By Dayna Johnson, Student Teacher, Year 5 Bachelor of Education, Faculty of Education, VIU (written as part of a Principles of Teaching and Learning Course)

To experience an event on its own can be a valuable educational experience, but sometimes we can gain the deepest insight when we look at the same event in two very different contexts. I’d like to talk about my experience with observing the D.A.R.T. (District Assessment of Reading) Assessment and how, after two very different experiences with it on two separate occasions, my experiences allowed me to witness and understand assessment on a deeper and more intricate level than I’d ever been exposed to before. In discussing my two experiences, I’ll be talking about two schools and the community and economic context in which the schools were located. You may find yourself asking what the community and economic context of a school has to do with the completion of the D.A.R.T. assessment in the school; I didn’t see or even look for the connection at first, either, but I soon realized how important these factors were and I hope to relay that to you.

Photo by Gianmerizzi

Photo by Gianmerizzi

My first experience with D.A.R.T. occurred while I was teaching a grade 5/6 split class in a small school located within a tight-knit, wealthy community. If I were to describe the class as a whole, I’d say students were attentive, hard-working and dedicated to their schoolwork. To say whether that dedication was founded out of a love for school and desire to do well or more so out of a learned behaviour that had been engrained in them is difficult to say.

Regardless, when students were assigned work, they completed the tasks to the best of their abilities with little motivation required from the teacher. Observing the completion of the D.A.R.T. program brought no surprises. Students were told what they would be doing and what D.A.R.T. was used for, how they should read through the entire booklet and briefly reviewed the questions with the teacher before beginning and completing the assessment without any assistance or guidance from the teacher.

It was an individual task in which teacher assistance was not allowed to be given. I was told the format was used to ensure that teachers were not guiding students towards any answers, intentionally or unintentionally, and that the students’ knowledge alone was what was being assessed. My overall experience with D.A.R.T. was straightforward, but positive, and I believed that the format provided a valid assessment. My thoughts drastically changed a few months later.

My second encounter with D.A.R.T. was very different from my first experience, however it did lead me to one of my first personal revelations surrounding assessment and one that will stay with me for a long time to come.

The class and school in which my second experience with D.A.R.T. occurred were very different from those in my first experience. The school was located within an impoverished community; low attendance and lack of motivation were commonplace.

Similar to my first school, the teachers genuinely cared about every student and wanted to see them succeed. Different to my first school was the surface appearance of lack of interest, motivation and dedication of the students in school. What became apparent over my time at the school was that although the students at first did not appear to have any interest in school or desire to succeed, all the students I came into contact with eventually demonstrated an interest, engagement and desire to learn in their own way and in their own time. All of these factors played integral roles in determining how D.A.R.T. would be implemented in this school.

As the teacher began to explain how the D.A.R.T. assessment would take place in my second experience, I immediately began to notice significant differences between the processes in the two schools. In the second school, the supervising teacher explained how D.A.R.T. was not about forcing students to struggle reading through a piece of literature and then struggle to answer the questions. She explained that she already knew the benchmark reading levels of all the students, and that D.A.R.T. would not be reflective of their comprehension of the text if what they struggled with was reading the text. She proceeded to explain that the struggling readers would be assigned a student teacher to read them the text and then the students would answer the questions on their own. She discussed how it was unfair to assess a student’s comprehension of a text when it was the reading of the text itself that they struggled with, not the understanding of the text. I decided to be open to the process she suggested and see if I could make connections from my own observations. What I proceeded to observe changed my way of thinking about assessment in several very important ways.

My first realization was how many different tasks we ask a student to complete in a single assessment activity. Every time we ask a student to complete a given task, we are in fact asking them to complete a multitude of tasks. We give students a reading and a set of questions and when the questions come back unanswered or incorrectly answered, we assume they did not read closely enough or that they did not understand the information. We completely overlook the fact that their incorrect answers may have nothing to do with their ability to process and comprehend information; their reading may be below grade level, but their  thinking is not. There is a third assumption we often make when students do not answer questions and it is, in my opinion, the most dangerous and harmful assumption; we conclude that the student is lazy and doesn’t care about succeeding.

The second connection I made stemmed directly from this third assumption. I realized how assessment processes may need to and should be modified in order to meet the needs of different students in different situations and contexts in order to provide the most valid and reliable assessment of each individual student. Students at the school I first observed D.A.R.T. in had developed good work habits. From kindergarten, the majority of students in that school had parents who encouraged them through school, made them complete their homework and attend school every day, sent them to school on time and with full bellies, and were there to support them when they got home from school. One could conclude that for the most part (not necessarily true for every singly student, but for the majority of students), students had optimal conditions for learning and succeeding. So when it came to completing assigned work individually and without teacher assistance, students subconsciously turned to the good work habits that they’d developed for years and completed the task at hand. Not every child grows up in this kind of context.

Many students at the second school grew up in less than optimal conditions for developing learning skills and creating good work habits. For a multitude of reasons, ones which I will not delve into but that I’m sure many of us have observed or had experience with before, students in this school were not encouraged to attend school, to complete their homework or to put their best effort in.

Students were not sent to school with full bellies or fully rested, and they didn’t have the support they needed or to the extent they needed it when they returned in the afternoon. They did not grow up in conditions that were optimal for learning and succeeding.

The key point to remember here is although they may not have grown up in optimal learning environments, it does not mean that those students didn’t want to succeed. Children are not innately bad or lazy or disengaged. They are curious! They want to learn and discover and grow, and most importantly they want to succeed. If students in the second school had been administered the D.A.R.T. assessment in the same manner that students in the first school had been, the teacher would have gotten back a number of unanswered or poorly answered questions. This would not have happened because the students were lazy or trying to rebel against the teacher, but because they hadn’t had the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to complete the task on their own.

Can we fault students for growing up in different contexts? Can we say that it’s not our responsibility to alter the assessment process in order to meet the needs of our students? The answer is a resounding no. We are teachers and as such it is our responsibility, and should be our passion, to help every single student in our classrooms succeed.