Book Review

Assessing a Guide to Assessment

Inspiring readers to move beyond marks to meaning
Review by Suzanne Bowness

In some ways, reviewing a book has many similarities to grading an assignment: in both cases, you are trying to assess strengths and weaknesses. This notion makes reviewing a book on grading a very “meta” exercise, especially when the book is full of strategies on how to improve the process.

Fortunately, there are many positive aspects to Sandra Herbst and Anne Davies’s 2016 Grading, Reporting, and Professional Judgment in Elementary Classrooms. The text is highly focused, clear and short at only 94 pages, so it seems a useful guide for busy teachers to move through quickly and start incorporating into their teaching practice. The book’s three chapters “model and mirror” the evaluation approach that the authors describe as they collect and share evidence from their workshops — just as teachers are encouraged to do in their own teaching. The chapters guide the reader through three stages: preparing for assessment, activating and engaging listeners, and evaluating and reporting, to paraphrase the chapter titles.

In the first chapter on preparing for assessment, the authors suggest that teachers first determine the learning destination, using the curriculum documents, and then research expected standards by looking at samples of good student work. Further, they advise on the variety of samples to consider, how to develop and deepen rubrics, and how to gain insight from external tests. As the final two steps in the process, teachers should consider how to collect reliable evidence of student work (they suggest a triangulation of observations, products and conversations), and how to create a baseline from which to evaluate progress.

In the second chapter, Herbst and Davies shift to informative assessment, where the primary purpose is to support learning, and the second to report learning. By this method, the authors emphasize the importance of involving students in the process, enlisting them to describe what quality looks like. “When students know what they are supposed to be learning, they can self-monitor, make adjustments, and learn more,” the authors write. They also emphasize the need for teachers to look at feedback as they’re collecting it and teach to any gaps they identify in the students’ knowledge.

Chapter 3 moves to the final step of the process: reporting the evidence, making informed professional judgments and using required communication formats, such as report cards. Here the authors demonstrate the payoff of the first two steps, pointing out that “evaluating and reporting are less stressful and can be done with confidence when they are the last steps in a purposeful, systematic, multistep process that does not come into play simply at the end of the learning.” Most of this chapter is composed of a collection of sample report cards and reporting anecdotes, a helpful variety to show what’s possible in different classrooms at different levels.

Overall, the concepts in Grading, Reporting, and Professional Judgment in Elementary Classrooms are simple, enlightened and intuitive, if somewhat daunting a switch for a teacher who has a more traditional approach. Unfortunately, rather than address this tension between the traditional testing methods and their more innovative approach within or at the end of chapters, the authors chose to include an appendix that lists pushbacks and counterarguments, which comes across as overly defensive. Also, while the volume includes many helpful illustrations and tables and charts, the type font on several is so small as to be unreadable. Others could use some additional captioning and referencing within the text.

Herbst and Davies are long-time educational workshop facilitators who train and coach educators at all levels — from teachers to administrators — and this book follows a similar volume published in 2014 for high school teachers. Their collective experience and confidence in their methods make this book a solid addition not only to a teacher’s bookshelf, but also to her classroom. If their suggestions seem a bit of a departure from your mother’s evaluation process, the responses that the authors describe from students and parents, and the intuitive usefulness of collecting evidence to show a student’s progress through their educational journey, make this book worth reading and putting into action.

Suzanne Bowness is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Read more of her writing at www.suzannebowness.com.