Category Archives: Assessment

Understanding by Design

Understanding by Design: Professional Development WorkbookI have been looking through Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins’ Understanding by Design: Professional Development Workbook most of the day today. I am working on a unit on the Harlem Renaissance using the ideas behind UbD, and I would appreciate feedback. You can download the unit (one page) in MS Word. I am most concerned that my performance task, while authentic, doesn’t explicitly address the Understandings and Essential Questions. Let me back up — it does address those issues, but it is more of an inference than an explicit relation.

One of the things I like about the workbook is that there are plenty of examples of how other educators have created units based on UbD. Since Jay McTighe discussed the importance of models when he visited us for a workshop on Thursday, I find it refreshing that he “practices what he preaches,” so to speak. So often educators insist we should do this or that, but they don’t explain how in a way that’s easy to understand. I also like the fact that templates are included in various formats to enable easy photocopying.

I can’t remember the last time I walked out of a professional development workshop this excited about trying what I’ve learned.

On an unrelated note, I have noticed that many of you still have me linked at There is a redirect in place there that will bring you here, but I was concerned that those of you who might be reading via a news reader would not have seen that I’ve updated in the last couple of months unless you’ve seen the updated link.

Looking at Assessment

Our school was fortunate to be involved in a meaningful professional development opportunity led by Jay McTighe today.  I think it might revolutionize my teaching.

McTighe’s contention is that we as educators think about what objectives we need to assess — state or school standards, for example — then we think of activities.  What we don’t do is think like assessors.  We don’t think about how we are going to assess what the students have learned.

McTighe calls his model for planning “Backward Design”:

  1. Desired Results — these are the standards with which we work; objectives, essential questions, etc.
  2. Evidence — how are we going to “determine the extent tow which students have achieved the desired results”?  What performance tasks and rubrics are involved?  What other evidence (quizzes, tests, prompted writing, etc.) will we use?  What sorts of self-assessments will we ask students to complete?
  3. Learning Plan — this is a reference to the activities and assignments we will do to ensure students learn the material.

I found this interesting, because I usually construct assessments after I’ve planned what we are going to do — not before.  What often results, I think, is that students aren’t clear about what they need to do to demonstrate their learning.  They want to make good grades, but they don’t know what I’m looking for.

McTighe suggests models of assignments.  Three examples each of exemplary work, good work, average work, and poor work.  This can take years to collect, but I see the value.  Students know exactly what they need to do in order to get the grade they’re after.  In the words of a teacher McTighe referenced, “No mysteries, no excuses.”

I think some of the things we learned are so intuitive — I wonder, and I think I wasn’t alone, why I wasn’t doing it.  Of course, I do some of it.  It’s strange, because it finally dawned on me why one of my projects usually works so well.  All I knew about it was that it worked, but I didn’t really know why.  I know this sounds strange, but bear with me.  McTighe contends that authentic assessment asks students to apply what they have learned to solve real-world types of problems.  I’m not sure this is something you can do every time, but I think it needs to be done often.  My project is a blind date between Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.  Students record the results of the date and use some of their writing in the poets’ conversation.  Students frequently get “into” this project and do a wonderful job with it.  I didn’t realize it, but the reason it was good is that I was asking students to apply literature.  I was asking them to take to very different, very influential American poets and compare/contrast them.  Inevitably, students do very interesting things with the poets’ divergent philosophies.

McTighe shared a great unit plan for Catcher in the Rye constructed by English teacher who attended his workshop.  After having taught this novel, one thing I’ve noticed is that despite the fact that the novel explicitly describes Holden’s current location as a mental hospital, students become so lost in the story Holden tells that they forget that.  The English teacher’s plan places students in the role of an expert — “the member of an advisory committee to the hospital where Holden Caulfield is telling his story.”  After students read the novel, they will be asked to “write 1) a summary report for the hospital; 2) a letter to Holden’s parents explaining what is wrong with Holden.”  Students also do conventional work, such as an essay, quizzes, and a reading journal.  It’s a great plan, and if any teachers wish to see a copy of it, just let me know, and I’ll figure something out.

One of the things I like about McTighe is that he sees traditional assessments such as quizzes and tests as important, but also encourages assessments that ask students to apply, to self-assess.  His analogy of assessment was likened to photography.  We should not rely on a single snapshot depicting what a students knows; rather, we should help students construct a photo album.

McTighe shared links from his website.  My favorite was the one to Greece, NY Schools ELA Home Page.  English teachers — you need to check this site out.  Lots of great rubrics!  Another thing I found interesting is a mathematical formula for use with rubrics.  Here is an example from Fairfax County (VA.) Public Schools.  I know that scoring students in four different criteria on a four-point rubric, for example, doesn’t work if I give students threes across the board (which would yield 12 points) and divide that by 16.  The score is too low.  This has been a problem I’ve had with rubrics for years.  Finally!  Someone told me what was wrong.
This was exciting.  I love it when professional development is energizing and invigorating.

Required AP?

From the Eugene Register-Guard:

For North Eugene High School’s incoming juniors, Advanced Placement English will no longer be the domain of the academic elite.In a bold attempt to boost student success by raising expectations for all, the school is requiring all 260 juniors this fall to take a rigorous, yearlong AP language and composition class. No exceptions.

That means the straight-A, honors-track students will share their AP classes with students learning English as their second language, students on special education plans and students who, for a host of reasons, would rather have a tooth extracted than set foot in a college-level class.

As an English teacher, I have a HUGE problem with this. AP is not the “domain of the academic elite,” so much as it is the domain of those students who are willing to work very hard. I know many teachers are opposed to “tracking,” but it enables teachers to focus their instruction to meet the needs of their students. I cannot imagine, as a “straight-A, honors-track student,” that I would be taking a college-level high school English class with students who “would rather have a tooth extracted than set foot in a college-level class.”

I do not believe that education is a one-size-fits-all proposition. Our students have different needs. Students in this AP class at North Eugene are not going to be prepared to take the AP exam in the spring, because they will not be able to move at the necessary pace in order to prepare adequately for the exam.

Does that mean I don’t believe in rigor for all? One need only look over my site at the kind of material I teach in order to see that that isn’t the case. I teach three different levels, and I challenge all three. I don’t believe in frustrating kids by working at a pace too fast or too slow for them. Either way, they will quickly lose interest in the class, and they will not learn anything.

I really don’t think I’m alone in this. I think many teachers look at mandates like this and see how detrimental it will be for all kids:

“There was a lot of worry on the part of our ELL (English language learner) and special education staff,” Principal Peter Tromba said. “Some of them were mad.” … Tromba said he warmed to the AP proposal after initial doubts. In his view, he said, “Having kids be exposed to that curriculum and being challenged and being in a college-level class is a good thing. The data show all kids do better.”Research also has suggested a link between performance on AP exams and later success in college, said David Conley, director of the University of Oregon’s Center for Educational Policy Research.

First of all, I wonder what data shows that kids of all levels, not just those who are high-achievers already and are willing to work hard, do better in college because they have taken AP courses. English teachers in Eugene are worried.

“It’s a damn difficult class,” said Eileen Babbs, English department head at South Eugene High School.While she likes the notion of challenging all students, she said her department’s philosophy holds that AP courses are designed only for students who are ready for the rigors of college study.

One of the issues that needs to be addressed is why are classes in other levels not challenging? Second, what exactly are the reasons for a movement to eliminate tracking? If self-esteem is an issue, I have to wonder how students would feel if they failed a class that was not taught at their level. I know there are issues with tracking, but isn’t it just like educators to throw out a practice when tweaking it might be all that is needed?

Attempting to teach AP English to students of all levels just sounds like a long exercise in frustration to me.

Writing on the SAT

Will Fitzhugh answers some of the questions raised by College Board vice-president Wayne Camara in his article in Journal of College Admission, Summer 2005.

Specifically, why is it that readers for the SAT are instructed to ignore factual errors in essays? Fitzhugh rightly wonders how to “reconcile this with Wayne Camara’s statement that ‘The essay on the SAT writing test…is consistent with the kind of writing students are expected to do in college classrooms.'”

My tenth grade students write a five-page research paper using MLA style. Based on my memories of college, that is going to be the single most useful skill I can teach them, as I had to write papers in science, history, music, and even P.E. classes as well as English classes. Sadly, the “bang it out in 25 minutes” SAT writing sample — which is not required to be factual — will do little to assess how ready students are for college writing.

Teach to the Test

The New York Times (free registration, or BugMeNot) reports that even when teachers are enthusiastic about new teaching methods and would prefer to implement them, they feel too much pressure to teach to the test — in this case, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, or MEAP.

Becky Karnes, a 16-year veteran high school English teacher explained,

“MEAP is not what writing is about, but it’s what testing is about. And we know if we teach them the five-paragraph essay formula, they’ll pass that test. There’s a lot of pressure to do well on MEAP. It makes the district seem good, helps real estate values.”

Well, it’s good to have our priorities straight — helping the district look good and increasing real estate values. No criticism meant toward Ms. Karnes, as I’m sure she’s feeling considerable pressure to teach to the test.

The National Council of Teachers of English has warned that standardized state tests mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law, as well as the College Board’s new SAT writing sample, are actually hurting the teaching of writing in this country. For their part, the makers of these tests emphasize that they don’t mandate a writing formula, and they, too, say it would be a mistake if schools taught only by the formula.

I wish, wish, wish I could say more about the SAT writing sample, but there is a good reason I can’t.

Kristen Covelle encountered the specter of teaching to the test during job interviews for English teaching:

The interview will be going great, and then MEAP will come up. They want to know will I teach to the test, that’s what they’re looking for. They asked how I feel about using “I” in writing. Would there ever be a case when “I” is appropriate in an essay. I knew the answer they want – you’re not supposed to use it. But I couldn’t say that. I said there could be times, you just can’t close the door. They didn’t say anything but it was definitely the low point of the interview.

I feel very fortunate to be outside the burden of tests like these, as a private school teacher. I know what it’s like. I can vividly remember the curriculum director at a low-performing school where I used to teach coming in my classroom and reviewing the five-paragraph formula with my students. It looked a lot like the one in the Times article. Her visit was part of the counselor’s pre-test workup. Karnes is right: “For kids struggling, if you can give them a formula and they fill in the blanks, some will pass the MEAP test who wouldn’t otherwise.” But what is our ultimate goal as teachers? To teach students how to write more effectively or to teach them to pass a test? Karnes added, “It turns into a prison. It stops you from finding a kid’s potential.”

Prison is such an apt choice of words. I distinctly remember feeling constricted by testing demands on the curriculum.

Americans Concerned About Public Schools

A poll conducted by Educational Testing Service (ETS) demonstrates Americans’ lack of confidence in their public schools. Some figures, courtesy the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

  • Only 9 percent of Americans believe high school students are being academically challenged by their course work.
  • An overwhelming 76 percent of adults surveyed believe the country will be less competitive in 25 years if reforms aren’t made.
  • While 54 percent of adults and 60 percent of parents feel unified standards should be applied to all students, only 26 percent of teachers and administrators agreed.
  • Without being given a description of the law, 45 percent of adults and 46 percent of K-12 parents favored No Child Left Behind.
  • In contrast, 75 percent of teachers surveyed who gave unfavorable opinions, including 50 percent strongly unfavorable.

The results of this poll are not surprising to me. I taught for six years in public schools before making the move to a private school, and the struggles were legion. It worries me that parents do not feel their children are challenged, but often complain about teachers who have high standards. I don’t think most parents really know what it would mean to apply unified standards to all students. All students? Meaning that special education students and ESL students must meet the same objectives as gifted students? Or am I just reading too much into that statement? It seems really sweeping, and it is no wonder so many educators disagree with it. It is disturbing to me that more people do not educate themselves about NCLB. If parents really understood what NCLB was measuring instead of what sort of accountability they are looking for (and deserve), they’d be shocked. In a time when fears about school violence are at a high, my former principal avoided suspending violent students at all costs, because she was afraid it would affect our absentee rating for Adequate Yearly Progress. That’s patently ridiculous — that suspensions should count against AYP. If she’s right about that, then it is no wonder so many schools are failing to make AYP.

Public perception that schools are not doing enough is nothing new. I would hope that the concerned parents surveyed by ETS are doing everything they can to be involved in their child’s education, but somehow, based on the numbers of parents who attended PTA meetings, Open House, and non-sporting school events, or who contacted me with concerns, I doubt they are.

However, I was pleased to see the following, courtesy ETS:

  • 74% of the public strongly favor measures to ensure teachers are experts in the subjects they teach.
  • 80% strongly or somewhat agree we should increase teacher salaries to hire and retain more well-qualified teachers even if it means increased taxes.
  • 64% strongly favor emphasizing real world learning opportunities in high school through work study, community service, and vocational courses.

Standardized Testing Hurting Our Students

The Montgomery Advertiser reports that students are increasingly unprepared for college, and many blame standardized tests. It should come as no surprise to any teacher that our nation’s focus on standardized testing is hurting our students’ success in college. Instead of teaching real critical thinking skills and writing, we teach to the test out of fear. Ideally, if we teach objectives required by our curriculum, students should be prepared for standardized tests; however, many of us with jobs and schools on the line because of NCLB are too afraid not to teach to the test.

One of the things I’ve noticed since teaching at a private school is that students are much better served by learning how to write well than by taking a language arts test mandated by the state. Georgia has high school graduation tests, as well as writing tests in the 5th, 8th, and 11th grades, and end-of-course tests. Over time, the curriculum has been eroded by all the test preps. My students are mandated to take the PSAT and have the option to take the SAT or ACT. Most do, because they are college-bound students. It has been so freeing not to worry about constant tests.

I wish we could figure out how to hold schools accountable through some other means. It would be better for our students, many of whom wind up in remedial classes in college because we have not properly prepared them.