The baselines on a baseball diamond or a softball field or a kickball area all serve similar purposes: they let us know where the expectations lie and whether or not something quite literally crosses a line. Baseline assessments in classrooms serve a similar purpose. If I am going to teach my twenty-three students this year in a way that is both relevant and meaningful, I have to know what they already know. It would be silly to teach a lesson on place value to a class that already knows place value.
So I decided this afternoon to administer a baseline assessment for mathematics. I found one that is aligned to the Common Core State Standards and is a review of the concepts that my students should know before coming into my class. Now, of course, the reality of the situation is that my students come in with their own unique experiences, individual understandings, and separate abilities. So the baseline assessment tells me both what they already know and what they may need some extra practice on.
We use several different diagnostic tools in our school and in our district. There is no one test I give that is a make-it-or-break-it kind of test. Even the state testing at the end of the year, which is currently a one-time test, is not used as a diagnostic tool for my instruction. I rely on quizzes and examinations that have been written by our curriculum publisher, by the teachers within the district, and by national organizations that provide what are called “nationally normed” assessments. (Test scores are compared across the nation so that we can see how students do across a broad spectrum of settings.
I find such assessments wonderfully useful and the data terribly interesting. But I am data geek, so maybe I am a minority in my profession. I know some teachers who complain having to “teach to the test.” To them I say, “To what else could you possibly be testing?!”
I make a point of telling all of my students that these assessments are strictly for the purpose of letting me know what I need to teach them. I use artifacts and other evidences of learning for progress reports. Framing the work in this way seems to help alleviate a lot of test anxiety, which in turn means that many students will perform better, giving me a clearer picture of where we are at this year.