What is Understanding?

There’s a story I share when I talk to teachers about assessment, authentic, performance-based assessment to be exact. A few years ago, my husband and I were on our way out to a parent-teacher conference, and our 15 -year old son Jared, who has Down Syndrome was going to be staying home alone. This was not the first time he had stayed and, as we had done previously, we started asking those “safety” questions, queries that serve as reminders, like, “What do you do if the phone rings?” or “What if someone comes to the door?” The final question I asked was, “What do you do if the smoke detector goes off?” Jared very confidently walked over to the couch, picked up a throw pillow, and started waving it under the smoke detector, saying, “You just wave it like this until the beeping stops.”

My husband and I were stopped in our tracks by Jared’s performance. We realized that much more teaching was going to have to take place to ensure he truly understood, truly learned what to do when a smoke detector starts beeping. We realized that another approach would be necessary if Jared was to learn how to stay safe in the event of an emergency. At this point in the workshop, I always ask the participants if Jared KNEW what to do in this situation. They usually say “yes”, and explain that he knew exactly what to do when the alarm sounded. In fact, it was something he had seen me do dozens of times. But then, I ask, did Jared UNDERSTAND the implications of the smoke detector sounding off. And, the group decides that Jared had a lot of knowledge, but no understanding. The ensuing dialogue often offers an opportunity to reflect on how we are assessing kids, namely, on how we measure learning. How do we know when they have moved beyond knowledge acquisition to understanding? How do we design assessments that require students to demonstrate their depth of understanding around the content we teach?

If you would like an opportunity to continue the discussion, I invite you to attend any of our upcoming OCM BOCES Assessment Academies.

The Authentic Assessment Academy will assist district grade/course level teams in writing high quality performance-based assessments used to assess student learning and to improve instructional practice.

Participants will . . .

  • use the assessment design process—alignment, rigor, precision, bias, and scoring—to create an authentic assessment
  • continue work outside of training, as needed, to produce an authentic assessment
  • revise the authentic assessment based on feedback from peers and OCM BOCES facilitators
  • implement the authentic assessment, collect evidence of student learning, analyze data, and to determine areas for improvement in instruction.

I really hope to see you there!

Downs_Randi_WEB_1409Randi Downs
OCM BOCES Instructional Support Services


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