Supporting Teacher Assessment Literacy Through Pre-service Education and the Early Years of Teaching

Challenges and Approaches to Guide New Teachers in the Wake of COVID-19 School Disruptions

This fall, a batch of fresh new teachers, eager and anxious to start their careers, will enter into a context where interruptions in formal schooling across two school years have caused substantially different learning experiences for the students in their class. These teachers will be tasked with implementing strategies to identify initial student understandings and then support and monitor progress in learning. Supporting the assessment literacy of teachers through pre-service education and their early years of teaching is more important than ever. 

As authors of two recent book chapters on pre-service education in assessment (Formative Assessment in the Disciplines and Teaching on Assessment), we highlight challenges and approaches to supporting pre-service development of assessment literacy and reflect on the kinds of support new teachers will need through induction. Both chapters identify the importance of helping new teachers shift their understanding of assessment from their own experiences as students to something that both helps teachers make better decisions about student learning and helps students make their own decisions. 

Shifting Understandings of Educational Assessment

University students may be drawn to the teaching profession because they want to work with students, were influenced by an impactful teacher in their own educational experience, or possess a deep love for a particular subject matter and want to impart that passion and knowledge to others. We doubt anyone has ever thought to themselves, “I really want to assess fourth graders. I guess I’ll be a teacher.” 

Assessment is simply not on the radar when most choose a future of teaching. Further, we have found that when we ask pre-service teachers at the beginning of their program to recount their prior assessment experiences, invariably tests (often of the standardized variety) and other forms of graded work dominate the conversation. So the journey is long to go from this starting point to a place of assessment literacy, and it requires pre-service teachers to see assessment differently.

Successful pre-service programs help pre-service teachers shift their focus from salient memories of summative assessment to more formative forms of assessment that guide instructional planning and student learning. These programs help pre-service teachers understand that assessment involves planning instructional activities with purpose and using assessment to empower both themselves and their students. 

Successful pre-service programs also help pre-service teachers to develop habits of mind and practice, such as continuous engagement in inquiry and deliberate practice, and using critical reflection to identify opportunities for future improvement. These habits are essential to support ongoing learning and growth throughout an individual’s teaching career as standards, curriculum, and technology change.

Building Teaching Skills at the Pre-service Stage

Pamela Grossman and colleagues (Grossman et al, 2009) proposed three ways to engage novice teachers in learning about teaching: representations, decompositions, and approximations. 

  • representation of practice illustrates a critical aspect of practice and helps to make visible what is most important about that practice. 
  • decomposition of practice breaks the practice down into discrete components.
  • Those discrete components can then be approximated in rehearsal before engaging in the entire complex practice in a classroom setting. 

To optimally develop assessment literacy, these actions should be integrated across the pre-service program, in methods courses, other courses, and clinical experiences. 

For example, pre-service teachers can rehearse presenting learning goals to students to help them make connections back to what they already know or to experiences outside of school. They can practice crafting high-quality assessment opportunities that are more than just design work but push pre-service teachers to think about the evidence provided and the potential formative and summative uses of each form of assessment. The aims of these actions should be to develop disciplinary knowledge, fluency with specific assessment practices, and the aforementioned habits of mind and practice.

Supporting Both New and Experienced Teachers 

Pre-service teacher learning is the first step of an apprenticeship journey that will transition into an induction program and further in-service learning opportunities. Although the apprentices of old often worked alongside a single master, teachers transitioning from pre-service to induction have interacted and will continue to interact with and learn from a wide variety of people at their teacher preparation institutions, during pre-service school placements, and as teachers in their new schools. 

One critical influence on their learning will be the degree to which these people provide a coherent message and model practices accordingly. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a need for greater coherence among pre-service, induction, and in-service teacher learning opportunities.

Although we sympathize with school leaders’ wishes that new teachers come into the workforce with higher levels of assessment literacy, given the immense challenges assessment poses in the classroom, at a school, in a district, and nationally, it is important to recognize that building assessment literacy is a lifelong endeavor. Pre-service learning lays a foundation for future learning. It sets up new teachers to continue to develop effective approaches to assessment and also be able to weather shifts they may encounter related to sociopolitical contexts, new models of teaching, and specific sets of learning standards, curricula, and accountability testing.

Therefore, ongoing support from district leaders will be needed so that novice teachers have an opportunity to continue deepening their understanding and practice of assessment. Preparation in assessment as described in this post, and addressed further in the book chapters, is gaining a foothold in teacher education programs. School leaders, department chairs, and coaches need to be able to support the kinds of learning about assessment happening in pre-service to limit having it squashed by more experienced teachers during clinical experiences and the first years of teaching. 

It also will be important to create support for new teachers to continue their assessment journey through induction. One important aspect will be to develop school-wide assessment literacy expertise so newer teachers can continue their apprenticeship journey learning with and from their colleagues. 

As Carla Evans noted in a previous blog post, formative assessment processes should be the primary focus for developing teacher assessment literacy initially as “they lie at the heart of teaching and learning.” As schools move toward in-person schooling in the fall, novice and veteran teachers will need a wealth of formative assessment strategies to determine what students understand well and less well as they encounter each new unit, with significant teacher collaboration across grade levels. School and district leaders need to start planning now for how to support their teachers to develop and deepen their assessment literacy skills working with their peers. 

Chad Gotch is an assistant professor of educational psychology at Washington State University. He recently co-authored the chapter “Preparing Pre-Service Teachers for Assessment of, for, and as Learning” in the book Teaching on Assessment.

Caroline Wylie is a principal research scientist/research director in the K12 Learning, Teaching and Assessment research center at ETS. She is also a co-advisor to the CCSSO Balanced Assessment Systems collaborative. She recently co-authored the book Formative Assessment in the Disciplines: Framing a Continuum of Professional Learning with Margaret Heritage.