Over the course of the day, we kept returning to the question, realizing it sparked and invited conversation in a variety of ways. From politics, to the right amount of homework to assign, to finding ways to be a working parent, the question led the group to consider the bigger ideas of education and school. As some of the teachers filed out at the end of the day, they chatted about how many assignments and projects their students had in the upcoming weeks. “Now there’s something out of balance,” one said, and laughed. “Where’s the curriculum for getting tests, assessments, and projects in balance?”
Although the teacher was speaking a bit tongue in cheek, schools routinely engage in processes with the explicit goal of finding or restoring balance. When the work is done formally, usually at the behest of a policy or law, it generally takes the form of audits. Audits typically require a structured process and start with an intended outcome. In the case of most audits, the issue of balance is about righting wrongs or filling gaps, and the cause and effect of the audit is clear from the beginning. However, because of their design and structure, audits can have unintended consequences. The word itself offers up a clinical image and they rarely involve the community in meaningful way. For schools looking to resolve issues of balance, engage the community and take a more authentic, learner-centered approach, inventories can provide a powerful and useful alternative.
The most common, actionable, and topical inventories are those that look at assessments within a classroom, department, school or district. And as we slide from the era of No Child Left Behind into Every Student Succeeds, it’s easy to see why. Across the country, parents report feeling that there’s too much testing in schools. Protestors at board meetings hold up signs proclaiming, “Teaching Not Testing.” Yet, converting the energy around imbalance into action is difficult in the absence of a solid sense of what is meant by “too much.” Assessment inventories provide an explicit and powerful way for teachers, administrators, and parents to get a more accurate sense of the nature and balance of assessments within their learning community, so they can better understand and address what it is that needs to be fixed.
Unlike formal audits, assessment inventories don’t require a team of external experts, clipboards, and a clinical, detached approach. Instead, assessment inventories are flexible and student-focused. They are about documenting or taking stock of what exists in order to move closer to a healthier, more balanced system. In effect, an assessment inventory is literally that – taking an inventory of the current state of assessment within a system. Only after the findings are uncovered will the next steps be proscribed.
Although there are variety of ways of approaching assessment inventories, there are a few foundational questions educators should consider to define the inventory’s scope.
Who is feeling the sense of imbalance the strongest? Who should participate in the inventory?
As a result of their more informal nature, assessment inventories can be as narrow as one teacher focusing on one semester of her classroom assessments, or as broad as the entire school district reviewing all the assessments from a given day or in a particular topic. Defining clear and explicit boundaries for the scope of an inventory’s work is essential to ensure that the work doesn’t overwhelm the participants. Generally speaking, the larger the scale of the inventory, the more hands, eyes, and minds needed to do the work. Thoughtfully pulling together a diverse team is an important step in ensuring the work goes smoothly and leads to change. Engaging all members of the community and shifting its focus as needed, based on feedback, is a key feature in ensuring the inventory doesn’t turn into a clinical audit.
What constitutes an assessment? What exactly will we be inventorying?
In a financial audit, the what is it explicit and clear – money. In an assessment inventory, the what is open to interpretation around the word assessment. At LCI, we define assessment as “the strategic collection of evidence of student learning” which includes tests, worksheets, projects, assignments, or class discussions. In effect, anytime students generate work, they’ve provided evidence of their learning. Inventory participants may choose to focus on very a narrow swath of assessment such as tests - evaluation measures that ask all students to engage in the same task at the same time, with their work scored with a common answer key. Or participants may elect to focus on all assessments that require students to speak or write or problem solve. Determining what to focus on goes back to the essential question around balance. That is, what imbalance is driving the need or interest in an inventory? What in the school environment might provide clues around what is out of balance?
What does balance entail?
The flip side of feeling out of balance is knowing what balance looks like. We know and feel that 4th graders taking 30 multiple choice tests per month seems out of balance, but it’s harder to describe what their experience would look like if it were healthier. Unpacking that requires determining what matters most to those doing the inventory. A good starting point is choosing one of the six attributes of quality assessment in a balanced system.
An individual teacher may define balance as a classroom where students are routinely asked to engage in deep thinking and learning. This would require examining the demands of her assessments, not just what they look like or how much time they take. If a school-based team wants to document exactly how much time students spend taking tests a month, they can invite multiple teachers and students to participate in the inventory in order to get the most accurate count possible. A district might look to their mission and vision to see what their hopes are for graduates and focus the inventory work on identifying ways to document and capture evidence of those goals.
How do we keep the inventory manageable?
With audits, the end goal is known at the beginning: we do this work, answer these questions, and we’re done. One of the challenges of assessment inventories is that, like any good research project, new questions arise during the work; given this, it’s helpful to establish boundaries for the project. Having a boundary doesn’t necessarily limit the inventory work – schools can conduct multiple inventories at the same time – but it does make the work manageable. Participants can draw boundaries by concentrating on one of the following inventory types:
- Thematic inventories focus on a theme or a concept such as one of the six attributes of quality assessment.
- Equity inventories look at what matters in assessments through the lens of student populations such as students of color, students with disabilities, girls, or children experiencing poverty.
- A high-stakes focus means that the team begins their work with assessments that have consequences for test-takers (final exams, mid-terms) or their teachers (tests used for teacher evaluation).
- Census inventories allow schools to look at the entire system through the lens of what balance looks like to them. In the absence of an explicit focus or boundary, inventory work can feel like it raises more questions than it answers.
We’ve ready to inventory! How do we do it?
There are a variety of strategies teams can use for the actual data analysis process once the collection is complete. LCI has designed several tracking tools and rubrics to help teams code collected artifacts in order to identify patterns and trends as well as documentation tools for teachers doing an individual inventory. School or district protocols for examining student work may be useful in analyzing the collected artifacts. Regardless of the process a team uses to analyze their collected data, the analysis is best done with one eye on what comes after the inventory. Keeping the final audience, and the original purpose, in mind can help the data analysis work move more smoothly. Individual teachers should consult their performance evaluation structure and make explicit connections to the framework or documentation portfolio as they work through the inventory. Some teams find it helpful to write a narrative of their work and findings. Others organize their thinking into a PowerPoint presentation or slide deck that can be readily viewed by the community.
We’ve inventoried! Now What?
Thoughtful assessment inventories provide evidence to confirm or refute hunches by helping us identity and name problems. Often times, the use of tally marks and narrative statements can help us see what’s right front of us. However, inventories, by themselves, aren’t a solution. Simply putting words to the feeling that something is out of balance won’t solve the problem of too much time spent giving and taking multiple choice tests. No matter how thoughtful an inventory is, it won’t change a routine of assigning tasks that require students to generate one correct answer or provide a scripted response. Rather, they provide a concrete starting point for the next step of improvement work.
Assessment inventories can inform practitioners’ perceptions and provide a foundation for making tangible improvements to what, how, and how much we assess. Not only can they help us tell the story of student learning and assessment in our community. They can also help us make more grounded changes by working from what’s known and what’s actually happening, rather than hunches and feelings. At first blush, there’s a clinical, cold feeling to the concept of inventories; similar to the feeling students might experience upon hearing the phrase “balancing algebraic equations.” Asking those students, though, to consider the essential question, “Is balance possible” can make that unit more memorable and sticky in terms of student learning. It will help them see that there are skills and concepts they can apply and transfer across contexts and throughout their lives. Likewise, asking inventory participants to consider what balance looks like when it comes to capturing evidence of student learning can help them identify what evidence is most useful, helpful, and meaningful.
Are you looking to go deeper?
The following resources provide additional context for completing learner-centered assessment inventories:
- Program evaluation: Alternative approaches and practical guidelines, by Sanders & Worthen. Chapter 8, on participant-oriented approaches, provides lots of practical strategies for working with community stakeholders.
- Got Data? Now What? by Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman contains multiple protocols teams can use during the data collection and inventory process.
- Improving Teaching with Collaborative Action Research, by Diane Cunningham, offers approaches for data collection and analysis.
Are you considering conducting an assessment inventory? LCI offers different ways to support this work. For more about LCI’s approach to inventories, and how we can help, click here.