The most important assessments that take place in any school building are seen by no one. They take place inside the heads of students, all day long. Students assess what they do, say, and produce, and decide what is good enough. These internal assessments govern how much they care, how hard they work, and how much they learn. They govern how kind and polite they are and how respectful and responsible. They set the standard for what is “good enough” in class. In the end, these are the assessments that really matter. All other assessments are in service of this goal—to get inside students’ heads and raise the bar for effort and quality.
Student-engaged assessment is effective because it draws on these internal assessments that occur naturally for students. Unfortunately, students and teachers often don’t know how to tap into this level of assessment and learn how to capitalize on it. Students frequently have widely varying internal standards for quality and aren’t clear about what “good enough” looks like. Some students have internalized a sense that they don’t have a value or voice in a classroom setting and that anything they do will be inferior to the work of the “smart kids.” In other cases, they believe they have only one chance to do something and begin to work from a place of compliance and completion rather than working toward quality through a series of attempts.
Teachers frequently fall into the trap of simply saying, “try harder,” without giving students specific targets, feedback, time to revise, and a purpose for doing quality work. What students really need are tools and support to assess and improve their own learning and the motivation to do so. Motivation is in fact the most important result of student-engaged assessment—unless students find reason and inspiration to care about learning and have hope that they can improve, excellence and high achievement will remain the domain of a select group. The following sections describe the key reasons why student-engaged assessment practices matter.
Motivating Students to Care
Nothing is more important in fostering growth in students than the degree to which they care. Recent research suggests that student perseverance, grit, and self-discipline correlate strongly with academic success
This will not surprise teachers or parents—it is common sense. But these “noncognitive” strengths are entirely based on the degree to which students care about their learning and their growth. If students don’t care, they are not going to work hard.
The apathy, disconnection, or lack of self-esteem that causes students to disengage in school—to stop caring—is not inherent. It is learned behavior. Kin- dergartners come to school excited to learn. In the course of their schooling, however, some students lose touch with their ability to thrive in a school environment. School becomes something that is done to them, something that they are not good at. They may feel they are good at sports, music, or video games, but school is just not a place where they succeed. Their test scores and grades make this clear. Student-engaged assessment puts students back in the driver’s seat, in charge of their own success. It makes clear to them that hard work and practice pays off—just as it does for them in sports, music, or video games—and that the immediate, clear feedback they get in these other pursuits can also guide their academic progress.
Most important, student-engaged assessment supports students to do work that they are proud of, which motivates them to step up to challenges. As Mike McCarthy, principal of King Middle School in Portland, Maine, puts it in chapter 6, “Anytime you make the work public, set the bar high, and are transparent about the steps to make a high-quality product, kids will deliver.”
Student-engaged assessment requires and inspires students and teachers to change their mindsets about intelligence, effort, and success. As they experience success and track actual progress, their positive mindsets strengthen. They recognize the connections among their attitude, effort, practice, and increased achievement.
Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment, by Ron Berger, Leah Rugen, Libby Woodfin, and Expeditionary Learning . Copyright ©2014.