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Standards for the Assessment of Reading and Writing: Standard 2

2. The teacher is the most important agent of assessment.

Most educational assessment takes place in the classroom, as teachers and students interact with one another. Teachers design, assign, observe, collaborate in, and interpret the work of students in their classrooms. They assign meaning to interactions and evaluate the information that they receive and create in these settings. In short, teachers are the primary agents, not passive consumers, of assessment information. It is their ongoing, formative assessments that primarily influence students’ learning. This standard acknowledges the critical role of the teacher and the consequences and responsibilities that accompany this role.

Whether they use tests, work samples, discussion, or ongoing observation, teachers make sense of students’ reading and writing development. They read these many different texts, oral and written, that students produce in order to construct an understanding of students as literate individuals. The sense they make of a student’s reading or writing is communicated to the student through spoken or written comments and translated into instructional decisions in the classroom (e.g., subsequent assignments, grouping for instruction). Because of such important consequences, teachers must be aware of and deliberate about their roles as assessors.

This responsibility demands considerable expertise. First, unless teachers can recognize the significance of aspects of a student’s performance—a particular kind of error or behavior, for example—they will be unable to adjust instruction accordingly. They must know what signs to attend to in children’s literate behavior. This requires a deep knowledge of the skills and processes of reading and writing and a sound understanding of their own literacy practices. Therefore, it is important that teachers themselves be readers and writers who understand these processes from the inside out. The more knowledgeable teachers are on the subjects of reading and writing and the more observant they are of students’ literate behavior, the more productive their assessments will be. It is particularly important that teachers who work with English-language learners possess the specific knowledge and skills required to recognize students’ developing proficiency and help them become fully literate.

Second, teachers must have routines for systematic assessment in order to ensure that each student is benefiting optimally from instruction.

Third, because of the need for this level of expertise and because the quality of formative assessment has a strong effect on the quality of instruction, improving teachers’ assessment expertise requires ongoing professional development, coaching, and access to professional learning communities. Nurturing such communities must be a priority for improving assessment. Teachers need to feel safe to share, discuss, and critique their own work in public forums with their peers. These conditions encourage the engagement of the multiple perspectives necessary both for learning and for reducing the effects of individual biases.

Fourth, as agents of assessment, teachers must take responsibility for making and sharing judgments about students’ achievements and progress. They cannot defer to others or to other instruments. At the same time, others must come to trust and support teachers in their judgments. Such trust and support are fostered when school communities are organized in ways that bring multiple perspectives to the assessment process and counter any inherent bias (see standard 5).

Fifth, much of the assessment information in classrooms is made available in students’ talk about their reading and writing. When students have conversations about a book, for instance, a teacher hears the process of their comprehending. Unless a teacher can generate such conversations among children, this information is simply not available.

Unlike makers of standardized tests, teachers are in a unique position to engage in valid assessment. Because they are closest to students’ learning, they have the opportunity to make many detailed observations over time. For example, the use of classroom portfolios can reduce the likelihood that a student’s “bad day” performance will unduly influence a teacher’s conclusions about that student’s overall literacy. Classroom portfolios also allow a wider range of observations to be made in more diverse and representative situations, thus increasing the validity of the assessments. Teachers can adapt assessments to the special characteristics of individual students, instructional programs, and community expectations, as well as using their assessments to reflect on the effectiveness of their own instructional practice.

Superficially, commercially published tests appear to offer an objectivity that teachers’ classroom assessments may lack. In reality, our understanding of language asserts that it is not possible to construct an unbiased test of literacy. The basis for less-biased assessment repertoires is teachers’ knowledge about learning and literacy. The foundation of this assessment ability is deep and diverse knowledge of individual students and of reading and writing. The more teachers know about literacy development in general and, more important, about the literacy development of individual students, the more insightful they will be about understanding students’ literate practices and the better equipped they will be to provide appropriate instruction.

Teacher knowledge cannot be replaced by standardized tests. Any one-shot assessment procedure cannot capture the depth and breadth of information teachers have available to them. Even when a widely used, commercial test is administered, teachers must draw upon the full range of their knowledge about content and individual students to make sense of the limited information such a test provides. A teacher who knows a great deal about the range of techniques readers and writers use will be able to provide students and other audiences with specific, focused feedback about learning. Indeed, students learn things about themselves and about literacy from teachers’ feedback that no standardized test can supply. Most standardized tests compare students to one another, while teachers’ comments can be specific and individualized, providing a clear picture of each student’s special strengths and weaknesses. Students can then use such feedback in their self-evaluations. When students are able to engage in self-evaluation, they are more likely to take control of their own literate learning.

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A Professional Association of Educators in English Studies, Literacy, and Language Arts