Equitable Practices in Assessment, Grading, and Reporting in the Time of COVID

Thomas Guskey

Thomas Guskey

Release Date: November 10, 2020


Dr. Thomas R. Guskey is professor emeritus in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky. A graduate of the University of Chicago, he began his career in education as a middle school teacher and school administrator in Chicago Public Schools. He later became the first director of the Center for the Improvement of Teaching and Learning, a national educational research center. Dr. Guskey served on the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future and the task force to develop National Standards for Staff Development. He has been named a fellow in the American Educational Research Association (AERA)—the association's highest honor—and was awarded AERA's prestigious Relating Research to Practice Award. He was also named the 2010 Jason Millman Scholar by the Consortium for Research on Educational Assessment and Teaching Effectiveness (CREATE). He is author or editor of 24 award-winning books and more than 250 book chapters and articles.

The past year has uncovered more equity issues in education than in years before. The struggle to provide equitable access to technology, learning tools, emotional support, and even meals is now at the forefront of educators’ minds as they struggle to keep learning going forward for their students. Join us for a timely discussion about equity in education, specifically around assessment, with assessment expert Dr. Thomas Guskey.

During this podcast we will discuss:

  • Recommendations for assessing students during the pandemic
  • Ways educators can plan for assessments when not all students have equal access to resources
  • What educators should be looking for in reading or math assessments to address equity issues
  • What educators should consider when looking at assessment data from this school year
  • What assessment may look like in spring 2021

And much more. We hope you will join us!

Disclaimer: *Dr. Thomas Guskey does not endorse or make any representations or warranties about any of the products mentioned, nor is he affiliated with Voyager Sopris Learning.

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Narrator: Welcome to EDVIEW360.

Thomas Guskey: If we focus more on these, the feedback, the learning aspects of it, the informing aspects of it, have it be an integral part of the instructional process and real learning tools, I think there'd be profound implications for not only how teachers see assessments, but how students see assessments, how parents see assessments, how school leaders see assessments, and how we really use assessment results.

Narrator: You just heard Dr. Thomas Guskey. Dr. Guskey is an assessment expert and professor emeritus in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Guskey is our guest today on EDVIEW360.

Pam Austin: This is Pam Austin. Welcome back to the EDVIEW360 podcast series, we are so excited to have you back with us. I'm conducting today's podcast from my native New Orleans, channeling the heart of Voyager Sopris Learning® in Dallas, TX. Today, we are honored to have with us Dr. Thomas Guskey, professor, author, and assessment specialist.

Hello, Dr. Guskey. Welcome. We're so happy to have you with us today.

TG: Hello, Pam. It's my honor to be with you.

PA: All right. I'd like you to tell us a little bit about your background and how you became involved in education, including how you became focused on assessment.

TG: OK. Well, my background is not at all typical. My undergraduate major in college was actually physics and electrical engineering. But I graduated from college with my degree in that area to discover that I have no talent in that field at all, and was at a party one night and a friend of mine was looking for a teaching job. He told me about this private school that needed a middle grade math teacher who'd also coach, and that was the third week of August. So, I went and applied for the job and they hired me. My father claims to this day, the only reason I was hired there was I passed a mirror test. They put a mirror under my nose, it fogged, and so I got the job.

PA: Yes.

TG: But I started teaching grades seven and eight and just fell in love with it. I know a lot of people struggle with that age of children, but they were just fantastic. They're a totally confused lot, but they're great kids to work with. So, I gained my certification at that time, did that for several years, decided that I wanted to go back to graduate school, really, to learn how to become a better teacher. So, I began in Boston and then ended up at the University of Chicago where my advisor and the chair of my doctoral dissertation was Benjamin Bloom. And it was the work with Benjamin Bloom that really got me interested in the area of assessment and measuring student progress, Bloom was the one who brought the ideas of formative assessment to the field of education and it was just a wonderful honor to work with him and then have him guide my direction in the field in pursuing the topics of assessment and grading too in greater depth.

PA: I just love the journey and the various paths that educators come to the world of education, discovering the talent and the passion and then the love that you have for teaching and then moving toward formative assessment. Everyone has their own unique path, don't they?

TG: They surely do.

PA: This has been a year that has taken us all on a unique path, I would have to say. And it's like no year we've had before because, unfortunately, the pandemic, it seems to have increased that learning gap for some students. What are your thoughts on the effects of the pandemic and the implications or the importance of assessments as an instructional support tool?

TG: You're absolutely right, Pam. This year has brought unprecedented changes to the way we conduct education and especially the interaction between teachers and students. Beginning in March, where we had to go to virtual learning situations, it brought a new reality to the kind of situations that teachers were going to have to face in interacting with their students. And in no area has that been more profound than in the area of assessment. It's really caused teachers to think differently about the assessment process and establish some very clear priorities.

There are two major directions in which teachers are pulled when it comes to assessment. The first is the sort of a direction for accountability and grading, teachers have to gather information and to check on students' learning progress to certify their competence in certain areas. But then there's this other direction, which is the feedback and learning direction where teachers use assessments to diagnose individual student's learning difficulties and then prescribe unique remedies to those, providing students with alternative forms of instruction to help to remedy those problems. And I think teachers are coming to understand that in these dire conditions we're currently facing, they can't do both, not in the same way they did before. That requires them to establish some priorities and, I think, luckily, most teachers are coming to see that moving toward the importance of feedback in learning has to be their priority. So, it's changed their direction with regard to assessments, but I think it's moved them in a way that will really benefit not only the teachers and the way they go about their tasks, but it's going to be a much greater benefit to students as well.

PA: Oh, I agree with you 100 percent. Feedback and learning, because that's what it's all about, isn't it? I assess to see where my students are, I provide the feedback in order to increase their skill level on whatever concept that's being taught. I love the idea of that direction, Dr. Guskey. How can educators plan for assessments when not all the students, and again, this goes toward that feedback and learning, have equal access to digital or technology-based resources? And therefore, what does that do? It means that there's unequal access to instruction as well. What do we do for those kids?

TG: Right. This is a real big challenge. And teachers, I think, have always been conscious of the inequities that exist among their students, just in the family backgrounds and homes from which they come and the resources available there. But this has made that all the more relevant and all the more obvious to teachers. There are three areas where there has really been inequity with regard to access. The first is the inequity in terms of access to technology, not all homes have access to high-speed Internet, they may not have the hardware or software available. An education advocacy group here in the state of Kentucky recently did a survey and found that even after all this time, about 36 percent of the students in the state of Kentucky don't have access to the high-speed Internet that's really necessary for them to engage fully in school activities.

The second area is just access to learning resources at home. Many homes don't have the books, the materials, the paper, the pencils, other sorts of resources that we typically provide in schools might not be available to them at home. And, in third, and probably the most pressing is just the inequitable access to adult support. We have many students who are at homes where their parents are still working full time, their jobs require them to be outside of the home so they can't be there to supervise their children during these times when they're learning from home. There's many homes where the parents may not be English speakers, the language they speak at home is different from English and that poses additional problems. There are homes where the parents are also teachers, and so they're trying to provide for their students at the same time taking care of the learning programs for their children. So, these three areas of inequity are something that educators really don't control. We're trying to do some things to ensure that at least there's access to high-speed Internet by establishing hotspots in different places but I think it's really important that you should be aware of those and recognize what impact that can have on their children and the students that they're teaching, and then find ways to really work around that.

PA: Oh yes. You used the phrase more obvious, "It makes that unequal access to instruction more obvious." And it made me think of the idea of shining the light on what's needed for students and just that insight it's not just technology, it's the learning resources and adult support as well. Thank you for sharing those insights, Dr. Guskey. What are your recommendations for assessing students during the pandemic? How do educators go about assessing their students? You talked about the feedback and offering the support in learning, how can we make that happen?

TG: I think one of the first things that school leaders have to do is recognize the challenges the teachers are facing and what they can do to lessen their burden. If we go back to the issue we talked about earlier where assessment can take these two different directions, we really want to make teachers comfortable in moving toward the feedback and learning direction, and if sacrifices are to be made, then we cut back on the accountability grading direction. We do need to, at certain points in time provide parents and students with feedback about how they're doing, and that's a really important aspect of this and the grades serve that purpose well. But more and more, we need to be focusing on the use of assessments to really guide students in their learning and guide teachers in their teaching as well. So, the idea that school leaders can impress upon teachers that we're really focusing on all we can do to help kids learn under these difficult conditions, looking to assessments to provide us with information on how students are doing and how effective our instruction has been. The information about how students are doing, we're going to use to identify any learning problems they're having and then remedy those through various types of corrective activities. We're going to follow that with additional forms of assessments so that students get other opportunities to demonstrate how well they've learned. But teachers are also going to use it to find out how effective their initial instruction is, teachers at all levels. Teachers, they learn best and that's important that they do and continue to do that. But the way they learn best may not be the way many of their students learn best, especially when we move to these online learning formats.

So, teachers need to be finding that out on a very regular basis and adjusting their instruction accordingly. But not only that, providing opportunities for those students who do learn well and demonstrate they've learned well, opportunities to extend their learning through various types of enrichment activities. This doesn't mean necessarily going on, but being able to explore topics that might be of keen interest, going off in a different direction and being able to engage in things that are really fun and valuable learning opportunities for them.

PA: All right.

TG: So, I think if school leaders can really help teachers make those purposeful decisions, then it's going to serve the teachers really well and I think serves the students even better.

PA: Dr. Guskey, oh, those comments are just so valuable. You mentioned the fact that instructional leaders, your administrators, your principals, should make teachers comfortable. And I'm going to repeat that phrase, make teachers comfortable with different aspects of assessment. That feedback and learning loop that you speak of, that formative assessment, I think that would be so empowering to teachers as well. It's actually a mind shift for them. And if leaders can help assist with that change in thought in regards to what assessments do, that would be so valuable for helping students build skills. Thank you for giving us that input here. I do have some more questions for you if you're up for them.

TG: Sure.

PA: How can educators make sure that the results, I'm giving my assessments, I want to give the relevant feedback, I want to make sure I'm providing that correct instruction, how can educators make sure students results are valid if they're taking these assessments remotely?

TG: Well, questions of validity with regard to assessments have direct relations to the stakes that are attached to those. If we're using these to make high-stakes decisions about students, having to do whether they're going to be promoted from one grade level to the next, whether they qualify for certain educational benefits or various educational tracks or programs, then the validity of the assessment becomes a very crucial issue. On the other hand, if our purpose is really to guide students in learning, then we're willing to accept some compromises and sort of soften the rules with regard to validity and reliability as well because they don't have the high-stakes consequences. This means that when we use assessments to guide students' learning, the validity really comes down to, are these assessments capturing the information that's most important related to the learning goals we want students to achieve? So, once we establish that this is actually providing us with accurate evidence, that students have mastered those important learning goals, then the validity of it comes through.

Our next challenge is to ensure that our instruction is equally aligned to the learning goals and the assessments. Students should not be surprised by the assessment. In fact, I've always argued that if a student is surprised by something on the assessment, then something was wrong in the teaching. Assessment should really emphasize those things that were a part of our instruction and they should include the same emphasis that we used as our teaching aspects of the classes as we went through. So, I think that when we focus on the feedback and learning aspects of it, it softens the rules and requirements for the technical aspects of the assessments. We can forgive some technical flaws within the assessments if we're using it for feedback purposes, we're not making high-stakes decisions about kids based on the results.

PA: All right. Very good, very good insight on that. Aligning that assessment to the instruction, making sure we're assessing what we teach, right? Who wants to be assessed on something that they haven't been taught? It makes perfect sense. And it would seem to me that the light would shine on whether or not the assessment was valid or invalid as you continue with the instruction. You would note the holes and maybe then go back to reassess, to see what the students truly know and whether or not I can take them to that next level. When educators are considering a specific assessment tool, what should they be looking for specifically for reading or math assessments, either one, to address equity issues?

TG: Well, there are two aspects that come into this discussion regarding assessments and the equity aspects. The first is they want to make sure whatever assessments they use are well aligned with the learning goals. Oftentimes, we choose assessments because they're easy to use or easy to score, and they may not align with the learning goals very well. There's no perfect assessment format. But what makes an assessment format appropriate is how well it matches the knowledge and skills we want students to develop. So, what I encourage teachers to do, first of all, when you look at any assessment, is how well does it align with the learning goals? And if I can say that it's goal aligned, that if I have this evidence from students that I can make some solid judgements about students having learned these things well, then you're in good shape. But if you have the sense that the assessment is capturing things other than learning goals, it really turns things around.

This is why when we think about assessments, we need to be thinking about the learning goals first, and then the assessments as evidence to demonstrate students' mastery or proficiency of those learning goals. The second aspect, two, is then to limit the number of decisions that you have to make with regard to results and separating those in terms of the grade from other aspects that influence that grade. You probably have read about the recent change in some school districts, the San Diego schools have gotten great notoriety for this, where they're moving toward multiple grades for students. And they are taking the grade that we give students and breaking it down into three different parts. There's a product grade, which is students’ demonstrations of their learning goals, those things we wanted them to learn and be able to do.

Then, there is a process grade, and the process grade relates to learning skills or learning enablers. For example, homework. Homework is not really a demonstration of learning, but it certainly enables the learning. Class participation, engagement, punctuality in turning in assignments, all those are important things but don't represent learning per se. And so a decision was made in San Diego to give multiple grades instead of a single grade. I think more and more school districts are going to do this because they're finding that many kids, because of inequitable access to technology and inequitable home environments, are suffering in terms of their grading, not because of achievement but because of all these other things. So, not that they're unimportant, but we do need to report them separately. So, I think separating product criteria, demonstrations of what students have learned and are able to do, process criteria which can be learning enablers, it can also be the vast array of social, emotional learning skills we'd like students to develop.

And then, finally, we have what's called progress. And with progress, you don't worry so much about where they are but how far they've come, it's sometimes referred to as improvement or value-added, gain grade. A student, for example, might make excellent progress but still be achieving below grade level. On the other hand, a really talented student might come into the class knowing everything that was expected. They could get a high product grade, but progress really wasn't shown. All three can be important, what gets them into trouble was when we combine all three into one grade. And I think many school districts across the nation are coming to understand that we need to separate those and provide different grades, multiple grades for students in each of the subject areas. And that will not only account for, but then help us explain what the grades really mean.

PA: So, in the end, what we're really focusing and understanding is what is the learning goal, No. 1, and how do we assess those learning goals and how do they align in multiple ways. Since this year has been so challenging, what is the most valuable assessment data educators should consider for review this year? And you've given us some insight on that already, I do want you to expound upon that, and what would be the best practice in communicating assessment results and providing feedback that supports teaching and learning. And again, I think you've given us some insights. If you can just expand on that, that would be great.

TG: Yes. I think the biggest change that we can make and what will make it easier for teachers, easier for students, and facilitate learning would be to put less focus on assessments as evaluation devices used to certify competence or assign grades and more emphasis on having assessments become an integral part of the instructional process. That we use them for these formative purposes, which means to inform. We want the assessments to let students know how well they're doing and let teachers know how well students are doing, let teachers know how well their instruction is coming across to their students. If we can shift that direction and focus more on those formative aspects, it brings all kinds of advantages. One of the most prominent advantages is it eliminates the need to be concerned about cheating on assessments, because if students understand that this assessment is primarily designed to help you, why would you want to cheat on it? It takes away any student motivation for cheating on it because it's really a tool to help you learn better.

So, if we focus more on these, the feedback, the learning aspects of it, the informing aspects of it, have it be an integral part of the instructional process and real learning tools, I think there should be profound implications for not only how teachers see assessments, but how students see assessments, how parents see assessments, how school leaders see assessments, and how we really use assessment results.

PA: Yes. Formative assessments to inform that's what it's all about. And there is a time and a place for a different type of assessment. And where we find ourselves now in the educational world, that formative assessment is what you're telling us is where we need to focus. And we could get back to accountability, there's a time and a place for that as well, correct? But right now our teachers, our students, we need that information, we need to be informed. Definitely wonderful advice, thank you. What are your thoughts on how the pandemic will affect student learning?

TG: Well, I think we have lots of evidence to show that it has had profound effects on student learning already and it will continue to. The change in instructional format has provided some advantage to us in some ways, it certainly has compelled us to look more carefully at the way we teach and how we engage students in learning but because of the inequities that exist, it has also exposed some of the weaknesses in our instructional programs and the way we are actually able to engage students in learning, especially as we go to remote learning or even the hybrid models we're trying to structure. Once we recognize those, it becomes our responsibility to find ways of helping students make up for those difficulties. And I think that we need to be looking ahead to determine not just what students have lacked, but what they will need for success in the next step.

Rather than a deficit model that says, "What have students missed during this time?" I think what we need to do is look forward and say, "What do students really have to have to be successful in the next stage, in the next grade that we are in, the next unit that we're going to?" And really focus our assessments on gathering that kind of information, teaching those skills, those prerequisite skills for that future success in a sort of mastery learning framework that is designed to bring students up to a mastery criteria so that they can face those units on an equal playing ground. So, rather than trying to make up for everything we've lost, let's look ahead and let's figure out what students need for that next step, and then really focus our instruction in providing them with that foundation so they can start it in a level playing field with everybody else and achieve their success in the next step.

PA: Oh, I love it. So, again, it's like shining a light on student need so that they can take that next step, right? We all want our students to reach mastery, and that's what the focus is. Well, Dr. Guskey, we are getting close to the end of our podcast, what do you think assessment will look like in spring 2021?

TG: I do believe that this spring will see a very drastic change in the way we view assessments. I think that state leaders are going to recognize that because of the conditions under which educators have been working, that are sort of traditional assessments used for accountability purposes, will no longer be useful, that we will be looking for a different type of assessment program that will give us information we can use, turn it around very quickly and provide teachers with the kind of data they'll find helpful when it comes to dealing with the learning problems of their students. So, I think that it's going to make us be much more conscious of using assessments for the purpose of learning, rather than just the accountability purposes and rating schools or rating teachers in any way and help us focus on using them to really bring about the kind of important information we need to encourage more students to learn, remedy learning problems we might have identified and then provide alternative instructions for those students that need a different way of learning.

And really to focus on helping all of our students learn well and gain the many valuable benefits of that learning success.

PA: That would definitely be a drastic change. Just think about it, assessment that will provide information for immediate use, how exciting. I think we're moving into a direction where we really can focus on all of our students. I love your thought processes, I love the direction that you envision, Dr. Guskey.

TG: Oh, thanks Pam.

PA: Finally, if you could wave a magic wand and change anything in the world of education, what would you change and why?

TG: Wow! Well, this actually brings to mind what I think has been a positive benefit that's come from the changes we've had to make dealing with the pandemic. I believe that all these changes have helped us appreciate teachers in a much different way. It's shown how wonderfully resilient teachers are, how powerfully resourceful they can be and perhaps, more importantly, how underappreciated they are. I think that this has helped everybody understand that teachers can essentially turn directions immediately when it comes to providing good, important, helpful instruction for their students, and will take any measures within their power to do that and do it well. I believe that's going to be a very positive thing. As parents have tried to take on the challenges of helping their kids learn at home, they have come to appreciate the wonderful job that teachers do and seen how amazing they are in accomplishing what they are able to with their students.

So, that would be my magic wand wish, to let us come to see teachers and educators, generally, for the valuable, important work that they do and realize that no matter what direction our world takes that all of future leaders for our world are in schools today, the future presidents of our world and our country, the legislators, Supreme Court justices, all those people are in schools today and they're in front of teachers, and teachers are doing just such an amazing job in doing it. They're trying to find ways to do it better, we're going to make our profession even more valuable than it's ever been before, but I think to see teachers in the light that they deserve, how valuable they are and how valuable a service they provide would be my wish. And I think maybe that's helped us get there in a way.

PA: I have to agree with you. Now, we're shining the light on the value of teachers. Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Guskey. It's been a pleasure speaking with you. Please tell our listeners how they can learn more about you and how they can follow you on social media.

TG: Well, there's several ways people can contact me. I do have a website and that's just tguskey.com. If you go there, you can find blogs that I've written. I write it pretty regularly for Education Week. There are articles that you can download from your copies of presentations and alike. My email address at university is just guskey, G-U-S-K-E-Y, @uky.edu. You can also contact me through Twitter, my handle there is just @tguskey and any of those would be valuable ways. I look forward to hearing from anybody. Or, if I can be helpful to you in any way, don't hesitate to get in touch with me. And, Pam, thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of your session today. It's really been my honor.

PA: Thank you, Dr. Guskey. We really appreciate the insights and the valuable information you've shared with us today. This is Pam Austin bringing the best thought leaders in education directly to you.

Narrator: This has been an EDVIEW360 podcast produced by Voyager Sopris Learning. For additional thought-provoking discussions, sign up for our blog, webinars, and podcast series at voyagersopris.com/podcast. If you enjoyed the show, we'd love a five-star review wherever you listen to podcasts and to help other people like you find our show. Thank you.