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Why I Love Assessment, But Hate Grading

Boring pic, but important analogy

Assessment gets a bad rap. Volumes of books have been written over the years about assessment, but sometimes we overthink it. Assessment is a natural human behavior where we observe and evaluate situations or people. We all judge from a very young age and are doing it all of the time (you are judging my writing skills, or lack of them right now). Then we adjust our actions based on our assessments. When someone is angry, you either try to avoid them or placate them. Unless you are a glutton for punishment, you don’t try to make them more upset.

When it comes to education, assessment is most often associated with standardized testing. Collective “Ugh.” But assessment should be viewed as a much wider category of actions. There are 3 areas that teachers should be assessing continuously.

Social-Emotional State

The social-emotional state of students has become the trendy thing to focus on during Covid. Maslow before Blooms is the battle cry of teachers everywhere. While I contend that we can Maslow while we Bloom, I do agree that we need to build relationships with kids and make sure that they are physically and mentally prepared to learn both content and SEL skills before we engage with them. We should be continually taking stock of students’ mental state, energy level, and sense of confidence.

This is best achieved by checking in with each student daily. Whether you are greeting them at the door (or as they enter a virtual space) or just chatting with them during work time, every student needs to be personally acknowledges. It doesn’t need to be a lengthy or formal process, but more a culture of belonging. When one or more students are not prepared to learn, for any reason, address it first. This may be as simple as letting a student rest when tired or not feeling well, or sending them to a counselor if they are very distraught.


Content was the only focus during NCLB. From teacher and principal evaluations to school “grades,” everything was based on improving test scores. While the pendulum swung too far in this direction, we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. Content is still a critical part of our jobs. Through PBL, there are a myriad of ways to assess content beyond standardized multiple choice tests. Portfolios of student work from prototype to final products mixed with student reflections are an excellent window into their content knowledge and ability to apply it.

Social and Emotional Learning Skills

Social and Emotional Learning Skills are the trend of the future, partially in reaction to the over-obsession of content associated with standardized curriculum and testing. SEL goes beyond checking students mental state for trauma, to cultivating the SEL competencies into their lives. SEL skills are vital to successful careers and meaningful relationships, presenting a holistic approach to learning.

In reality, these three areas are not distinct but interwoven with each other. The Esteem and Self-Actualization of Maslow overlap with the Self-Awareness and Self-Management of CASEL. All of the SEL competencies develop skills that lead to greater academic success in the content areas, including literacy and numeracy. The discipline specific skills of each content area are dependent on problem-solving, analyzing, and evaluating.

Always Formative

The largest shift isn’t from content to SEL (since both still matter), but from summative to formative. We know that one test score never represents the totality of what an individual knows. So we need to hold off on summative assessments for as long as possible and treat everything as a formative part of the learning process. This often means not putting a grade on student work but giving feedback in multiple forms leading to refinement by the student.

Everything in the classroom is a formative assessment opportunity.

We just have to view it that way. From conversations and observations to protocols, routines, scaffolds, and the structures of PBL, everything informs us in one or more of the three areas of assessment if we are paying attention.

The reason that we assess in the first place is to adjust our teaching plans to our student needs. That’s why grading feels so senseless. It is often reporting scores for the purpose of ranking and sorting. But assessment is like a thermostat. We take the temperature of the room and then we adjust to the needs of our students. Ultimately the purpose of formative assessments is to help students drive their own independent inquiry.

For example, let’s say many students aren’t participating in class. A traditional approach might be to start grading them with participation points, but that doesn’t fit into any of the three categories. Even worse, participation points reward the kids who were already working and punish the ones who weren’t, but they don’t inspire anyone. Instead assess the reasons that students aren’t participating. Are they bored, shy, or intimidated due to low skill level? What strengths are they “hiding” in class? Then design projects based on their strengths that develop their gaps. Formative assessments are our opportunity to know our students at a deep level and encourage them to become their best selves.

Questions? Interested in a PBL workshop or consulting?  Connect with me at or @mikekaechele on Twitter.

5 Ways to Integrate SEL in the New Year

This is an updated post from last year at this time, you know before Covid became a world plague, with an added emphasis on virtual options.

I have never been one for New Year’s resolutions. Most of my planned changes around exercise and diet are lucky to last a month. So rather than resolutions, let’s look at 5 ways to start integrating Social and Emotional Learning competencies into your daily classroom routines.

1. Check in

Students develop their Self-Awareness when they feel safe and loved. Teachers create psychological safety by establishing meaningful relationships through daily conversations with all of their students. An excellent routine for this is meeting students at the door. You might give students a greeting choice or if you are extremely creative you could have a personalized handshake for every student.

Another tool is the Yale RULER Mood Meter. This helps students identify their emotions which is the first step to learning self-control. Use the Check In as a formative assessment on whether or not each student is ready to learn or has some concerns that need to be addressed first. Check Ins might feel too touchy/feely for secondary teachers, but middle and high school students desire to be seen daily too.

Virtually, teachers should greet students by name when they enter the space. You could have them tell you their mood via public or private chat. You can also use a Google form to check in with how students are feeling. I like to play a song and have students vote “jam” or “not a jam” in the chat for attendance. It’s a fun way to start a session and build some community. I have even started taking student song requests.

2. Check out

An important part of Responsible Decision Making is reflection. Reflection creates velcro moments where the learning “sticks.” Start a daily routine of ending each class with a Check Out. Try journaling, exit tickets, or turn and talks. Mix it up between written and verbal checkouts to keep it fresh.

Sometimes reflection should focus on content with a formative check of a concept learned. Other times students can self assess on an SEL competency that the class is concentrating on. Students could consider how their group is working together or if they have been actively listening without judgement. Reflection doesn’t need to be a huge time suck. Two or three minutes a day is enough.

Checking out virtually is easy to adapt. You can have them share in pairs in random breakout rooms, post their thoughts in the chat, on Padlet, in a Google Form, or in a myriad of other online tools (stick to a few key online tools so as not to overwhelm students and parents). They could record a 30 second reflection on Flipgrid or SeeSaw.

3. Re-evaluate Norms

The start of the year is a great time to reboot class norms and routines, but why not ask students to evaluate the current class culture? Give your students specific scenarios where they struggle to discuss in a talking circle. Students will develop Self-Management by coming up with updated norms for class.

Each day assign one norm to focus on during the class period. At the end of class, have students self assess how they did on that norm by holding up a fist to five. Be sure to debrief privately with individual students whose number does not match your observation (whether it is higher or lower). This is your opportunity to reinforce the norms and hear their perspective on why they are struggling.

For online classes, assigning a norm to focus and reflect on, can be done with a fist to five held up to the camera or by having students type the number to you in a private chat message. Have students reflect on the norms of your online class and what has and hasn’t been working. Mimic a talking circle by having students call out another’s name and “pass” an imaginary talking stick to each other’s video squares in gallery view. Have fun by pretending to throw and catch it!

4. Read

Empathy is the most important aspect of Social Awareness. Lack of empathy is a major cause of conflicts around the world. Literature is a great way to teach it. In Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain Zaretta Hammond states, “When we are being told a story or are telling it, the brain’s neurons light up not only in the language processing parts of the brain but in other regions just as if we were performing the action ourselves (p.135).” Stories allow us to experience other’s lives and perspectives.

Literature should be a part of every classroom, kindergarten through high school. Some of the best genres to teach empathy are biographies and historical fiction. Choose diverse stories to encounter feelings and opinions from across time and space. Don’t neglect less traditional forms such as graphic novels, podcasts, audio books and picture books. Read aloud to your whole class to engage reluctant readers in empathetic stories.

Virtually, you can still have a group read aloud and for fun invite in special guest readers. It could be older students, parents, or kids in another part of the world. Since students are in remote learning situations across the globe, use this as an opportunity to find a sister class and learn about another culture and the stories that they tell.

5. Launch a Project

Project Based Learning is the ideal framework for SEL. Look over your standards for the next quarter and think about what adults use that content and in what context. Have your students actively engage by mimicking professional jobs that match the content. Invite in local experts to guide your students through inquiry. For project ideas by grade level and content, check out the Project Library at

Relationship Skills such as teamwork and communication are best taught, practiced, and assessed in the context of student groups working on an authentic project. Students need to be directly taught SEL, just like any content or skill. Don’t try to teach all of the competencies at once. Choose one aspect at a time to address during the project so students can focus on improvement in that area.

In remote learning situations, developing Relationship Skills can be challenging, but students are social beings who crave interaction. Use breakout rooms and schedule small group meetings to help student teams organize and complete tasks. One advantage is that with so many adults working from home, it can actually be easier to get guests to video conference with students. They can be more than just a guest speaker, but can co-design with students or give critiques of their work. Learning how to manage a team virtually is one of the most authentic and practical skills that students can master.

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at or @mikekaechele onTwitter.