THIS WEEK’S TOPIC
How do Common Core-aligned assessments relate to your work in the classroom?
TEACHER NOTES FROM THE FIELD
Cay Freeman: Grade 6-8 math intervention teacher and 28-year veteran teacher in Windsor, Connecticut
I have tried to make formative assessments the backbone of my lesson planning and the linchpins of my instruction. A big part of my planning is considering when and how to assess student understanding — and misunderstanding — as they progress toward mastery of a concept.
The formative assessments are now even more important with the creation of summative assessments — the PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests. Admittedly, my students are still struggling with procedural fluency, but I am now requiring my students to use computational skills in higher level work. I am also aligning my formative assessments with the type of higher level thinking called for in the standards. I ask my math students questions such as “What would happen if I changed this?” and they work collaboratively to “play” with the numbers or draw models to figure out what would happen.
This terrific blog post and webinar on LearnZillion.com taught me a great deal about how to use the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments to prepare quality formative assessments. The webinar begins with a great quote: “Observation, discussion, and interviews serve better than paper-pencil tests in evaluating a pupil’s ability to understand the principles he/she uses.” The webinar presents one way to create thoughtfully-crafted formative assessments and place them in a lesson to monitor student understanding. The emphasis must be on using them deliberately and consistently.
Because of the new expectations of the Common Core, I am now more aware of the “right moments” in my lessons where I should do the following things:
- Ask a student to show me how they solved a problem
- Interview a student to get a snapshot of their thinking
- Ask the class a “hinge question.” Hinge questions are asked at key points in a lesson where students transition from one concept to another. Identifying gaps in understanding that exist at the hinge point that will dictate if I go on with my lesson or re-teach and make lesson changes to ensure students have the prerequisite knowledge to move on.
I find that my lessons take more time to plan and deliver because I am constantly taking the pulse of my students’ understanding. My lessons stretch over several days and we get fewer problems done because we talk more about the process instead of the answers. It’s my fervent hope that this time is well spent and will translate into student learning that is deep and lasting – learning that will truly prepare them not only for the tests next year, but also for the type of learning that will translate into a better life for them.
Tricia Ebner: Gifted and talented middle school teacher in an ELA-based program in Hartville, Ohio
One of the key shifts associated with the Common Core is using supporting evidence when writing about a text. This year I immediately noticed that my sixth graders were struggling with this shift. Gifted kids — like many other kids — sometimes don’t see the need to use evidence in their responses. I knew it was going to take deliberate, direct practice to help my students form the habit of using evidence to support of their answers.
As I looked for some good ideas, I came across one of the lesson and mini-assessment pairs on Student Achievement Partners’s website. The lesson and mini-assessment uses an excerpt from Jim Murphy’s book, “The Great Fire,” to focus on close reading and using text to support discussion, writing tasks, and assessment questions. After this lesson, the students began to recognize the power of evidence. While their writing samples demonstrated stronger use of evidence, the mini-assessment showed that we needed additional practice with identifying evidence. The lessons and units that I have used since then have continued developing those concepts and skills. Now, five months after using the lesson and mini-assessment, my students are searching for evidence in a much more deliberate and habitual way.
My colleagues and I have also worked to develop our own Common Core-aligned formative assessments that require the use of evidence in written responses. For example, as we finished a nine-week-long unit focused on fiction and nonfiction about the Titanic, two of my colleagues prepared an assessment comparing a poem in which the ship was personified with a nonfiction article about attempts to raise the wreckage from the bottom of the Atlantic. Students had to use evidence to support their observations about the two pieces. I have a feeling that within a year or two, using evidence will be habit for our kids.
Christina Suarez: High school social studies teacher and 11-year veteran teacher in Vermont
As a history teacher I constantly struggle with what content is non-negotiable. History curricula frequently rely on “drill and kill.” Without question there are historical facts that students need to memorize and internalize; but assessments need to show us more about our students’ skill sets. The skills social scientists use — reasoning, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis — become the foundation for building a framework of knowledge. Learning these skills are the true purpose of studying history and society.
I have found that students find more meaning when reading primary historical texts, like Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail or Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth. It is more challenging for a student to answer questions about historical significance, but it’s a challenge that I find many enjoy. These sorts of philosophical texts engage students in the most pertinent social questions — questions that students recognize as being part of the human experience. These texts also have broader cultural significance in terms of concepts and vocabularies, strengthening the working knowledge-base students are building.
During one lesson, as my students navigated a complex social studies text and answered Common Core-aligned constructed-response assessment prompts, they struggled with explaining how the author’s craft of using a counter-claim made her argument stronger. Through this assessment I learned that they didn’t understand the concept of “counter-claim.” After consulting with my colleagues, I knew that this element of the Standards was a skill that we needed to focus on. We continued choosing texts that showed the students this argumentative technique.
Some of my favorite lessons this year have revolved around culminating writing tasks — much like the ones they’ll see on Common Core-aligned assessments. I let the students take a turn at being the teacher by giving them all the same copy of an old student paper on the same subject they had been writing about. They went to town! They were harsher than I was. This lesson helped students begin to flesh out what makes coherent writing. They can see the holes in the argument of another student and ask questions. As a teacher I needed to ensure that the activity was productive and that students understood how to make positive recommendations; asking them to put themselves in the author’s shoes was key. Learning how to edit to build someone’s work up, rather than tear it down, is an invaluable skill and it makes my students’ writing stronger.
Em LeBlanc: Grade 3 math, science, and social studies teacher in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
I am part of a team of teachers in our district that creates Common Core-aligned benchmark assessments. At the end of each unit, students in each grade take the assessments and we collect data in order to drive our instruction. In addition to the formative assessments each school creates, these benchmark assessments provide an overview of how all students in our district are performing. While teachers teach in many different ways to best meet the needs of their students, the benchmark assessments address specific standards that all our students need to meet.
While I’m creating assessments, one of my favorite resources to use is “Uncovering Student Ideas in Science” by Page Keeley. The book provides a one-page probe with a short task for students to complete, and it covers a wide variety of concepts like sound, living things, and matter. These tasks can be used before and after a unit to analyze and compare student understanding, and helps you, as the teacher, see any student misconceptions about a topic. Before my environmental science unit, I used one of the assessments to see if my students really knew what it meant to be alive. Students had to look at a list of things and put a check next to “living” things. Then they had to write a rule for what it meant for something to be considered “alive.” When reviewing their work, I noticed that some of my students answered that for something to be alive it had to breathe. This information about my students helped guide my lessons.
Page Keeley wrote another resource that I like to use in my classroom called, “Science Formative Assessment.” Don’t be fooled by the word “science” in the title — you can use these assessments for all subjects. In the book, Keeley gives 75 quick ways to check for understanding and incorporate methods of formative assessment into your teaching throughout the day. I use several of these methods every day!
Another great resource for busy teachers is “25 Quick Formative Assessments for a Differentiated Classroom.” This book gives lots of great ideas for assessing kids in a variety of ways so I can better understand the learning needs of each of my students and modify my instruction.
With the help of these three books, I have a better understanding of how my students are progressing toward meeting the Common Core State Standards. Using these tools has become natural and has improved the quality and purpose of my teaching.