How do I know what they know? Consistently assess. How do I motivate students to want to succeed? Give good feedback. Throughout my three student teaching placements I developed many different methods of assessing my students. I also developed new ways to think about the concept of assessment itself.
In the Spring, with my fifth graders at William D’Abate, I learned about many different standardized tests. Partially in reaction to these tests, I developed my own ideas of how to create an accurate picture of student ability. Although PARCC, STAR and AIMSweb data was useful to us as teachers, I knew there was a lot that these systems couldn’t account for. Currently, my teaching practice draws from : “a broader philosophical tradition that envisions education as a site for liberatory practices aimed at the development of democratic culture in which each person is recognized and valued" (Carini, 2001; Dewey, 1916; Freire, 1998; Greene, 1988). This commitment to the recognition of the person instead of the test directly oposes "the educational imperative to evaluate children in narrow and comparative terms.” (Abu Haj p.828) Many of the standardized test systems I worked with did not provide a comprehensive view of the children I knew and their learning. I share the belief with many scholars that this is the root of academic inequality.
Although the “educational imperative to evaluate children in narrow and comparative terms” (manifested in testing regulated by the district) influenced our daily life at both ICS and William D’Abate, I chose to use this data as only part of the learner profiles I built. I believe good assessment takes into account the whole child. With this in mind, I began to design some alternative means of gathering data on students (in both placements) in order to better plan my own instruction.
Anything Can be an Assessment
In the fall I designed a Science Notebook project for my third graders at ICS. Each student created their own mini notebook for all science notes and in class writings. In creating their own books, students were also held accountable to their own standards. It takes guts to make something you think is beautiful, informative or useful and then put it up on the wall for all to see. Did they like what they made? If not, how could they use creative problem solving to improve their design? I observed their work styles and communicative ability in the context of a drawings and diagrams. I used this as an ongoing formative assessment and took notes.
Later in the unit I asked students to read a hypothesis they had created out loud to share. Here again, accountability was integrated through the arts. Do you like what you have written? And if not how can you improve it? This too served as a method in which to practice a skill requisite of the final performance task in which the students were to write a final draft of their hypothesis and create a labeled drawing. “Whenever students are involved in redoing, polishing, or perfecting their work, it is likely that good teaching is going on.” (Haberman p.294) With this in mind, I began to “think like an assessor” (Wiggins and McTighe p.146). How could I set students up to write and draw to the highest of their abilities? In this way, assessment informed planning.
The process of collecting and reflecting on student artifacts, documenting meticulously and integrating standardized assessment data helped me to create comprehensive portraits of my students as learners. For my student Delila I noted writing progress daily, sincere dedication to her notebook and illustrations, eagerness and bravery in contributing in class responses and sincere question asking when she was confused. I complied these notes with her below grade level reading scores. I was not terribly worried about Delila, she was dedicated to her own learning. A fellow third grader of hers, Anthony, reading on level had a different portrait in my Evernote files. He read fine, rarely participated, always finished work early because he was bored and wanted to move around more and was especially observant. Anthony asked bright questions and often reminded me of things I was forgetting. Casting a wide net for my assessment data allowed me to see my learners wholistically, not unlike a family member would. If I compared Delila and Anthony only on paper I would have quite a different view than if I looked at the cumulative notes I took on each over time. It is clear to me now that the meaningful assessments accumulate over time to for a portrait of the student rather than a snapshot.
In the Spring at D’abate I continued to teach writing through science. With my fifth graders I could teach with more advanced goals. Each lesson culminated in the writing of a hypothesis using data and conclusions drawn from in class lab activities. Each daily hypothesis responded to that lesson's focus question. At the end of class I collected student hypothesis and assessed them on relative criteria. Sometimes it was as simple as making a pile of “yes they got it” and “no they didn’t get it.” If it was clear that most students didn’t get it I knew reteaching had to take place. Building in a daily assessment to the lesson plan allowed me to plan instruction according to student needs. It also allowed me to consistently gather data for my cumulative learner profiles.
At ICS I committed myself to using exit tickets regularly. Once, I found myself teaching a math class and realized I needed to use an exit ticket. I had been teaching addition for several weeks using the Investigations curriculum. Today’s lesson was on starter problems. We had gone over at least three to four ways for solving subtraction problems. Each class had incorporated examples using a number line, a thousands chart and decomposing tens, hundred and ones in order to regroup and solve. As I checked around the class that day, I saw most students finishing their work unusually quickly. Upon a closer examination I saw everyone was using “fast math”, or the traditional technique of borrowing taught with the standard algorithm. I knew that this is what their parents teach them at home when they ask for help. However, fast math does not clarify the concept of place value in any meaningful way (Ma p.74). I began directing students to show me at least two different ways to solve the same problems again. Very few were able to do this. I decided to desert my lesson plan completely and do a mini lesson, again on starter problems. Many students expressed frustration and a lack of familiarity that had not surfaced before or during the mini lesson. As the minutes ticked by I cut up some strips of paper to use for exit tickets, I chose the first problem from the in class pages and wrote out the first step. With this method, students would have to use the decomposition strategy to solve the problem. I instructed them to complete the problem on the exit ticket papers and hand them in. Once I had collected all the papers I saw a startling portrait of the lack of fluidity used between methods. I never would have been able to zoom in on this phenomena without an exit ticket, or without “thinking like an assessor.”
After the day with the exit ticket I began to be systematic about these “temperature checks”, many of which I complied into various digital Evernote notebooks. I included pictures in various students files as well as moments in time throughout the curricula that when put together provided a “photo album” (Tomlinsen and Mctighe 2006) of student work habits over time. Although it comes naturally to me to remember each student’s work style, work rate and comprehension level in my head I now realize this information is somewhat subjective. Using invaluable tool that Evernote is I was able to ammass a more objective set of data. I was able to gain a better view of each student’s overall progress with this resource. The ease of this program put me in the mindset of pragmatically collecting samples from each student, rather than testing them. The Evernote program took the pressure off in terms of collecting uniform data for every student. Using the Ipad i could wander throughout the class during independent work time and gather a sampling of students I was unsure of. Each file in my Evernote notebooks is an eclectic smattering of student work.
Assessment as a Tool for Communication
Implementing my own projects, tests, exit tickets and writing assignments brought on the responsibility of giving feedback. The more I practiced grading and responding to summative assessments, the more I saw the value of my feedback play out in subsequent summative assessments. I now see teacher created formative assessments as a tool for communication more than anything else. Given that almost anything can be a formative assessment, I commit myself to focusing on summative assessments as opportunities for conferencing. Ideally, conferencing about a summative assessment can happen orally however, if not, written feedback is meaningful as well: “Teacher feedback is not teacher regulation. Teachers can't ‘make’ students focus on or learn something. Teacher feedback is input that, together with students' own internal input, will help the students decide where they are in regard to the learning goals they need or want to meet and what they will tackle next (Brookhart, 2010).”
Documenting daily and random assessments of each child will help the teacher to compile portraits of each learner over time. This data can inform feedback and conferencing during more formalized summative assessments. Using the summative assessment as a tool for communication, I took several opportunities this year to write formal letters to my fifth grade students in response to the performance based assessments I planned for them. I took time to design goals and give structured feedback in the form of a personal letter to all twenty six fifth graders for our Rock Cycle Posters, our Science Unit Tests and our Narrative Writing final drafts. My purpose with the letters was to motivate students to improve their work. I focused on making statements that were vibrant and provocative rather than fixed and stagnant. I realized the best feedback is actually more of a conversation: "Good feedback should be part of a classroom assessment environment in which students see constructive criticism as a good thing and understand that learning cannot occur without practice. If part of the classroom culture is to always 'get things right,' then if something needs improvement, it's wrong." (Brookhart p. 2). In order for feedback to further learning I think it almost always needs to pose a question. We should ask, rather than tell students how to improve work.
All feedback should imply that achievement is within student's control. Students must be able to see that their hard work will take them somewhere. Students must be given meaningful assignments that they are proud of producing. How can we as teachers use feedback and co created rubrics to communicate to students that the real work is up to them? How can we show them that the most important variables are within their control?
"Good feedback should be part of a classroom assessment environment in which students see constructive criticism as a good thing and understand that learning cannot occur without practice. If part of the classroom culture is to always 'get things right,' then if something needs improvement, it's wrong." (Brookhart p. 2)
Meaningful feedback and co-created rubrics help students see that they themselves are the most essential part of their own learning. Instead of presenting to students "do this because I say so" or “work harder because you’re not doing well” good feedback prompts students to consider "here is how a viewer will interact with your work and its up to you to make the experience meaningful." Our assessments and feedback must speak to students' capabilities for metacognition. Ultimatley, they will be responsible for assesing themselves. How as teachers can we scaffold this as part of our daily practicw? Whether it is a math problem or a spelling test, or an original poster, the principle holds true across all disciplines. If a math problem is wrong I ask Assata "how did you get that?"; if a science conclusion leaves out critical data I remind her "what about the theory of plate tectonics?" No matter what the subject, assessment must be seen as an opportunity for communication.
Ayers, W., & Tanner, R. (2010). To teach: The journey, in comics. New York: Teachers College Press.
Brookhart, S. (2008). How to give effective feedback to your students. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
El-Haj, Thea Renda Abu. "Practicing for Equity From the Standpoint of the Particular: Exploring the Work of One Urban Teacher Network." Teachers College Record 105.5 (2003): 817-45. Web.
Haberman, Martin. 1991. The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching. Phi Delta Kappa International. 73, 290-294
Tomlinson, Carol A., and Jay McTighe. Integrating Differentiated Instruction & Understanding by Design: Connecting Content and Kids. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2006. Print.