What Exactly Is “Understanding?” And How Do We Assess It?

What Exactly Is “Understanding?” And How Do We Assess It?

assessing your child

By Terrell Heick

Assessing understanding might be the most complex task an educator or academic institution is tasked with. Unfortunately, professional development gives a lower level of attention to developing quality assessments, training that is rarely commensurate with this complexity. The challenge of assessment is no less than figuring out what a learner knows, and where he or she needs to go next.

In other words, what does a learner understand?

This in itself is an important shift from the days when curriculum was simply delivered regardless of the student’s content knowledge.

Among the big ideas Richard and Rebecca DuFour brought to the educational mainstream consciousness was a shift from teaching to learning, a subtle but critical movement. But even with this shift from curriculum, instruction and teacher actions, and toward data, assessment and learning, there remains uncomfortable murkiness.

Planning for Learning

In a traditional (and perhaps utopian) academic structure, learning objectives are identified, prioritized, mapped and intentionally sequenced. Pre-assessments are given as tools to provide data to revise planned instruction.

Next, in a collaborative group (PLCs and their data teams being the current trendy format), teachers together disaggregate data, perform item analyses, identify trends and possibility, and differentiate powerful and compelling instruction for each learner with research-based instructional strategies. Then student understanding is re-assessed, deficiencies are further remediated — rinse, repeat — until the learner demonstrates acceptable evidence of understanding.

But even this Herculean effort — which incredibly leaves gaps nonetheless — is often not enough because of the nature of understanding itself.

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