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

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Assessing Learning

Exploring an ideaI had an idea today, and I decided to try it out and see if it would work.

Teachers use Bloom’s Taxonomy to construct assessments for students, but I don’t think students have ever heard of it. I know I never thought to share it with students. And why not? It’s not a great big secret.

We finished studying Macbeth in one of my classes, and so I decided to let the students essentially create the test, which is not a novel idea. Other folks have done that. What I did, however, was share the various levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy with the students and ask them to think of questions that they felt addressed each level. We began with remembering or knowledge and reached analysis before the period ended and we had to table the discussion for tomorrow. Here are some of the questions the students came up with in the level of Bloom’s that the students placed them:

Knowledge/Remembering

  • How many witches?
  • What happened in the play?
  • Describe the setting of the play.

Comprehension

  • How is Lady Macbeth the more dominant partner in the relationship?
  • How should an actor interpret a given passage of the play?
  • Give examples of how Macbeth misinterprets the witches’ prophecies.
  • Explain how Macbeth changes over the course of the play.

Application

  • Show how Macbeth is still relevant to a modern audience (Why do we study it? What can it teach us?)
  • Show how Macbeth is similar to a modern teenager.

Analysis

  • Compare how Macbeth felt after killing Duncan to how he felt after having Banquo and the Macduffs murdered.
  • Why did Macbeth kill Duncan? Banquo? The Macduffs?
  • Why did Macbeth listen to the witches?

I think some of these questions are really good and really interesting. I’m not generally a fan of using the lower level questions, and in my mind it is those few knowledge/comprehension questions that are weakest. Beyond identifying how many witches are in the play, it might be more interesting why there are three witches instead of two or four, for instance. I might also have placed some of their questions in other categories. For instance, I think the question about Lady Macbeth’s dominance is more of an analysis question than a comprehension question. Same with the question about Macbeth changing over the course of the play.

Some of their higher order questions are questions I wouldn’t have thought of—showing how Macbeth is like a modern teenager (they mentioned “peer pressure”). I really like the question about why Macbeth listens to the witches.

It was a good assessment of my teaching to hear what the students were telling me they had learned from studying the play. I think it will be interesting to see the assessment that they craft—the assessment that will tell me what they consider important and worth assessing about their study of Macbeth.

Creative Commons License photo credit: JJay

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