THIS WEEK’S TOPIC
As a teacher, why do you think we need new assessments? What needs to be true of these new assessments so that they reward the work you and your students are doing in your classroom?
TEACHER NOTES FROM THE FIELD
Em LeBlanc: Grade 3 math, science, and social studies teacher in
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
This might be kind of embarrassing to admit, but I think I have been assessing my students incorrectly. As teachers, we have taught test-taking strategies and formats of tests so our kids were familiar with thinking about questions in different ways. That was fine, but the tests never assessed what my students actually knew—just that they actually knew test-taking strategies.
I have had some a-ha moments lately thinking about this. My assessments didn’t really match what I expected of my students during instruction. I’ve always had high expectations for them—I expect them to think critically, explain their thinking, and show different ways to solve a problem. Honestly, my tests didn’t have those same expectations.
With this realization, and the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, I started to ask myself: I already make sure my math lessons are rigorous and involve fluency, conceptual understanding, and application to real life, so why not assess that?
I’ve started assessing rigor by using the ACE strategy. This strategy breaks down the problem-solving process for my students and makes them feel successful. They Analyze, Compute, and Explain. Here is the laminated card I send home to parents to keep, and that my students keep in their seat sack. I also have a stamp that says, “I’ve ACEd it!” from Really Good Stuff; the kids love it! Here’s why: the math is directly related to real life.
Students demonstrate fluency and conceptual understanding through solving problems in more than one way, and they also explain their thinking; this helps me assess their understanding. Over time, this way of thinking becomes natural for them. My students have started assessing each other and use accountable talk moves to share their thinking. In turn, I can assess rigor through how they communicate and what they communicate about.
I now see my students thinking rigorously as habit, showing their thinking and engaging in mathematical practices. Assessing my students in this way rewards that thinking, and the best part for me is that I have a better picture of what they really know and really don’t know.
We have to align our assessments to what we teach so it is cohesive. We worry that our students aren’t good test takers or that their scores reflect poorly on them when we KNOW they have conceptual understanding. New assessments should allow students to show what they know, not memorize test taking strategies.
Cay Freeman: Grade 6-8 math intervention teacher and 28-year veteran teacher in Windsor, Connecticut
As a middle school teacher I’ve found that our state assessments, like most states’ tests, have been largely made up of multiple choice questions that focus on basic knowledge: students were asked to add/subtract/multiply/divide, or find a detail in a reading passage. While these skills are certainly necessary, as teachers we know they should not be the extent of what we teach or what we assess.
Like it or not, we often use end-of-year assessments as benchmarks that determine what we teach to our students. So if the assessment only measures basic knowledge and skills, that’s what many students will learn.
With the new standards in place, students are now being asked to make sense of problems and persevere in solving them, identify important attributes of a situation or issue, construct viable arguments, critique the reasoning of others, and assess the reasonableness of a solution. For example, it’s not enough anymore for an eighth grader to solve a problem like 20 + 5z = 60, given four multiple choice answers. Instead, we need to assess a student’s ability to apply their skills on a much higher level, such as in this problem: What are two different equations with the same solution as 3(y – 1) = 8? Here, a student still needs to have the procedural fluency to solve the equation, but then must also apply understanding to generate equivalent equations. New assessments should reflect this: the new level of understanding students are reaching in their classes.
The new aligned assessments should also provide a new level of information for teachers and parents that can be used to better identify students’ instructional areas of strength and weakness— and compare their performance to students all over the country. We owe it to our children to do a better job of teaching and assessing them so they are better prepared for their futures.
Christina Suarez: High school social studies teacher and 11 year veteran teacher in Vermont
I had horrible test anxiety as an adolescent. The bubbles would blur on the Scantron sheet as I tried to hold back tears. I was frequently reduced to filling in the “C” bubble. But now as a teacher, I see the value of assessment when it’s a constant practice, not a moment of a truth at the end of the year. The final exam shouldn’t be the only shot a student has, and a 65% passing grade doesn’t show what they know! Whether asking kids questions in class verbally, or giving a writing assessment based on a text, we as teachers always need to check in with kids to know what students have learned and what they haven’t. Then we can redirect instruction to meet our students’ needs.
As a social studies teacher, my goal is to help students gain the skills they need to have the vocabulary and cultural capital to approach any complex text they may need when making democratic decisions in the world. Students need to be able to take multiple accounts and perspectives surrounding an issue and come to well thought-out opinions that they can defend with solid evidence. The Common Core Standards focus on just that – not which bubble to fill. An ideal assessment would reflect this.
Tricia Ebner: Gifted and talented middle school teacher in an ELA-based program in Hartville, Ohio
One of my frustrations with our current assessments is that they don’t really provide much stretch or challenge for my gifted students; they don’t allow them to express any kind of divergent thinking. The amount of critical thinking these assessments require is fairly low. While they give me a small snapshot of how well my students are doing with literature, nonfiction texts, vocabulary, and reading process, they don’t show just how far my students can take and use their skills.
In fact, I’ve had the experience where students have hit the very top of the percentiles for our current state assessments in one year, and in the next year have hit the same top percentile the following year. Even though I knew my students had grown in my classroom, they couldn’t possibly show growth on the assessments because of the limits those assessments had. I’ve been hoping the new assessments will give kids a chance to demonstrate their critical thinking, reading, and writing skills in an authentic way. As I’ve worked with PARCC sample items, I’ve been excited to see my hopes becoming reality.
New Common Core aligned assessments give students the opportunity to engage with high-quality, complex, content-rich texts that include strong vocabulary, and require them to consistently use evidence in their responses. The seventh grade performance-based items are a good example of this. Students read a biographical article on Amelia Earhart, then view a video on her life (using a link provided with the sample items) and/or read a transcript of the video’s text. Finally, students read an article that provides a look at Earhart’s life, but focuses especially on her disappearance and the theories of where she might have gone. These are all real-world, published, nonfiction texts, not passages written specifically for the purposes of assessments. This makes the questions and the performance task much more real-world and authentic, and it makes the assessment more engaging too.
I’ve also written a few of my own tasks. Because sixth graders in my school aren’t permitted to chew gum, I had my students research the benefits and costs of gum-chewing in schools and then present a written argument about whether or not they should be allowed the privilege of chewing gum once they reach seventh grade. After reading articles found in our library’s research databases and interviewing teachers and administrators, students crafted their arguments.
This kind of assessment task brings challenging questions into my classroom and require a much higher level of critical thinking. My middle school kids like real-world questions and problems; situations and problems that ask them to use the skills and concepts they’ve learned to produce something new. It’s the kind of work I ask my students to do routinely.