Tisha Jones, Asset-Based Assessment

Mike Wallus, Vice President for Educator Support


When you look at the results of your students' work, what types of things are you attending to? 

Many of us were trained to look for the ways that students were not understanding concepts or ideas. But what if we flipped that practice on its head and focused on the things students did understand?

Today on the podcast, we’re talking with Tisha Jones, senior advisor for content development at the MLC about building an asset-based approach to assessment.

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Mike Wallus: When you look at the results of your students’ work, what types of things are you attending to? Many of us were trained to look for the ways that students were not understanding concepts or ideas. But what if we flipped that practice on its head and focused on the things students did understand? Today on the podcast, we're talking with Tisha Jones, senior advisor for content development at The Math Learning Center, about building an asset-based approach to assessment. 

Mike: Tisha, first of all, thanks for joining us. We're thrilled to have you with us.

Tisha Jones: I'm really excited to be here.

Mike: I have a sense that for a lot of people, the idea of asset-based assessment is something that we might need to unpack to offer, kind of, a basic set of operating principles or a definition. So, my first question is, “How would you describe asset-based assessment? What would that mean for a practitioner?”

Tisha: I think the first part of it is thinking just about assessment. Assessment is a huge part of every school that is in this country. So, there are formative assessments, which are ongoing assessments that teachers are doing while students are considered “in the process of learning”—although we know that students really are never not in the process of learning. And then there are also summative assessments, when we want to see if they have demonstrated proficiency or mastery of the concepts that they've been learning throughout that unit. But when we're thinking about assessments, oftentimes the idea of assessment is that we are looking for what students don't know. And asset-based assessment means that we're taking this idea and we're flipping it, and we're saying, “Let's start by looking at what students are showing us that they do know.” And we're trying to really focus on the things that our students are showing us that they're able to do.

Mike: So, that's a lot. And I think one of many of the things that's going on for me is that that's a pretty profound mind shift, I think, for a lot of folks in the field; not because they necessarily want to look at their students as a set of deficits, but because most of the training that a lot of us got actually was focused on “What are the deficits?”

Tisha: Most of the training when we're talking about kids casually, or with our colleagues or administrators, we're often worried about, “Well, our kids don't know this. Our kids are struggling here.” And that really becomes the way that we see our students, right? And our kids are so much more than that, right? And our kids are coming to us with knowledge, and we can forget that when we're only focused on what they don't know.

Mike: There's a great quote that you're making me think about. It's from the fourteenth century, and the person has said, essentially, “The language that we use becomes the world that we live in.” And I think that's a little bit of where you're going, is that deficit-focused language kind of lives in the DNA of a lot of either the training that we've had or the structures of schools. And so, flipping this is a mind shift, and I think it's really exciting that we're talking about this. I have two things on my mind. I think one is, let's talk about the assessments themselves first. So, if I want to start thinking about using my assessments in an asset-based way, if we just think about the assessments themselves, be they formative or summative, tell me about what you think an educator might do with the assessments that they're using, whether they're coming from a curriculum or whether they're some that they're designing on their own. How should I think about the assessment materials that I have, and are there ways that I should imagine shifting them?

Tisha: That's a great question. I think that when you're looking at your assessments, you may or may not need to change them. They might be fine the way that they are. But the way to know is when you see the opportunities kids have to give their answers, what is that going to tell you about what they understand? So, if you have, for example, a problem that is computation, if you have a problem that has just asked the kids for an answer, or if you have a problem that's multiple choice, what are you learning about their thinking, about their understanding from what they put on the paper? Now, I'm not saying don't ever use those questions. They have their purpose. But that is really what I am asking you to do, is to think about “What is their purpose? What is the intention behind the questions on the assessment?” So, are there ways for you to open up the assessment to give kids more ways of showing what they do understand as opposed to limiting them to saying, “You must show something in this way” or “You're either right or you're wrong”?

Mike: Yeah, that really hits home for me. And I think one of the operating principles that I'm hearing is, regardless of what assessment tools you're using, creating space for kids to show you how they're thinking is really a starting, foundational, kind of, centerpiece for asset-based assessment.

Tisha: Absolutely. And I want to also add that I'm talking a lot about paper and pencil because we think about assessments as paper and pencil. But assessment’s also not just paper and pencil. Assessment, especially formative assessment, it's your conversations that you have with kids in class. As far as I am concerned, there is no better way to know what a kid's thinking than to talk to them. Talk to your kids as much as you absolutely, possibly can. Ask them so many questions.

Mike: Well, you're bringing me to the second piece about the assessments themselves. One piece is, create space, regardless of whether it's a question in a conversation or whether it's a question in a paper-pencil assessment or what have you, for them to show their thinking. The other thing that it makes me think is, part of my work as an educator is to look at the questions and say, “What are the big ideas that I'm really looking for? And what is it that I'm hoping that I can understand about children's thinking with each of these questions that I'm asking?” 

Tisha: Yes.

Mike: Beyond just right and wrong.

Tisha: Yes, this is hard work. But this, to me, is not extra work. When you think about a gap, sometimes that can feel very disheartening. It can feel like, “I can't close it. My kids don't know this. They're never going to get it.” It almost just drains the joy of teaching out. This is the job, and this is the part that I am hoping we can all get excited about. I am excited to know what my kids understand. I feel like that gives me a better entryway to being a better teacher for them. If we can start to shift how we think about assessing our students to looking for what they know, to me, that feels very different. It feels different for your kids, and it feels different for you. It's much more fun to walk into a classroom thinking about what my kids know than what they don't.

Mike: Yeah. And I think you're hinting at the next place that I wanted to go, which is, there's the assessments themselves and both how I use them and how I make space for kids to show their thinking. And then there's “How do I approach the things that kids are showing me in their assessments?” And I think that feels like another one of these mind-shift pieces where, what kept coming to mind for me is, if you and I and a colleague or two were sitting together at a table, and we were teaching third grade and we had a set of student work in front of us, part of what I'm thinking about is what would a conversation sound like if we were really taking an asset-based perspective on looking at our students' work? What questions might we ask? What kind of a process might we use to, kind of, really focus on assets as opposed to focusing on deficits and gaps?

Tisha: So, as we're looking at the work, I think the best place to start is, if we're talking as colleagues, “What do you see that the kids know? What are they doing well?” Whether you're talking about one kid or whether you're talking about a group of kids or your class collectively, “What are they doing well?” And for me, even just sitting here across from you saying this, that feels like a much brighter place to start. I'm like, “OK, I'm into this conversation about what my kids know,” and I would then start to say, “OK, and how can we build on what they know?”

Mike: Ooh, I love that. Keep talking about that.

Tisha: So, if we're looking at say, fractions, and we're kind of at the beginning, we could come in and we could say, “Oh, our kids are just not getting it. They don't know anything about fractions.” And that feels very defeating. But if you start with, “OK, well, I can see that they can partition into half, great. OK, so can we get them to fourths? Can we get them to eighths? How about thirds? All right. Can they get it on a rectangle? Can they get it on a circle? Can they get it in this context? Can they get it if it's a sharing situation?” Right? Now, we're brainstorming all of these questions of what can they do next.

Mike: And those are actionable things, right? Like …

Tisha: Right. 

Mike: … in addition to saying, “This is what kids are doing,” thinking about “what I can build from” actually leads to action, it leads me to a path of instruction, and that does feel really different.

Tisha: So, if we are here and we take the perspective that our kids don't get fractions, then that could bleed into our instruction in a different way. So, instead of now thinking about what we can do next and how we can keep building them up, we may be thinking about “How do we need to water things down? How do I need to make things easier?” And we want to make sure that we are not taking away rich mathematical opportunities from our students because our perspective is that they're not able, they have deficits. We want to instead think about “How do we build them up? How do we still make sure that they're getting these rich mathematical problems and opportunities in class and being able to grow them in that way?”

Mike: Love that. So, one of the things that really just jumped out, and I want to come back to this because I think the language is so darn important: This idea that an asset-based perspective leads to thinking about instruction as “building upon.” That just seems like such a practical, simple thing. But boy, shifting your mindset and approaching it the way you described it, Tisha, that really does feel profoundly different than a lot of the data conversations that I've sat in over the years.

Tisha: At that point, we should be stopping to think, “What do they need next?” But it's hard to make that [determination] based on saying, “Well, they don't know this.” It's much easier to think about what they need next if you're looking for what they do know. And you can say, “Oh, I can make some connections to that and move them maybe even just a little bit to a little bit further, help them take another step.”

Mike: It strikes me that what I don't hear you saying is, “We can't acknowledge that there's sometimes going to be a difference between what kids understand and our ultimate goals for them.” That can still be true, but we're looking at their starting point as the starting point and the next steps, rather than just only saying, like, “The gap is this wide.” And even using the language of “gap” is challenging, right? 

Tisha: Absolutely. 

Mike: Because we're trying to say, like, “Our job is to build, not just to measure.”

Tisha: Well, and when you think about talking about a gap, it almost feels like it's the kids' fault. 

Mike: Uh-hm. 

Tisha: But right now, in our conversation, we are talking about where the responsibility is. 

Mike: Oh! Yeah!

Tisha: And the responsibility is on me to keep thinking about “How do I help this kid grow?” 

Mike: Uh-hm.

Tisha: “How do I keep helping this kid grow in their math understanding?” It is not uncommon in elementary schools to group or classify kids based on their abilities. And coming from the best place, right? Like, we're all wanting to help our students. I believe that everybody wants to help their students grow.

Mike: This conversation has really got me thinking a lot, and I suspect that anyone who's listening is in the same place. I'm curious, if I'm a person who's new to this conversation, if these ideas are new, I'm wondering if you have any recommendations about where someone could go to keep learning, be it, uh, a book, a website, something along those lines that could keep me thinking about this and exploring these ideas?

Tisha: A good place to start is a book called The Impact of Identity in K–8 Mathematics: Rethinking Equity-Based Practices. And that is an NCTM publication.

Mike: I love that one. It's fantastic. In fact, I've read it myself. We'll put a link to that in the podcast notes.

Tisha: That would be great. I think that it's a great resource for thinking about assessment and just equity-based practices in general.

Mike: Fabulous. Tisha, it was lovely having you on. Thank you so much.

Tisha: Oh, it's been so much fun.

Mike: This podcast is brought to you by The Math Learning Center and the Maier Math Foundation, dedicated to inspiring and enabling individuals to discover and develop their mathematical confidence and ability.