Tag Archives: assessment

Teachers change their practice when their students are successful

I’ve been going to a lot of conferences lately, and watching a lot of video clips, about how leaders can influence change in teacher practice.  Mostly they are full of big ideas about collective inquiry, distributed leadership, forming relationships, using evidence-based practices, learning goals and success criteria, etc.  All of these big ideas are true.  But they are big ideas and sometimes big ideas are overwhelming to implement.

So I’ve been thinking what are ways of engaging teachers in changing practice which are not overwhelming but do lead teachers to changes in practice.  In the end, my experience is that teachers are learners and do want to do their very best for their students.  I do not adhere to the notion that we have great numbers of teachers who are resistant to new ideas.  I believe that the great majority of teachers walk in the school doors every day believing that they are teaching the best way they know how.  But I also believe that there are many teachers who are clinging to very traditional practices, probably because they appear to be working.  How does teacher practice change?

Teachers change their practice when they see that their students are successful or more engaged in learning after implementing change in practice.  When a teacher tries something new, and the lesson is successful, the teacher feels good.  The teacher goes home feeling like “this is the profession for me”!

However, often we ask teachers to change practice in ways that are not successful or make no difference.  Without a belief that the change will make a difference for an identified problem, teachers are most likely to simply comply:

  • Asking teachers to change assessment practices without changing pedagogy might mean they rename their quizzes formative assessments.
  • Asking teachers to have lots of anchor charts, without teachers understanding how the anchor chart scaffolds learning, results in lots of pretty anchor charts that rarely change.
  • Asking teachers to post learning goals and success criteria, without teachers actually changing how they plan, results in learning goals and success criteria that are often just the recipe for the day’s lesson.

Compliance is not change.

On the other hand, when teachers feel empowered to identify changes they’d like to make and try new ideas that they have identified as possible solutions, then they are more likely to change their practice.  Now, I don’t suggest that teachers who decide that the solution to a lack of student engagement is to feed them chocolate cake!  However, when teachers work collaboratively, with their principal at the table as an interested learner, identify aspects of their practice they’d like to change, look at some of the research or resources that might support that change, and then have the freedom to try it out, I’ve never never met a teacher who isn’t interested.

These conversations can come out of conversations which begin with:  What do you wish your students could do better?  Most teachers can identify an aspect of their course where students don’t seem to do as well as they’d like.  It might be a curriculum need or a behavioural/attitude need:

  • I wish my students knew their math facts.
  • I wish my students would persevere on challenging tasks.
  • I wish my students would write with more voice.
  • I wish my students thought critically about their reading.
  • I wish my students took more risks in solving problems.

The next step is to assess what the students are actually doing now, usually by looking at student work or by observations and conversations.  And then, teachers need to be empowered to try something new without feeling they are being judged, have timelines, or that there is a “right” way to do this.  But it is key that the teacher feels supported in the implementation of this new practice.  And this is the role of the principal as instructional leader; the principal needs to be interested in what is happening in the classroom, ask how the new practice is going, and be willing to offer suggestions and ideas as an interested co-learner not as a boss.

When teachers “play” with their practice and engage in thinking about what works, what doesn’t and what solves the problems they notice, then they change.  Success breeds success.  We need to be careful that our professional development ideas don’t bog teachers down to the extent that they comply rather than change.  If what teachers are asked to do, doesn’t have a fairly immediate effect on their practice, they aren’t likely to engage.  Who would?  But, when teachers implement ideas that they understand, that they choose, that they believe in, then their students will be successful.  Teachers change their practice when their students are successful.

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Filed under collaboration, pedagogy, school culture, school improvement plannig, Uncategorized

Go ahead and “teach to the test”; Assessment should be fair to kids

I do not like parallel parking and I avoid it at all costs.  However, when my kids were learning to drive, I taught them all how to parallel park because I knew it would be part of the road test.  It would not have been fair to my kids for them to take the test if they were not prepared. Assessment should be fair.

In Ontario the results of the EQAO spring assessments (grades 3, 6, 9 and 10) have been recently released and there is the usual chatter and angst and discussion about the validity of standardized testing.  Of course, we as teachers, feel joyful when our students do well and miserable when our students do poorly.  That makes sense; our students’ performance is, in part, a reflection on us as teachers.  But, we often go to great lengths to find other reasons to dismiss the testing.  That makes sense as well but it may not be productive.

There are things that happen with the EQAO assessments in Ontario that I do not like.  Individual school results are printed in the newspapers without taking into consideration a myriad of other factors.  In many boards, targets for individual schools are set, based on last year’s results.  And, a part of me does wonder if grade 3 students, eight year olds, are really able to  demonstrate their knowledge in that kind of setting.

However, there are things about the EQAO assessments I do like.  They are based on the Ontario curriculum and the questions, for the most part, are challenging for students.  The question I ask teachers all the time is:  would you be happy if all your students could answer these questions at the end of the year or are the questions unfair, pointless, and not based on the curriculum?  Invariably the answer is that the questions are fair and we would all be thrilled if our students could answer them.

So then, why not “teach to the test”?  The phrase “teach to the test” gets bandied about as if it were a bad thing.  And, if the test was simply full of  the same factual questions year after year, so that all teachers did all year long was to drill students on those questions, then I would agree that “teaching to the test” would be a waste of everyone’s time.  But the reality is that the test is based on the curriculum and the questions are designed so that we would be happy if our students could answer them.

Go ahead and teach to the test then, I say.  If you can do so, and your students are all successful, how is that a bad thing?  It is based on the curriculum so you know your students know their stuff.  The questions are designed to be challenging so you know your students are thinking and succeeding.  Your students will feel good about themselves during the test, because they will know how to do it, and afterwards when they get their results.  And you, the teacher, will feel good, because your efforts paid off.  Public confidence in education will be high.  Where’s the down side?

In Ontario, and most other jurisdictions with standardized testing, past tests and sample questions are available.  Neither the format or the type of question is a mystery.  The question then becomes:   are you teaching throughout the year in ways that make the assessment fair to your students?  

  • If you never ask questions during the year that are the same level of difficulty and complexity to the EQAO questions, then you aren’t being fair.
  • If your students have never seen a multiple choice type format prior to the standardized testing (and no one has ever told them that the very best wrong answer will be there), then you aren’t being fair.
  • If your students don’t know that it is okay to do the figuring out on a piece of scrap paper before choosing an answer in multiple choice (and many don’t know this), then you aren’t being fair.
  • If your math students are not given opportunities throughout the year to determine which manipulatives they will need, instead of you as the teacher telling them, then you aren’t being fair.  (Because during the assessment the student can go get a manipulative off the shelf but you can’t put it in front of them).
  • If your students never have to do work and solve problems independently, without you rescuing them, then you aren’t being fair.
  • If you don’t return to big key ideas multiple times throughout the year, then you aren’t being fair.
  • If you have never examined the scoring guides for the questions, so that you know the expectations, then you aren’t being fair.

I am definitely not advocating that students spend all year practicing pasts tests.  Nor am I advocating that teachers put lots of pressure on students with regards to the tests.  I am suggesting, however, that teachers not ignore the test.

Education is about the “what if”.  What if all of our students were to demonstrate high levels of competence on the standardized tests that we know are based on curriculum and demand our students to be critical thinkers?  We would all be thrilled. Assessment should be fair to students.  So, go ahead and teach your class so that all assessments are fair to them, even the standardized ones.

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Filed under EQAO, pedagogy, standardized testing, Uncategorized

Triangulation of assessment data-recording observations and conversations

We know that we should be using “triangulation of data” to assess and evaluate students.  We know that we can often find out more about what students know and can do by observing them, listening in on group discussions and through our 1:1 conferences with them.  All teachers know more about their students than their mark book would show.  However, when we want to use that knowledge to help inform a report card grade, we must have evidence that we could share with a parent if needed.  We cannot simply say that we “remember” that their child could or could not do something.

At first glance we might think that recording information gleaned from observations and conversations is going to be time-consuming and onerous.  How do I possibly write down the conversation as I am having it?  Do I have to go home every night and record every conversation I had or observed?

If, however, you have intentionally decided what the learning goals and success criteria for a learning cycle/period are, then recording observations and conversations is easier because it focuses your data collection.  Here are some ideas you could experiment with:

  • You can use a rubric or continuum for learning over time instead of just for one assignment. For example if you are teaching writing, the craft of writing (organization of ideas, voice, sentence fluency, conventions etc) is the same for all writing.  In reading, understanding the main idea, the theme, inferring, understanding character and the author’s style is the same for all texts.  For history you could have  a rubric about identifying conflict and change, and understanding historical perspective.  In French you could have a rubric about pronunciation, using correct grammatical structures and responding to questions.  For all subjects you can identify the big ideas for the subject and assess students on them over time..  When you are observing or conferencing you can highlight where the student falls on the rubric or continuum.  I suggest colour coding and dating each observation.  What is important here is that you are not penalizing a student if you don’t observe something but are able to note what you are observing.  It requires no note taking.  It is like creating a student profile.
  • You could create a check-bric of ‘look fors’ (correct fingering in music; referring back to the text in book club meetings; flexibility in using math strategies; sportsmanship in PE; using scientific vocabulary during science experiments). Over a shorter period of time you would observe students to look for evidence of more specific criteria.  I find that if I break my class lists into groups by color highlighters and then focus on the “blue” kids on Monday I am more likely to use this method.
  • You can record student collaboration by having them use an ipad or chrome book to record their conversation and then listen to it later. At that point you could make anecdotal notes or fill in your rubric or check-bric.  It has the added benefit of keeping kids on task.
  • Instead of trying to record observations of all kids on a given day, decide to sit with one group each day. The hardest thing as a teacher is to observe without saying anything.  It’s easier to take notes when you aren’t talking. Try it and you will find out a lot about your students.
  • At your guided learning table, keep your assessment binder. After you have worked with some students take a few minutes to jot down what you learned.

Not every time you talk with or observe students will you need to record what you learn.  At first you may gather too much or too little data.  It takes time to figure out what the “just right” amount of data is.  However, if when you are looking at your data for determining report card grades and you don’t have any data arising from conversations and observations then you may want to try something for next term that provides you with evidence and accountability.

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Filed under assessment, learning golas, report cards

Determining Report Card Grades-no easy task

In the olden days, determining the report card grade was easy.  A teacher’s mark book had a collection of grades which were added together and divided by 100 to create an average mark.  What a student did in September counted as much as what the student did in January.  There was no such thing as formative and summative assessment; all assessment was valid and counted.  It didn’t matter if the mark was on a first attempt assignment or a tenth attempt.  Now, as we have learned and researched more about how students learn, we have had to rethink how we assess and assign report card grades.  Good thing is that we are, hopefully, being fairer to students; bad thing is that it is really hard to do.

  • Overall expectations: Report card grades are about meeting end-of-year over-all expectations.  So, the January report card is a “dipping in” to tell parents and students how they are doing about meeting end-of-year over-all expectations.  Instead of thinking of the grade as being an accumulation of meeting a bunch of specific expectations, you can take a broader view about how the student is meeting the overall expectation in relation to the specific expectations.  For example, a specific expectation in language is “establish a distinctive voice in their writing appropriate to the subject and audience”.  If a student had not demonstrated a growth in voice but had demonstrated growth in some of the other specific expectations that lead towards the overall expectations of “generate, gather and organize ideas…” and “draft and revise their writing…”, the lack of voice may not, particularly in January, affect a student’s grade but rather be a next step.
  • Most recent and most consistent. This part is also tricky. Ideally you should have multiple pieces of evidence to support your decision about a grade.  Since the overall expectations are pretty big, all of the assignments and tasks students have been doing all term should contribute towards their understanding of these overall expectations.  At the beginning of the term students are learning and practicing—any assessment data you have is probably formative in nature and not going to inform the report card grade.  Think about learning to drive; you wouldn’t want your first attempts at parallel parking to be part of your final driving test!  However, towards the end of term students should have had enough practice time to be able to demonstrate their learning independently and consistently.  These attempts are more likely to inform the report card grade.  However, if in January, a student produced a product that was not up to his/her regular standard, it should not count against the student.  To be fair, everyone has bad days.  And, some assignments/tasks are richer in scope and may need to have more input into informing the final grade than others.
  • Where does formative end and summative begin???? As much as possible, assignments and tasks that “count” towards the report card grade should have been done independently. If you have a student who always requires assistance to get work done (not prompting but help) then that needs to be factored into the grade.  You don’t necessarily have to decide that a task is formative for all students and another is summative for all students.  For example, if you had students do a “summative” task in late November but found that 25% of your class didn’t do well, it may have become formative for them as you did some more teaching and gave them another opportunity to demonstrate their learning.  Perhaps during the learning stage, your conversations and observations led to you to believe that a student had a solid understanding.  All of his/her assignments and quizzes were fine.  But, during the final assessment the student didn’t do so well.  During a conversation with the student about this test revealed that the student had been nervous and made some silly errors.  The “summative” for this student may not have as much weight.  You have the duty to find out about these discrepancies so that your evaluation of a student is fair. So, you don’t have to be too rigid in which assignments “count” so long as you are using assignments and tasks that were done independently by students.
  • I don’t want my students to feel bad. Unfortunately we have to assign marks and no one likes getting a poor mark.  But, if based on your learning goals and success criteria students are not meeting goals, you cannot give them a level 3 or 4, even if they have tried really hard.  A good way to know you are on track is to do some subject and grade teacher moderation.  A ‘B’ in one grade 8 class should be the same as a ‘B’ in the class next door.  One thing to help students understand the grading system in Ontario might be to say that a ‘C’ grade means that the work is a bit tricky for you but that you are heading in the right direction.  A ‘D’ grade means that the work is very difficult for you but we have a plan to help you.  Discussions around growth mindset might be helpful for your students before you hand out the report cards.
  • The body of evidence: Make sure that when you are assigning grades that you take into consideration conversations, observations and products.  When you are using conversations and observations as part of your body of evidence, ensure that you have written records of this.
  • Professional Judgement: This is the hardest part of assigning grades.  As a teacher your professional judgement is tied to a number of other factors: being planned and purposeful; planning with the end in mind; knowing the curriculum; teacher moderation (so that you aren’t working in a vacuum); and, experience.  It is the ability to assess all of your information for each individual student in light of the curriculum and decide how well that student is doing, at this point in the year, towards meeting the end-of-year overall expectations.

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Feedback is for teachers, too

Last week I wrote about effective feedback and the different ways students might get feedback during the learning process.  This feedback for students doesn’t have to be comments on a paper, a rubric or test scores.

The feedback loop goes both ways.  You as the teacher are also always looking for feedback from your students in order to know what the next lesson is or how to tweak things for maximum understanding or to determine the members of your next small group.  You, too, don’t need to mark work in order to get feedback on how your students are doing.  You probably want to collect two types of feedback.

One kind is very informal and might be called intentional noticing.  These are the many observations that you make all day long about how your students are doing with the learning at hand.  This kind of intentional noticing is not as easy to do as you may think.  At the end of each day you will have been involved in a myriad of discussions and observations with students but may still be unclear as to what you have intentionally noticed.  However, when you are planned and purposeful  in your lesson design, you can also be planned and purposeful in your intentional observing.  For example, you may be intentionally noticing whether students are using the information from the mini-lesson in their work.  You may be intentionally noticing whether students are using the specific vocabulary of the lesson.  You may be intentionally noticing whether students are taking risks in their problem solving.  You may be intentionally noticing how they are applying previously learned strategies.  You may intentionally noticing the types of errors they are making.

The same kinds of teaching conditions that you use to help students get feedback will also allow you to get feedback:  small group instruction, little whiteboards or Kahoots, conferences, sitting with groups of students as they work.  At the end of each of those activities, you are thinking, what do I know now about my students that I didn’t know before and how am I going to address those needs?

The other kind of intentional feedback that you get, you will want to record.  You can’t possibly record everything you notice.  However, you may wish to record some specific kinds of information during this learning phase that may add to your assessment record in determining a final grade.  These are the intentional observations and conversations that you have with students that give you insight into their understanding of concepts.  If, in these instances, the information you glean demonstrates an independent understanding of the concepts, you can use this in a summative way.  These recorded observations and conversations can be used in both determining next steps and in evaluating students.  The problem with using non-recorded observations and conversations as part of your grade determination is that you cannot prove anything in case a parent is curious about how a grade was determined.

All this talk about feedback is really talking about formative assessment.  I don’t like the word “assessment” here because I think it misleads us into thinking about assignments, quizzes and rubrics.  Instead you want to think about planned and purposeful teaching and the types of activities you do that help students learn and help you to know your students better.  When your students change and grow and when you make decisions based on what you are learning then you are doing assessment for and as learning.

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Rubrics versus letting kids “give it a go”

I must admit that I don’t love rubrics.  They take a long time to write and sometimes it is hard to know what they actually say, even when I wrote them!  In fact, when I have marked using arubric I often find that it is not helpful to me at all:  either I put down things on the rubric that arent’ true once I mark it or I have used such vague language on the rubric (e.g. “uses effective communication strategies”) that I don’t really know what I am looking for.  So, if I am having difficulties using the rubric then maybe the kids are too????

Rubrics and checkbrics became popular because traditionally the assessment of student work was done in a vacuum.  Teachers couldn’t articulate what they were looking for and students had no idea what to produce.  Research showed that when teachers knew how they would be assessing a product ahead of time, and shared that information with students, student achievement increased.  Except what the research didn’t say was that it was really, really hard to come up with a good rubric or good set of success criteria for a checkbric.  What the research didn’t say was that even if we shared it with kids it might take them a long time to get it.  What the research didn’t say was that sometimes our rubrics and checkbrics led students to produce formulaic work that was devoid of creativity and simply a case of task-completion.

Assessment is the hardest part of teaching, and it doesn’t really get easier because the more you refine your teaching practice, the more you have to change your assessment. And it is important that teachers have a clear idea of what they are looking for when they assess and that we let students in on the secret.  But….I do think that there are some instances where we need to give ourselves permission to not be too clear, at first.

When students are first learning how to do something (such as write a response to reading, write in writer’s workshop, develop a scientific report, solve a math problem, play a new piece of music, give an oral report or any other task that you know that students will have multiple opportunities to try over the course of the year) let them muck about with it first before handing out the rubric.  This accomplishes a few things.

One, it gives students a chance to try something without thinking you are going to MARK IT.  Even if you say it is ‘just formative’ you will get some worried and uptight kids who think more about “getting it right” than about thinking it through. This doesn’t mean you don’t have mini lessons, offer suggestions or teach.  But, see what happens with your students risk-taking if they aren’t comparing their work to a rubric or exemplar  right away.

Second, it gives you a chance to breathe and think and look at student work and then decide what exactly do you want the success criteria to be.  Are you getting what you want or not?  Is this particular task going to provide you with rich information about your students?  Is it at the right level of challenge?  If you were marking these what would you be looking for?  If you work in collaborative teams you could do some teacher moderation and determine what you really think students at your grade level will be able to do after some more instruction.  And, what are the next steps?  If you decide the task isn’t really getting at what you want, you still have an opportunity to change it, revise it, rethink your approach.

Third, it gives you an opportunity to co-create rubrics, anchor charts and checkbrics with your students.  Often, when we jump to the co-creation stage before students have had a chance to try the task and even think about the criterion.  If they have had a chance to give it a go, and perhaps work with the peers or have a look at their peers’ work, they will be in a much better place to help determine the success criteria.

Fourth, it will help you to avoid students producing products that are carbon copies of each other.  After all, in a critical thinking environment, there should be some room for creativity and individuality.  I want my tasks to be open-ended enough that these things are possible.  If you do want cookie-cutter products, then give an example and a rubric and some instructions and most students will comply.  But if your task is more complex than that, it may be worthwhile to let students try things out a bit first.  After a few attempts you can share some exemplars of work to help students link the teaching in the mini-lessons to the student work.  From there your class can gradually arrive at a collective understanding of the success criteria.  The advantage is that students will now have an opportunity to see that the success criteria can be met in a variety of ways.  I might write about the Rebellion of 1837 in narrative form and you might write about it in an editorial but we could both meet the success criteria of having identified the key historical points and presented the information from a specific historical perspective.  You might present your math solution using an algoriethm and I might show my solution in diagram form but we both have shown complete solutions that someone else would understand and identified the answer.

Fifth, if you adopt this stance you are more likely to create tasks that provide students with multiple entry points and many opportunities to practice.  If you always create the rubric immediately and mark every attempt against it, there is a chance that your rubric or checkbric is no more than the instructions for how to complete a task.  Completing a task is much different than learning through doing (see this post for more).

The only rule is that there are no secrets; students shouldn’t be surprised when they get back a graded piece of work.  In fact, their self-predicted grade should be close to the actual grade.  Beyond that, take a deep breathe (particularly if you are trying something new), give kids and yourself a chance to try things out, use their attempts to plan out your next steps, and guide them through teaching, small group instruction and the co-creation of success criteria.  And then continue to give them many opportunities to try it out before you “grade” their work against that rubric or checkbric.

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Diagnostic Assessment–10 things to think about

September is the time for diagnostic assessment.  It is good to know what your students already know and don’t.  But I wish the word “assessment” wasn’t attached to this term.  I prefer thinking of diagnostics as “entry points into learning”.  Sometimes we use diagnostics to find out what students DON’T KNOW.  But it may serve us better to find out what they do know and can do.  No matter what you are teaching, students bring some knowledge to the table.  What you need to know is what learning each student already has about your area of study.

Here is some of my thinking about diagnostic assessments…or how to figure out the entry points into learning….

  • Because of the word ‘assessment’, we think it should look like a test. It doesn’t have to.  In fact, asking students to do a “test” in the first weeks of school may be overwhelming.  Plus, doing a “test” of things that you are pretty sure the students can’t do only tells you what you already know—they can’t do it.  The kids feel lousy and you don’t know anything new.
  • Sometimes we give back these tests/assessments with a level on them. I think that might be disheartening for students.  After all, if I was excited to learn about the new science unit but then wrote a test and got back a level 1, no amount of teacher convincing that this was “just” a diagnostic is going to make me feel better.  If you do feel you need to give this type of assessment, you do not need to provide students with grades/level/feedback.  Diagnostics are for you, the teacher.
  • If you want to discover what learning the student brings to the table, then you need to design a task that is open-ended. For example, if I want to find out if my students can add fractions, it would be better to give them a word problem where they can use any strategy they wish to figure out the answer than to give them 1/3 + 1/5 = ? or 27 – 9= ? where they may be tempted to use an algorithm.  If I want to find out if my students can write in full sentences, I just need to ask them to write something; I don’t need to give them a worksheet on full sentences.  If I want to find out which level book my students can read, just ask them to pick a just-right-book from a pile.  If you provide each student with the same reading task all you will know is those than can read at that level and those that can’t.  Open-ended tasks let you see what students can do; closed tasks only tell you if the student can or cannot do what you asked.
  • If you want to determine a student’s entry point into learning, you have to know your curriculum. You need to know what students would have learned in previous grades.  You need to know the continuum of skills.
  • While you need to know what learning individual students bring to the table, not all diagnostic assessment needs to be done individually. Consider giving a group task.  You can gather information about how students approach the task by observation.  How students approach a task may give you more information than just having a final completed task that is incorrect.  A final incorrect task only tells you that the student can’t do it but it gives you no information about why.
  • Ask your students. Particularly older students can just tell you what they find easy and what they find tricky, especially if you give them a checklist.  In the older grades you can probably get a pretty good idea of your students’ reading levels simply by asking them to list the last three books they read recently.  A student that can’t remember or doesn’t have any, is one you need to listen to read sooner as opposed to the student who lists 10 novels he read over the summer.  You don’t need to do the same diagnostics for all students.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of interest and attitude surveys. Knowing that a student feels he or she is not good at math is very valuable information.  Knowing that a student does not have a favourite book tells you a lot.  Knowing that a student thinks science or history is boring because all you do is memorize gives you useful information.  We know from research that a student’s confidence level in a subject is directionally proportional to their competence in that subject.
  • You won’t be able to figure it all out in one easy step. Think about what you want to know about your students.  Give yourself some time to figure this out.  Experiment with ways of recording this information in class profiles that will be useful for you.  Experiment with a variety of tools.
  • Don’t be afraid of what you learn through a diagnostic assessment tool. Sometimes we conclude that our students are just “not ready” to learn our curriculum.  Instead, look at what they do bring to the table and then determine  the very next thing they need to learn to move forward.  This is particularly important when writing IEPs.  It really doesn’t matter if you don’t think they are ready—they are still in your class and you still have to teach them.  Use your diagnostic to plan the student’s very next step, not to despair that they are not ready for your course.
  • Lots of times we give “diagnostic assessments” because we think we have to. If you don’t do anything meaningful with the “assessment” then don’t give it.  If you don’t learn something new about your students that is going to change how you teach them  then the assessment tool isn’t working for you.

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Assessment in a collaborative inquiry model

Of course good things (like having kids collaborate in groups) often cause us to rethink a whole bunch of other things (like assessment).  In traditional teaching models assessment was pretty straight-forward.  I taught and each kid wrote their own test, did their own essay or project, and then I marked it.  Check, done.  I knew what each kid knew.

Now we are having kids collaborate to inquire, research and create.  How do we assess these final products?  What is the role of peer and self assessment?  How do we help kids to be effective listeners during group presentations?  We know that the grade we put on the report card needs to be a reflection of what an individual student can do independently.  How do we figure that out if students have worked collaboratively on the final product?  Let’s look at one possible example:

Students are working together to create an iMovie as a final assessment to demonstrate understanding of the topic covered in class.  You have co-created a rubric so that they know what determines a successful iMovie.

As the students are working on their iMovie your observations and individual conversations of how each student is participating and understanding the process of creating the iMovie can provide you with some summative assessment data.

Before submitting the iMovie or the final showing, each group could show their iMovie to another group and receive feedback on their movie, using the rubric as a starting point for the conversation.  This peer assessment is used for students to be able to make changes to their iMovie before it is finished.  The peer assessment is not part of the final grade.  This process of looking at another movie may also help students to make revisions to their own movie.

As the group of students submits their final product, each individual student could mark the rubric for their iMovie and provide specific reasons or examples from the film as evidence for how they rated the film.  You could use this as part of your summative assessment to see how well individual students understood their product in relation to the rubric.  You cannot use the self-assessment of the rubric only—it is the individual student’s ability to provide specific rationale for their rating that provides you information about their understanding.

The iMovie can be shown to the entire class or handed in to the teacher.  Only the teacher can mark the rubric for iMovie and return it to the group of students.  However, this mark CANNOT be used as part of each individual’s mark as you cannot be certain who contributed what.  However, students do need feedback on how well they collectively completed the task.  It is important to recognize that individual group members may have varying degrees of understanding about the final product.

If the iMovie is shown to the entire class, you could ask each individual student to fill in a graphic organizer as they watch that would demonstrate their understanding of the media piece.  Perhaps the GO asks students to identify effective angle shots or how music was used to enhance the iMovie.  Perhaps the GO asks students to determine what the overall message or theme was.  Perhaps the GO asks students to identify key concepts included in the iMovie.  This could be used for your summative assessment as students are providing you with their understanding of the media presentations.  It is not a peer assessment.  It is not an assessment of their iMovie.  It is however an assessment of their understanding of the process of creating the final task.

You do need to have individual students explain about the making of their iMovie to demonstrate their understanding of the process, and content.  This could be written or through a conference.  This will be the main part of your individual assessment for this final task.  Students should know ahead of time that this will be part of the assessment.  These questions allow you to know that each individual student had an understanding of the process and the final product. Perhaps you ask questions such as

  • How did your group decide which scenes to include?
  • Which scene in your iMovie is the most important to your overall theme?
  • What were the key concepts about the topic that your group decided to include? Which concepts did you decide NOT to include?
  • How did your group decide to choose the music?
  • Give examples of three different angle shots in your iMovie and explain why they are effective.

We want students to collaborate and work in groups.  We know this is engaging and deepens student understanding.  The trick is determining, at the end, the individual understanding of each student.  In all collaborative endeavours we need to understand that collaboration is a tool FOR learning or FOR doing.  At some point students must demonstrate their individual understanding of the content, concepts and skills.

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Maybe Assessment for Learning isn’t the right term?

The term “assessment for learning” (educational acronym AfL) was coined by Wiliam and Black in their 1998 article “Inside the Black Box” (http://weaeducation.typepad.co.uk/files/blackbox-1.pdf).  The research shook the educational community:  how teachers reacted to student learning as they were learning was incredibly important to student achievement.  The used the term AfL to describe those activities that teachers could undertake during the learning phase to help students achieve higher results.  Their research was impressive and educational scholars since have also determined that the stuff that teachers do during learning makes the biggest difference.

In an interview with Dylan Wiliam in 2012 (https://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6261847) he states:

“The big mistake that Paul Black and I made was calling this stuff ‘assessment.  Because when you use the word assessment, people think about tests and exams. For me, AfL is all about better teaching.”

Given that the article Inside the Black Box was published in 1998 and we are still, in 2014, struggling with formative assessment, I wonder if we have misinterpreted because of the term name.  And I worry when I see teachers spending all of their time collecting “assessment data” because there are now three kinds of data to which we need to be accountable.

Let’s take a collective deep breath and think about the role of assessment in teaching.

You should have an idea of where your students are at before you decide exactly what they need to know.  But, your diagnostic assessment does not need to be a copy of your summative assessment.  In fact, you probably already know they don’t know all that; you haven’t taught it yet.  However, based on what you have already observed about them, and based on how they do on a carefully designed introductory activity, you will want to identify some specific gaps.  And, you will want to recognize that those gaps may not be the same for all students.  Your “diagnostic assessment” does not need to be a test, or a quiz, or something that is onerous to mark.  You do not need to hand it back to students.  You do need some way of knowing what your kids can and cannot do.  In most instances your diagnostic assessment comes from the work they have already been doing.

At the end of a learning cycle or unit, you do want to check in and see what your students can do independently based on the learning goals you have been working on.  Sometimes this summative task will really be summative; you are moving on.  You are not going to read the novel again, learn about rocks and minerals any more or study the area of parallelograms.  But sometimes this summative task will also be the diagnostic task for your next learning cycle:  you will read other novels, you will write more, you will learn more about testing the hypothesis, you will use those math concepts again.

But it is the teaching time in between the diagnostic bit and the summative bit that tends to cause all the confusion.  The term “assessment for learning” made us think that we had to have a lot of quizzes; we had to mark everything against a rubric;  we had to level (and communicate those levels) all work students did.  We amassed lots of data.  But Dylan Wiliam, himself, says that it is really just about better teaching.

So, we have our learning goals for the next bit of time, we have an idea of where our students are entering the learning and then we begin to teach.  And as we teach we are using multiple ways to figure out how kids are doing as they move towards reaching those learning goals.  We talk to them; we work with them in small groups; we give the occasional quiz or ticket out the door; we watch them; we ask questions; we encourage students to talk to each other; we make.  As our students are learning we are constantly trying to figure out how they are doing, what are the sticky bits, where are they confused.  And then we help them to get unstuck, to master something new, to make the connections.  That is “assessment for learning”.  That is just good teaching.

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Assessment Conversations

Assessment is the hardest thing you do.  You need to think about myriad of things all at the same time:

  • What do I assess? Content?  Process?  Everything?
  • What is fair? Is it fair to have questions ahead of time?  Is it fair if I think some kids can’t do the assessment?
  • When do I assess? Are they ready yet for a summative?
  • How do I assign a level/mark/grade? Do I assign a level/mark/grade?
  • What do the students get out of this assessment task? What do I learn out this task?
  • How do I communicate assessment results with students? Their parents?
  • What did I learn from the assessment? What will I do next?

At this point you are probably hoping that I will give the answers to all of these questions and you can then have a great weekend.  The problem is that assessment is really hard and I am not sure that there are always hard and fast rules that you can use.  However, it is important that we are always asking these questions.  This week I had a lot of conversations about assessment. Teachers were asking some great questions.  They were reflecting on their practice.  When we take the opportunity to ask these questions we deepen our understanding, even if we don’t come up with all the answers.

A math teacher was puzzled because her students had not done as well on an assessment as she had thought they would.   Over the last few days they had been demonstrating a solid understanding of the concepts.  Why had they not done as well on the test?  We discussed whether tests need to be long.  Could the questions of a test be given out over the course of a few days?  Would that work better?  Did her students not have the stamina to do the test well?  Did they get nervous because it was a TEST?

A group of English teachers were meeting to discuss the “end-of-the-novel” questions.  There were four excellent questions.  Do we give all the questions?  Do we give students a choice of questions?  Since it is still early in the school year, do we allow the students to do some practice questions, deconstruct them, and then give them a question to do?  We talked about how assessment needed to be both fair and tell you something about the students that was true.  If they weren’t sure how to answer the questions, would it mean that they didn’t understand the novel or just that they weren’t good at writing down their answer?  Teachers left the discussion ready to try a number of different strategies with a promise to meet up later and look at student answers.  Which strategies would prove to help students be successful?

A number of reading teachers knew from a reading comprehension assessment that some students struggled in reading.  But, that didn’t really help us know enough about the students to plan appropriate interventions.  So we needed some assessments that would pinpoint the difficulties:  was it decoding, fluency, comprehension, motivation, vocabulary, stamina?  Unfortunately, the results of some assessments require us to delve more deeply before we understand where a student is struggling.

A number of teachers are experimenting with giving no levels or grades on work submitted.  Instead they are giving descriptive feedback either through written comments or individual conferences.  It is a bit trickier for the teacher because you really do need to identify just a few things for the student (strengths and next steps) or the kid will be overwhelmed.  It is tricky to identify strengths and next steps instead of just editing or identifying errors.  And some of our students are feeling a tad uncomfortable.  They are used to evaluating themselves based on a mark.  Feedback forces them to think about their work in a deeper way.  Teachers are wondering how this will motivate and engage students.  They are experimenting with the types of feedback that result in the greatest gains.

These are the conversations of professional teachers.  They recognize that when thinking about assessment a variety of factors are at play.  Although there are no easy answers, we if we don’t keep asking the questions, we won’t get close to the truth.  And in the assessment of students, the truth is what they can really do.  When we really know that then we know what to do next.

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