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.

3 thoughts on “Looking at Assessment”

  1. I would love to see plans relating to Catcher in the Rye. I'm new to both the text and to UbD so I'm searching for good ideas.


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