Why Teachers Should Use Pre-Assessments in Math

Do assessments play an important role in your math classroom? Are you an "assessment junkie"? Do you thrive on pretesting and post-testing your students to chart their growth in learning over time?

Or, do you find that assessment (yes, even in math!) is an after-thought? Is your post-unit test simply "the way we know that a unit is over"? Are math tests something you remember to incorporate when the quarter is almost over and you have to give students' grades? (I've been there!)

Or, maybe you (like myself and other educators) are concerned that students are already OVER TESTED and therefore you don't want to incorporate more testing into their lives?

And, maybe (also like my young teacher self) you don't always think you need to assess students in math because you WORK WITH THEM EVERY SINGLE DAY and you can literally spell out what they are able to do and what they are struggling with in your sleep? Does assessing in math often feel like you are wasting a class period where you could be moving on to something else? (I've been there, too, how about you?!?)

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Whether you teach through a math workshop, guided math, whole group lessons, or small groups and math stations,

I believe that pre-assessments are an important component of your instructional plan for math and that they are key to helping your students develop a strong growth-mindset and positive "math-i-tude."

So, let's spend today considering what pre-assessments are, their many purposes, and why you should consider including more pre-assessment opportunities into your math class.

First, let's review our college pre-service days.

Recall that formative assessments are formal and informal assessment opportunities that are used to modify (form and in form) the learning sequence.

> > > Formative assessments allow you to gauge students' knowledge and adjust course during the unit so that students can be more successful.

> > > Formative assessments provide ongoing feedback to you as the teacher (How's your teaching going? How are your students attaining the information?) and to the students ("What more do I need to learn? How well am I understanding what I am being taught?")

Summative assessments happen at the end of a learning sequence. Most state tests are summative, but teachers typically incorporate summative assessments at the end of a unit. The information may or may not be used to proceed with new lessons.

What is a pre-assessment?

A pre-assessment is an opportunity to collect information about student knowledge prior to starting a new unit or subtopic in your curriculum. Since the word "assessment" (test or quiz) leaves a sour taste in most of our mouths, you can call your pre-assessments a "show what you know" or find some other fancy way to name them that communicates the {positive} purpose of pre-assessment tasks to students. 

When should you pre-assess?

> > > As a recommendation, I believe that the best pre-assessments in math occur on day 2 or 3 of a new unit. I like to engage students in an inquiry-based activity that helps them tap into prior knowledge before I give them a pre-assessment "cold-turkey." This also gives YOU a better measure of their TRUE understanding as you tap into their memory of what they have learned in the past.

What is the purpose of a pre-assessment?

The ultimate reason that I am {now} a fan of pre-assessments in math is because I'm a differentiation junkie. I absolutely, positively cannot imagine running my math class without naturally differentiating for my students. I see math concepts on a continuum of skills (like a staircase) and based on my students' classwork, I know where they fall on that continuum.

Formal and informal math assessments are my silver-bullet to knowing where to go with my differentiated instruction plan.

Not only can a pre-assessment help teachers know what students already know and which areas of an upcoming unit they will need more support in, pre-assessments can serve other important purposes, too:

  1. Pre-assessments can encourage students to have a growth mindset.Students can see what they already know and although they may not know how to do many things on a pre-assessment, as you get into your unit, students will have many "light bulb" moments and feel themselves growing in knowledge and confidence. HAVING A MEASURE OF STUDENTS' UNDERSTANDING OF A TOPIC PRIOR TO IT BEING TAUGHT PROVIDES THEM WITH EVIDENCE OF THEIR GROWTH.

  2. Pre-assessments PRIME students for learning. Back to those light bulb moments...Students will remember the kinds of problems they tried to solve on the pre-assessment. As they experience classroom lessons and activities, they will realize that something they once did not understand is now something that they know how to do #growthmindset. You can even use some of the exact problems from your pre-assessments as "bell-ringers" at the start of your lessons. Ask students to explain how they solved the problem or how they know they are correct to increase the critical thinking for students who already knew how to solve the problem. Tell the class that by the end of the lesson (or week for some of those skills that take longer to master), everyone will understand how to solve those kinds of problems.

  3. Pre-assessment data can be used to show that you are meeting students' needs. Do you ever need more evidence that your students are meeting their learning targets? Or that your struggling students (while they may not be mastering all of your math concepts) have grown in their understanding of math concepts? If you have pre and post data, you will be ready to show that your students are making growth.

  4. To add on to #3, pre and post assessment data for individual students is impressive!I keep copies of the math assessments my students complete during the first quarter so that I can pull them out during our first parent conferences. Do you have some parents who stress out about their children learning math? or others who stress you out because they are concerned that their child never gets challenging math work? BOOM! When you use differentiated math assessments that contain levels or tiers of questions and can share pretest and post test data with parents, they can see where their student started out at the beginning of a unit and the level of mastery their child was able to achieve at the end of the unit. (Really, who can disagree with concrete data and proof of growth?)

5. Pre-Assessment information can help you differentiate your plans by showing you which students can handle a compacted curriculum and which students have gaps and will need remediation. How many of your students are dying inside as you (once again) go over the number of inches in a foot? Don't they deserve to be working on a math concept that challenges them and allows them to take their learning deeper?

6. Pre-assessments can help you pace your unit and lessons.Were you planning to spend a week on rounding because students in the past have always struggled with the concept? A few years ago, my 4th graders surprised me when I did my rounding pre-assessment. They already had a deep mastery of rounding; based on my tiered math assessment, most students could already go above the grade-level standards. I was also able to see where the processes broke down for some students as the numbers increased in size.

7. Pre-assessments help bring students' misconceptions to the surface. In my math class, misconceptions (and the kinds of mistakes students make) are golden! I love to use excerpts of their explanations for problems in bell ringers and have them "talk back" to the explanation, revise it, and explain more. I've even designed entire lessons and activities around addressing the misconceptions students show in their pre-assessments. If you see something you don't want to forget, I suggest snapping a picture of it with your phone. You can easily use their words to create a bell ringer--just change the student name to a fake name and ask students to respond to their thinking.

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In her article titled Deciding to Teach them All, Carol Ann Tomlinson says that teachers should become "assessment junkies." She believes that assessment should be "an ongoing process, conducted in flexible but distinct stages, and it should maximize opportunities for each student to open the widest possible window on his or her learning."

Wow! That's a tall order, but I sure am in love with the idea of becoming an "assessment junkie." If we as teachers also aspire to become "growth mindset enthusiasts," then we will be assessment junkies for all the right reasons!

As you consider adding more pre-assessment opportunities to your math routines, I'd ask you to know which of the purposes above you most want to target--then, I'd also like for you to be ready to explain pre-assessments to your students in a positive way. I tell my students, "This helps me know how to plan our math activities and stations. I don't want to keep teaching something that you already know how to do, and I also don't want to assume you already know something that you don't yet know well."

This explanation works perfectly at the beginning of the year when you are truly getting to know your students--then, it just becomes second nature for them to give a pre-assessment a good try as the year goes on because they see how you use them to plan for their learning AND they come to know that their own growth in understanding is on it's way!

Do you need pre-assessments for your 4th or 5th graders?

I've created assessments that assess students on three levels of mastery --building blocks, goals, and stretching beyond.

The assessment sets contain 3 versions for each standard so that you can pre-assess, assign practice or small group work, quiz, and post-assess with ease. You'll be able to easily compare pre- and post- data on your students' understanding as the assessments contain identical formats and number of problems.

Best of all, your STUDENTS will be able to examine their growth and realize that they are LEARNING and MASTERING math concepts. You'll be able to encourage growth mindsets with all of your math units!