How do we assess students without tests?
For most of us tests were a big part of the school experience. Whether we liked them or not, tests feel familiar to us—they were how we proved we knew something, how we passed classes and grades, how we qualified for the next higher level of education. Tests are also something that are noticeably absent from a Montessori school. So, it’s hard not to wonder: how are we assessing our students? Without tests, how do guides know when content has been mastered or when to give the next lesson? How do we know when a child is ready to move into the next program? How do our students compare to their age-matched peers across the country?
Montessori is grounded in two very important principles: the natural patterns of child development and child-led progress. Montessori believes each child progresses within general time frames (the Planes of Development), but at their own unique pace. From a Montessori perspective, formal test-taking does not give a complete picture of a child’s progression. A Montessori education is about more than what can be shown on a test. It is about leading each child toward the fulfillment of their highest potential in every aspect of their person, academically, socially, and emotionally—about giving each child a vision for life.
This calling goes beyond preparing children to simply memorize and regurgitate material for an exam. Instead, the Montessori approach measures progress (a.k.a. assesses children) consistently throughout their time in the classroom environment. Montessori guides use a variety of methods to help each child meet their developmental milestones and master the academic curriculum and social skills appropriate for their age group.
One way guides assess a student is through observation. In a Montessori classroom the guide carefully, deliberately, and objectively observes the children. This is an active, daily practice—they are watching and learning about each child as they practice their lessons every day. Allowing each child the time they need, the guide notices, listens—waits for indication that the child is progressing in the comprehension of, ease with, and precision in their work. Guides make themselves available for questions or requests for assistance and are ready to re-present a lesson (or a certain part of difficulty) as needed. And when a child has mastered a lesson, guides offer the next lesson in the sequence.
Assessment is also integrated into the lessons offered by the guide. For every child, at the start of a new lesson, the guide reviews the previous lesson content to “test” what students remember and to build upon that knowledge. Throughout the day, the guides might also unexpectedly join a student at work to ask them questions about their activity—a sort of Montessori pop quiz. “I see you working on the area of a circle. Do you remember what we call the outside edge of the circle?”
Observation and lesson-integrated assessment are skills employed by guides at every level. As children grow, new levels of assessment are layered in. In the Children’s House, guides begin to use the three-period lesson to offer language and crystalize a concept in a child’s mind. Three objects are chosen, such as a pentagon, hexagon, and square—objects familiar to the child after much sensorial exploration. In the first period of the three-period lesson, the child is given the names for the objects. In the second period, the longest of the three, the child is asked to identify the objects, but the guide says the names. In the third period, the guide points to the object and says, “What’s this?” The third period is the assessment stage of the three-period lesson, but only comes after ample time in the second period.
At the Elementary level, the weekly conference is introduced. Guides check children’s work and note if lessons have been revisited, and if so, whether they are doing so correctly. Guides note whether a child is avoiding certain lessons and make a plan with the child for completion. They also make children aware of the state and national standards society expects them to know by certain grade levels. Children are actively engaged in their own assessments and are motivated (or redirected) to focus their work where needed.
In the Upper Elementary we add in one more layer of assessment—the annual standardized test. The primary purpose of the test on our campus is to provide students the opportunity to develop the formal testing skills, as well as a test-taking comfort level they will almost certainly need as they grow older.
At Villa di Maria, we love that students are not limited to learning only what the state requires. State standards are the baseline, but most students go beyond and learn about anything they are interested in. The universe is the limit to their learning!