Letting Go: Cultivating Assessment-Capable Learners

Letting Go: Cultivating Assessment-Capable Learners

I wasn’t always a successful teacher. In fact, when I first started teaching high school fresh out of college at 22, my role could better be described as kid-manager. I had a lot of passion and was great at keeping kids in class and putting out metaphorical fires, but most of my time wasn’t spent engaging students in true deeper learning. I would never have hired my past self.

Ten years and around 800 students later, some might say I have become a fairly talented educator. Over the past few years, my students have consistently achieved at incredibly high levels, both in proficiency and growth.  I’ve regularly taken students two to three years below grade level and caught them up in a single year. I will also be the first one to tell you that had little to do with me, and a lot more to do with me stepping to the sidelines.

The key to my success: putting the data in my students’ hands and then engaging them in authentic conversations about where they were, where they needed to be, and how they planned to get there. I made them directly accountable for their achievement. My job was to guide them and help equip them with the necessary tools, but ultimately their climb to the top was dependent on their willingness to get there.

Teachers nationwide are doing similar things, with equally strong results. The process of developing assessment-capable learners is a potential game-changer, because coaching teachers is more scalable than finding a handful of stellar teachers. (Of course, Venture Academy is trying to do both).

The methods of cultivating assessment-capable learners and putting students in the driver’s seat of their education undoubtedly look a little bit different classroom by classroom, but you’d probably see some consistent elements in every one of them.


1) Meaningful Assessments


Every assessment a student takes, whether formative, summative, incremental, formal, or informal, must be meaningful. Students should understand its value as a tool for not just showing areas of knowledge, but also for identifying gaps in learning. If students do not view it as meaningful, then the assessment is a waste of time and the data is generally inaccurate.


2) Personalized Goals


Kids constantly compare themselves to each other. Students are savvy about who is where they are “supposed to be” and who is not. This can lead to struggling students feeling poorly about their progress, or to high-flying students getting too comfortable with where they are and as a result not seek out higher level material. Adults must personalize learning goals and approach every student’s current learning level individually. Discuss current levels in a straightforward way, developing a classroom culture which embraces differences in learning strategies, pace, and student needs. As those of us who have worked with special education students would say, fair does not always mean equal, but rather getting what you need. Kids understand this, and the adults just need to model it.


3) Celebrate Success


Too often adults tend to be completely blind to or downplay the amount of pressure and anxiety that assessment can put on students.  Unless you celebrate incremental student progress, assessment can cripple student achievement and deeper learning. This may be especially true when students haven’t yet reached proficiency. Keep in mind that a student who was at 20% and is now at 40% has made 100% growth.  The end goal is proficiency, but for some it is a long road to get there. A student who continually feels defeated because they haven’t hit the right number, regardless of their growth, will give up.

It’s also important to cultivate a class environment where students aren’t competing against each other, but instead are working together towards common classroom goals such as: every student will achieve mastery on 80% of their goals this week. Common goals should still allow for personalization while reinforcing the collective mission of student success. This encourages students to work together for attainment and develops a sense of urgency that every student needs to meet their goals. Allow them to work together.


4) De-Mystify Data


There are always students who don’t know what the percentage on their paper means, how to recognize when they have made progress, or even why they have made progress. This is largely due to students not knowing how to read or analyze the data in front of them, including error analysis and reflection. Every student in my class was expected to complete an assessment reflection on every missed problem. This included a section on analyzing what went wrong, or thinking about their thinking (metacognition), then a retry. I’m a big believer in do-overs because it fosters an attitude of determination. This process allowed for us to see together where things weren’t connecting: was it a total lack of concept knowledge or just a minor misunderstanding?


5) Regularly Follow Up


Set individual student learning goals weekly, and follow up. If a student needs to adjust their goals, make room to iterate because this isn’t a perfect process. Students should be able to articulate why they need to adjust their goals, and be reflective of when they haven’t met certain goals. They need to be able to fail and fumble a little bit, then reflect on how it impacts their progress in order to develop solid self-management skills.  Some students will need to check in daily, while others will just need to check in once a week.  They’re all a little different (big surprise here).

Require every assessment/goal reflection to have the signature of a parent or guardian, not just students who haven’t met a specific proficiency goal. This engages the family in the process of student ownership. The key to the success of anything is to implement with fidelity: schedule time to discuss goal progress and attainment with consistency and you will see positive results.


By building a classroom and school-wide culture that develops and celebrates assessment-capable learners, you’ll put your students on the fastest track to lifelong learning success.

Written by Kerry Muse

Kerry Muse

Chief Learning Officer and Head of School at Venture Academy, a grades 6-12 public charter school that will open in Minneapolis in August 2013. Muse spent 10 years teaching math, special education and visual arts in both district and charter schools in Texas and California, most recently at KIPP Bridge in Oakland. In addition he is a practicing artist and musician.


  1. Zack Olson

    Kerry, exciting stuff! I agree with changing the game, and putting responsibility back in our kid’s hands. What I like most about this piece, the idea of do-overs. How simple and remarkable, learning how to succeed after failure is a skill to be cherished in upcoming active citizens.

  2. Kerry this an excellent illustration of effective assessment for meeting all students’ needs. When students are consistently provided the opportunity to reflect and refine, then given the opportunity to celebrate (no pizza parties, please) they are motivated and engagement increases. Cheers!

  3. Thank you for this article. I applaud your wisdom as I’m sure your students do, too.

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