A is for Assessment

ExamI have thought for some time that if I ever get myself together enough to write a book in the field of education, my subject would be assessment. It’s probably the issue I think about the most often. It truly bothers me that it’s done so poorly—not just with standardized tests, but also in classroom settings. It’s too big for a blog post, but I will put a few of my thoughts together.

Several years ago, and some of you have been reading this blog long enough to remember, I read Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. When I read that book, things really clicked for me. I cannot honestly say that I create UbD units for everything I teach, but one aspect of UbD that has really stayed with me is authentic assessment. I don’t give tests, even though UbD says tests are fine in addition to performance tasks. I give quizzes, but rarely with multiple choice, true/false, or other types of purely objective questions. I tend to ask more open-ended questions that require students to tell me what they know about a given topic. Aside from these types of quizzes, the main types of summative assessments I give are writing assignments, discussions, and projects.

Our school is incorporating more project-based learning. Project-based learning is not the same thing as doing projects. I have had to do plenty of projects in school that were more or less busy work and didn’t demonstrate much learning. Those old dioramas come to mind. Quite a few posters come to mind as well. However, I do recall doing some projects as a part of project-based learning that required deeper learning. For instance, in the sixth grade, I created a tour guide for Venezuela. I am sure that my social studies teacher required certain elements, such as tourist destinations, exchange rates, and the like, but what I remember is researching the country and creating the pages in my guide so that I my readers could learn everything they needed to know about the country in order to prepare for a visit. I still remember showing the project to my language arts teacher, who told me, “Oh, now I want to go to Venezuela.” I remember doing the work and what I learned because it was an authentic assessment that placed me in the role of a tour guide writer who needed to convince readers to visit a country, and it felt fantastic when my language arts teacher liked the project. My social studies teacher easily could have asked us to write a research report that included the same information, but I doubt I’d still be remembering the research report more than 30 years later, nor would I remember what I’d learned about Venezuela. The most important thing is that I did all the work. I did the reading and research. I created the tour guide. My teacher must have given me class time, but I recall sitting by myself in the library, with a copy of Fodor’s Travel Guide, encyclopedias, and other books.

One of the reasons I am an advocate for authentic, project-based assessment is that I have seen the students’ engagement in the learning, and I have seen how it helps students to learn and remember more of what they learn. There is a saying that has been bandied around to the point of cliché, but it’s worth sharing at this point:

Franklin Quote

Some years ago, a student gave me a card that I have cherished. In it, she wrote that she felt the work she did in my class was relevant. To be quite honest, the work I assigned, especially before I became thoughtful about designing for understanding and authentic assessment, was not always relevant. In fact, it often wasn’t. Students should understand why what they are learning is important and what they might do with it in the future. We’re not always great at communicating the importance of the work we assign. We need to reflect on the work we ask students to do. We need to determine what it is that we want students to learn, and we need to plan lessons and assessments that will help the students learn that information. We also need to give students agency and choices. Students should have a role in selecting reading and writing assignments. They should be given opportunities to discuss what they are learning in their reading and writing, too. It is in this way that we can involve students so that they learn.

None of that is to say that we do away with essays or tests, but we need to ask students to apply what they are learning in our classes so that they understand they’re not learning it for a test. I have only scratched the surface and don’t feel I’ve said a whole lot here, but please check out some of my other posts on assessment for more, and of course, more will come, as I can’t seem to leave this topic alone. (See tags and category links below for more on assessment.)

Chalkboard background: Karin Dalziel

photo by: albertogp123

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Real World Problems, Real World Learning

One of my favorite aspects of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s book Understanding by Design is the real-life unit plan model they describe for a health class. In order to help students learn more about healthy foods and healthy eating, the performance task asks them to design a balanced meal plan that allows for dietary restrictions (such as diabetes) for campers. This problem is a real world problem that students might encounter in that each camp employs a real person who plans menus in the same way. It requires students not only to think about healthy food, but also variety and appeal as well as certain health issues that may (or perhaps already do) affect them. It’s a great assessment. I think it’s in the same book that students are asked to design the best form of packaging for candy so that the most amount of candy can be transported while maximizing space in the truck transporting it while still ensuring the packaging is convenient. I have left my copy of the book at school, so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t remember this exactly right, but I seem to remember that spherical packages would maximize the space in the truck and enable the most amount of candy to be transported, but for obvious reasons, spherical packages are inconvenient.

It reminded me of a real world problem I heard about when I visited Carolina Day School in Asheville, NC not too long ago. The middle school was considering replacing the long tables in the cafeteria with round tables, but the administration was concerned that they would not be able to fit enough round tables to seat all the students in the cafeteria. The assistant principal knew the seventh graders had been learning about area in math, so he gave the problem to them to solve. I don’t know what they decided, but I think it’s a great way for students to learn about real world applications for math. I always hear students complain, often about math, that they can’t see how they will use the skills in “the real world.” Of course, I know they will use the skills in all kinds of ways they may not be able to imagine, but I think sometimes teachers don’t always give students enough real world problems so that students understand the relevance of what they’re learning. In his last blog for The Huffington Post entitled “Best Ideas for Our Schools,” Eric Sheninger argues for authentic learning: “In my opinion there is no other powerful learning strategy than to have students exposed to and tackle problems that have meaning and relevancy.”

The Weber School’s students recently won first place in the Moot Beit Din competition. Moot Beit Din asks students to apply Jewish texts to current problems. The competition offers students an opportunity to determine in what ways Jewish texts are still relevant as a guideline for modern life and also how they can use these texts to grapple with issues in our society today. In terms of Jewish studies, it’s about as authentic as it gets: not unlike Model U.N. or Mock Trial. Once students participate in these types of activities and describe their experiences, they make connections between what they’re learning and the “real world,” and their excitement is palpable. Just take a look at this video (which features some of Weber’s students):

In many ways, just approaching an assignment differently can turn an activity that may not ask students solve a real world problem into one that does. The other day, I was in our school’s Learning Center, and I found an assignment left behind by one of our tenth graders. It was based on the chapter of The Great Gatsby in which Nick attends Gatsby’s party for the first time. Students were asked to write an article as the gossip columnist for the local New York newspaper in which they describe the party, including some of the rumors about Gatsby and speculations of their own. It’s a great approach to a traditional summary. Students are asked to recall and predict, which are not necessarily the highest order critical thinking skills, but are good skills for reading comprehension. If they had been asked to write a summary of the chapter, they wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much, nor would they have produced work that was half as fun to read or that approached a real world situation they might encounter—how to write for the kind of authentic audience that reads a newspaper and is relying on the writer for information. Students see the relevance of this kind of assignment much more readily than the see the relevance of writing a summary, yet both assignments essentially ask students to use the same summary writing skills. The main difference is in their approach.

The headmaster of Carolina Day School told me that he felt students should be blogging because there was a ready-made authentic audience in a blog that gave a writer a reason to write beyond earning a grade for a class. They are no longer writing just for their teacher, but also for a larger audience, and more importantly, for themselves. Assessments that ask students to grapple with real world problems don’t necessarily require a huge shift in the kinds of skills and learning that are assessed so much as they require a shift in thinking about how we approach teaching and assessing skills and learning.

Feel free to share some of your ideas for authentic assessments in the comments.

photo by: JD Hancock

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I Like Projects

A conversation*:

“Mrs. Huff, are we going to do another project soon?”

“Fairly soon.  I want to finish The Iliad.”

“I really like projects.  I think they’re better than quizzes or tests because you really think about it and analyze it more.”

“I agree.”

“Plus I know when I study tests, I might do fine, but I forget it like a month later.”

“I know.”

“But with projects, I think about it from more angles and I enjoy it more.”

“We’ll do some more projects, but we have to do papers, too because composition is important.”

“Papers are cool, too.  But I really like projects.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

*Paraphrased because I recount it here about 5 or 6 hours after it occurred.

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Tests: Authentic Assessment?

Should we revisit testing as a means of assessment?

No doubt, students will need to be prepared for college (or, if you teach middle school high school; if you teach elementary school, middle school), and most colleges still using testing as a primary means of assessing students.  After all, when you have a lecture class with 300 students, it is not feasible to use alternative methods of assessment.  Perhaps the biggest argument in favor of keeping tests is to prepare students for the college environment.

I looked over my unit plans, lessons, and assessments this semester, and I realized something interesting.  I have given very few tests.  Most of the tests I have given have been summer reading assessments.  I have relied primarily on the following means of assessment: quizzes, essays, and “authentic assessments.”

My quizzes are typically five-question, short answer quizzes over reading assignments so I can be sure students are doing the reading I have asked them to do.  Students typically do either well or poorly on them based on how well they have read.

Essays are a staple of the English curriculum, but perhaps even more so at my school, with its competitive college preparatory environment and focus on developing writing skills.  My goal has been to assign at least four essays for each class this semester.  I have mostly realized this goal, largely through better planning using UbD to construct units.  I also allowed most of my classes to choose an essay they wrote this semester to revise for a higher grade, as I believe revision and reflection help students see writing as a process.

My “authentic assessments” have come straight from UbD and include crafting a résumé for Beowulf, writing our own Odyssey in order to demonstrate understanding of Homer’s, writing a letter to Arkansas Representative Steve Harrelson regarding his state’s apostrophe dilemma, and creating a comma usage manual for Rogers Communications (that $2 million comma error had to hurt!).

As I indicated in a previous post, I simply ran out of time this semester in order to truly do what I wanted to do with each unit.  I do have fewer minutes per week with my students than I would like — I average 45 minutes per day with each class, which is substantially less than other schools where I’ve worked.  However, what I have learned about the authentic assessments is that they were not only much closer to the kinds of tasks students will be asked to do when they begin their careers than tests.  How many tests have I taken as part of my job?  I can’t think of any.  I did have to take a test to get my certificate.  I had to take another to exempt from a computer skills course required in my state.  No principal has ever asked me to take a test for any reason.  If you take a look at the kinds of tasks I asked students to do to prove to me they internalized the essential questions we were exploring as part of our units this semester, I think you might discover that the tasks were more engaging than the standard test.  The tasks also asked students to think, internalize, apply, analyze, and synthesize information and present it in a unique fashion.  In short, I think they were taxed to think critically on a much higher level in Bloom’s Taxonomy than a standard test would require.

Are tests going anywhere?  I doubt it.  And I do believe that students should know how to take a test and how to study in order to do well in college, but I also think it behooves us as educators to offer them opportunities to demonstrate their learning with authentic assessments that enable students to truly show us what they know and practice working on the kinds of tasks they will be asked to do as part of their careers one day.  At any rate, it’s something to think about.  Though I have had fewer tests in my class this semester, I don’t think my students have learned less or been less challenged.  If anything, they have been more challenged (particularly with regards to writing).  However, I do still plan to give them a final examination.  Still, I think it would be an interesting challenge for all of us to examine what we are accomplishing through tests and ask ourselves if we are really preparing students for life beyond school.

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