "No!" Because we care about educating and motivating our struggling learners just as much as we care about educating and challenging our advanced learners, we strongly feel that on-going individual assessments are preferable to grades. Grades only allow for comparisons within groups, reminding slower learners and their parents that they are slower, faster learners and their parents that they are faster, and everyone in between that they fall in between. This may be a source of comfort for some but it is mostly a source of concern and stress for many. Grades do not provide details on acquired or missed skills. And they do not help with those students who may have mastered skills but choose not to apply them. So, instead, we do our best to assess our students individually on an ongoing basis.

For reading, we use running records and, as needed, fluency and/or comprehension assessments. Running records are the instrument most used in the front room (K–2). Picture Pam sitting with one student at a time, having him/her read a book she believes is close to that student's reading level, and recording their reading behavior (words correctly read, substitutions, omissions, self-corrections), then asking the student to retell the story to check for comprehension.

In the back room (3–5), Sharla likes to use with her new students a more comprehensive reading assessment (lately the Qualitative Reading Analysis, QRI-5), which she may repeat in full or in part later in the year depending on progress or concerns. That instrument uses word lists to assess decoding out of context; running records to measure oral fluency, accuracy, self-correction rate, retell and comprehension; and silent reading passages to assess silent fluency, retell and comprehension.

In the middle school (6–8), Paige mostly uses the Brigance Comprehensive Inventory of Basic Skills II (CIBS II), which assesses word recognition, oral reading, reading vocabulary and comprehension.

For writing, we use writing samples. In the front room, short writing samples are generated and sent home every day. In the back room and middle school, writing samples get more sophisticated and take longer to generate. In the process of editing them, teachers assess word choice, flow, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, organization, and ideas.

For math, teachers observe students' behavior in class and their performance when solving problems individually or in group. They assess sequencing and patterning skills, number sense, computational fluency, measurement skills, spatial sense, word problems comprehension, problem solving skills, understanding of data collection and interpretation, understanding of relationships, changes and trends.

Since social studies and science are addressed mostly at Exploration time in the context of the current theme, it is during that time that teachers observe students' behavior, making note of their engagement, their contribution and the knowledge they acquire of the big ideas highlighted in each theme. Assessments can take the form of quizzes or, when projects are involved, can be done at the time of oral presentations or at the editing stage of written essays.

Pre-assessments are often used to probe for prior knowledge and determine the questions students are most interested in exploring.

Finally, our whole child approach leads us to assess social-emotional development and personal growth. This takes place through careful observations of students’ behavior and interactions, in the classroom and on the playground, with same and different age peers and with adults. At the middle school level, our main instrument to assess personal growth is the walkabout process since it relies on the student defining his or her own challenge, coming up with a proposal and a schedule, going through the steps required to reach the initial goal, making revisions as needed, and documenting the process orally and in writing at the end. Typically, the first walkabouts tend to look somewhat childish (below the level the student would produce during a more guided class project), but, often, later ones look remarkably professional. 

All these assessments are used:

  1. To identify the needs for further or more individualized instruction, and
  2. To come up with a detailed profile of each student to share with parents at conference time, along with achievements, progress or concern, and goals.

Assessment results are communicated as narratives and/or (especially at the elementary school level) using developmental continua for reading, writing and spelling that allow us to highlight the progression of skills mastered and developmental benchmarks reached by each student. We recently realized that, in the future, we'll have to do a better job at instructing parents how to read and interpret these continua. Also, as requested by our teachers, we are in the process of finishing a math continuum that matches our math Investigations curriculum, thereby allowing for a more continuous illustration of math progress from classroom to classroom.