I had my biannual trip to the dentist yesterday. Aside from a half day off from teaching, it gave me some extra time to think about MeTA. This may be a stretch, but I think there are lots of connections between assessment practices and going to the dentist. Let me explain:

As I sat in the chair listening to the hygienist lecture me on flossing techniques (she was right!), I was reminded of what makes assessment useful - meaningful feedback. If I went to the dentist and all I got was a good cleaning and few shots of lead injected into my teeth, I wouldn't be bettering myself. My problems would seem "fixed" temporarily, but my habits would inevitably stay the same. The plaque on my teeth, which I believe beautifully represents students' misconceptions, may go away with a few shots of red ink, but by the next visit (assessment?!), it will surely find its way back. We're doing the same thing to our students when we simply "check" their work, note the "correct" way and add another score to the grade book.

A worthwhile dental visit "educates."
My hygienist gave me flossing tips because she genuinely wanted to help me take better care of my teeth. She wanted me to come back next time with as little plaque as possible. As teachers, we must help our students debug their own work. Spewing out correct answers isn't enough. Understanding where a student's thinking is coming from can be the first step towards helping him/her to get to the next level along the continuum of learning.

Look in the mirror.
Our goal should be to help students look in the mirror (a la self-assessment) and see where their own mistakes lie. Yes, a dental visit typically reveals much plaque, but it doesn't have to be the only time/place where plaque is identified. Continuing with the same theme, educators should continually be looking in the mirror to identify poor assessment tools and revise them accordingly.

Brushing often?
I go to the dentist two times per year, but I brush my teeth twice daily. How often are we assessing our students? How meaningful is our "brushing" and "flossing"...is it getting rid of the plaque? After all, it is possible to brush and floss without removing much plaque. When we get our new toothpaste, toothbrush and floss at the end of the visit, have we been inspired to use it? I wonder if our assessment often hurts, rather than hinders our students to make meaningful changes in the way they think not only about the important concepts, but about school in general.

Clean teeth expectation.
Patients who leave the dentist's office expect to have clean teeth when they leave. What do our students expect to gain from their assessments? What do we as educators expect to learn from our assessments? In the midst of rolling out a more "standards-based" reporting system, I'm realizing that my students are shocked to receive feedback in the form of multiple scores rather than a single number or grade describing their performance. This form of reporting makes the academic expectations of students much more transparent. I look forward to the day when students expect detailed feedback on their work - more than just a single score or letter grade. I admit that breaking this "tradition" of schooling can be a difficult task.

Have you or your students been to the assessment dentist lately? What are your personal "assessment cavities?"