Tag Archives: diagnostic assessment

Multiple Entry Points into Learning: there is no such thing as average

We know that in any given learning situation students arrive at different places.  When I first started my teaching career at the intermediate level, I was quite convinced that if only the previous teachers had taught them better, my students would know what I needed them to know before I started with my part of the curriculum.  Really, how is it that they could arrive in grade 7 without understanding fractions, or the capital of Canada, or how to use quotation marks???

And then, I had to teach grade one.  I had to teach them how to read!  And, worst of all, everyone would know if I didn’t because I’d have no previous teacher upon whom to place the blame.  But, what I discovered was that even in grade one my students were entering the school system with a wide variety of skill, knowledge, behavioural and interest levels.  Despite all my efforts, some of them just weren’t ready to read yet.

For a while now I haven’t liked the term “diagnostic assessment” because when I was assessing my students at the beginning of a learning cycle based on the end-of-the-cycle expectations, mostly I figured out what I already knew:  they didn’t know much.  Leveling student achievement at this point wasn’t that helpful to me.  What is helpful is figuring out their entry point:  what do my students already bring to the table that will help them access the skills and knowledge I want them to learn?

When I begin to design the early tasks and activities that students will do, I want everyone student engaged, curious and be able to add something.  Each student needs to feel s/he is successful at the beginning of learning if I am going to have any hope of convincing them to keep trying and learning.  Let’s look at some easy ways to do that:

In science, I eventually want the students to learn about density.  If I start with having the students read definitions for density and scientific explanations about density I risk losing a bunch of them right away.  But if I begin, like a science teacher I know, by posing the question, does the weight of an object influence whether it will float or sink, every student in my class can participate.  Every student can create an experiment and observe what happens.  Every student is now intrigued and curious about what happened.  I can move into the science now, in whole group and small group lessons, with everyone on board.  I may still need to differentiate by reading the textbook, providing more guided practice to some and so on, but I have a much better chance at succeeding now that everyone is on board.

In math, if I give out a fractions worksheet, the students who understand fractions are bored.  The students who don’t are stumped.  But, if I present an intriguing problem about fractions such as how could we fairly divide 4 chocolate bars among 8 people? Or 3 people? Or 7 people? And even offer students a choice about which problem to solve, then everyone is involved.  Everyone is learning about fractions.  I also have the added bonus of being able to figure out a lot about what my students CAN do with fractions, not just that they can or cannot do the worksheet.

In reading, I could have my students all read the same novel and do the same reading assessment tasks.  Except, my classes have always had students with a wide variety of reading and interest levels.  Even if it is my favourite book of all time, chances are there are some students who are just not interested in that text.  Are their assessments really a valid representation of how well they read if they hated the book so much that they didn’t finish, or didn’t attend?  And what if the book is too hard for them?  What if it is too easy, or they’ve seen the movie, or read it before?  If I give students some choice (not complete choice because it has to be manageable for me, too) I am much more likely to get a truer sense of my students as readers because there is a much better chance that they will actually be reading the book.

When we talk about multiple entry points to learning we are talking about two main ideas.  One, I need to recognize that my students come to the table with different background knowledge, interests and abilities.  If I don’t start where they are, I risk losing them all together.  Think about learning to ski.  If you had never skied before, and started on the black diamond hill, would you really learn?  Would you go back for lesson two?  And secondly, I need to create activities, tasks and problems that will allow all students to access the learning at the level they are starting at, not the level I wish they are at.  Open-ended tasks will work much better for that than closed.  Our goal is to get every student to the same end expectation, but if we don’t begin the journey at each student’s beginning, we risk not getting them to the end at all.

Leave a comment

Filed under assessment, Authentic Tasks, Differentiation, pedagogy, Uncategorized

Rethinking diagnostic assessment as entry points

It being September, I had quite a few good conversations about diagnostic assessments this week.  Quite a few years ago, the practice with diagnostic assessments was to give students a task that was similar (or exact) to the summative assessment.  The reasoning behind this was that you could then demonstrate growth for each student.  You were sure that you were teaching them something.  You were able to measure academic achievement.  And while these are all good teaching practices (you want to teach them something and you want to be sure that you have) there were problems with this type of diagnostic assessment:

  • Teachers said that they already knew the kids didn`t know X because they hadn`t taught it yet. This is certainly true for some subjects such as teaching Pythagorean Theorem for the first time or the War of 1812.  Why would we really expect most of our students to already know that?
  • Students hated these assessments because they usually didn’t do well. I wouldn’t want to do something that made me feel dumb no matter how many reassuring things the teacher said.
  • Teachers didn’t really use these assessments. It told them something they already knew.  They felt they were doing a lot of marking for no increase in understanding about their students.

The purpose of diagnostic assessment is to discover the entry points for students.  We do want to know what knowledge the students are bringing to the table when we embark upon a new unit/learning cycle.  It is important to realize that all students bring some knowledge with them.  Good teachers identify this knowledge and understand how it fits into the content they are about to teach.

We were talking this week about teaching integers in grade 8.  There is no reason to expect that very many of our students already know how to multiply and divide integers.  The few that may already know this will identify themselves early on.  However, it is useful for the teacher to know what the students do remember about integers.  Therefore, the diagnostic assessment will help the teacher to identify how many students remember how to place integers on a number line, how many remember how to add and subtract integers, and most importantly for multiplication and division, how many remember how to create zero pairs (and now all you non-math people are thinking you should go back to grade 8).

Let’s suppose I was teaching grade 2 math and know that I need to teach students to add and subtract two digit numbers with and without regrouping.  Some of my students may have already been taught the formal algorithm by their parents.  Most won’t.  Giving a test on this is only going to tell me that most students can’t do it.  But, I do want to know other things:  who has one-to-one correspondence, who knows their facts, or has strategies to figure them out, to 20, which kinds of manipulatives are the students comfortable with (block ten, open number line, hundreds boards), who is able to represent numbers in tens and ones).  Once I know those things I am in a better position to move students forward.  I cannot assume that all students are bringing the same mathematical knowledge to the table, but all of them are bringing something.

Diagnostic assessment needs to be fair and get you the information you need.  Look carefully at the assessment tool you are using and make sure that it is designed so that students will be successful if they can.  For example, we were looking at a commerical reading assessment and recognized that on one question most students could probably answer it but that the terminology was not familiar.  So, we rewrote the question and changed the wording.  On another question, rewriting it with a graphic organizer would allow more students to be successful.  Diagnostic assessment is worthless if the student knew the answer but the question was unclear.  As the teacher you may then think that the student doesn`t know something that he or she really does.

So if you rethink the concept of diagnostic assessment as determining the entry points for learning, you may find it a more useful exercise.  Many times it doesn’t even need to be a formal assessment.  In writing, just ask the students to write something.  In science you could have the students do an experiment and see how they go about organizing themselves to complete it—you now have some information on their approach to the scientific method.  In math, you may simply wish to have students solve some problems on the little whiteboards and show you their answers.

The goal of diagnostic assessment is to inform your teaching.  In order to help students make connections between what they already know and what you hope to teach next, you need to know their starting points.  And you have to start at their starting points.  Once I have determined the entry points for my students in writing, that is going to determine which mini-lessons I can do as a whole group (most of my students will benefit), but more importantly, which lessons I will need to do with specific small groups of students.

Leave a comment

Filed under assessment, Authentic Tasks, pedagogy, small group instruction