Molly McCloskey

Best Questions: Assessment

Despite the rumors, school improvement is hard. It's not about a single passionate leader. It's not about "fixing" teachers and teaching or parents and parenting. It's not about poverty. It's not about money. And it's not about standards. It's about all of them. And more.

In this column, I'll take on the real deal of school improvement—for all schools, not just certain kinds. And for all kids. Because it's not about quick fixes or checking off the instant strategy of the moment. It's about saying, "Yes, and...", not "Yes, but..." no matter what our circumstances are. It's about asking ourselves the best questions.

I've been working within ASCD's Whole Child Initiative for five years or so, and on issues related to a whole child approach to education for nearly 20 years. In that time, I've heard all the comments about whole child education being antiassessment and antirigor, and I usually counter with the dangers of academic pity that a whole child approach takes on, the challenged tenet, or (if I'm feeling particularly snarky) a Dr. Phil shout-out along the lines of, "how's that almighty test focus working for you so far?"

Frequently, I'll hear something similar to "Well, you can't assess the whole child." To that comment, there is really only one response:

You already do. Each time you give any assessment, you do, in fact, assess the whole child. You assess whether or not the child has had breakfast; if the room is too hot; is the content of the assessment interesting or boring, easy or challenging; or if there is a dance on Saturday to which any given student has a date or not. Each time you give an assessment, you do assess whether or not each child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. Of course, despite their arguments, most folks know this already, which is why we take pains to make sure kids get a good breakfast and a good night's sleep during testing times. We take exercise and snack breaks during testing to ensure maximum performance, yet would be pained to do so during "regular" days. And at least one of the assessments being developed to reflect the Common Core State Standards will include computer-adaptive components, which means they will escalate in difficulty based on student success rather than demanding repetition of the same skill ad nauseum as so many current assessments (and homework assignments!) reflect.

So the best question then becomes, do we interpret assessment results in terms of the whole child? Do we ask ourselves what the assessment truly reveals and then design interventions and next steps based on that information? I'll give a personal example: my daughter Jennifer is good at many things, but testing is not one of them. Finals week is always a challenge in our house, and particularly so during her freshman year in high school when her boyfriend of six months broke up with her by telling another girl to tell Jennifer he didn't like her anymore. She failed two finals that week and got a D on another. Her grades had nothing to do with the quality of her teachers or the standards of the curriculum or whether or not she had mastered the material. Her grades had everything to do with the kind of broken heart only a 14-year old girl can have. Yet in many schools, failing the final might have resulted in Jennifer needing to go to summer school, repeat the class, or some other sort of supposedly academic intervention based on an assumption that she didn't understand the material (luckily this was not the case at her school).

Assessment is important. We need to know that kids are on the right path for college, career, and citizenship readiness so that they are on the path for long-term success. It's a crucial component of any whole child approach. But if we want to use assessments to reflect true student mastery of content, we had better make sure that kids are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged, or we will likely be assessing something else and, potentially, making inefficient and ineffective decisions based on results that don't mean what we think they do.

By the way, Jennifer is fine and is a very successful sophomore in college today.

Comments (5)

John Bennett

January 24, 2012

Absolutely right on.  The response of anyone is always a result of the environment associated with that individual at the time of the assessment.  So for sure, the whole child is being assessed.  But the key to assessment is not the collecting of the assessment data but in the understanding and analysis and use of that data that are key.

Similarly, I suggest to any learners with whom I can communicate that SELF-ASSESSMENT as quickly after the actual assessment is completed is an important key to learning.  And for sure the circumstances associated with the learning environment before and the testing efforts during the time of the collective assessment is key.  It provides the information that suggests changes to be made in both the learning and the testing that will more likely be made [with associated improved outcomes] because it was self-identified.  That alone will also provide further and better assessment data for the teacher.  I suspect that Jennifer was advised appropriately after the failed and low finals grades BECAUSE she did have the “other” assessment data that permitted her teachers to interepret the latest data appropriately.


January 25, 2012

Thanks for the interesting blog post.  I’d like to learn more about the future plans for computer-adaptive exams to test the Common Core.  Can you recommend an article?

Naked RTTT, Budget Blues, and NH “Teapublica

January 25, 2012

[...] You CAN assess the whole child and in a good school we DO… that’s the conclusion of ASCD blogger Molly McCloskey who describes how the school her daughter attended understood her poor performance on final exams was the result of personal crisis and not “poor teaching”… [...]

Molly McCloskey

January 25, 2012

Hi Annie -

The computer adaptive option is a component of the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium’s work.  The State of Washington is leading that consortium, so you can find resources about it here including a fact sheet about computer adaptive assessment overall.


Dory Suttmiller

January 28, 2012

Students learn differently, so why can’t they be assessed differently? Standardized testing has forced every student into a “one-size-fits-all” mold. I am so happy to finally see parents and teachers fighting back and coming up with creative alternatives that work! Together we put the focus of education back on the child and not on test scores.

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