THIS WEEK’S TOPIC
How did students respond to the new assessments? What did they enjoy? Where did your students find success? What did they find challenging?
As we post our final blog in the Assessment Diaries series, we want to remind everyone why we created this series – to show how teachers value and use assessment as an integral tool in making their students successful.
A study by the Northwest Evaluation Association found that 68% of teachers think that assessments support students, but only 48% of teachers think that they also support teachers. This is, at least partially, reflective of how assessments have been designed and used in the past. But this series demonstrates how powerful formative assessments can be for teachers when they are consistent. The same study found that students overwhelmingly understand the value of quality assessments – 95% of students believe that tests are important in helping their teachers determine if they are making progress during the year.
As we look ahead to the promise of new assessments, ones that are aligned to what teachers are doing with their students every day in the classroom, we see an elimination of the dreaded test prep. The exciting lessons and instructional practices our bloggers have shared from their own classrooms will be the best preparation possible.
We chose to close the series focusing on students: what they need to be successful, and how they feel about the new assessments, whether they are consortia field tests or formative assessments aligned to the Common Core. Their reactions confirmed what we know: that new assessments are challenging, but daily practice pays off. Not practice filling in answer bubbles, but practice with the skills and concepts that will be critical to them in college and their careers.
TEACHER NOTES FROM THE FIELD
Em LeBlanc: Grade 3 math, science, and social studies teacher in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
When I showed my students the PARCC tutorial, I heard “oooos” and “ahhhs.” They were actually excited to take the field test! Was I dreaming? They thought it was the coolest thing! I wasn’t going to argue. And as much as I wanted my students to experience this new type of assessment, I also wanted answers to questions that I have. I wanted to be able to confidently explain how this works to my colleagues. Going into the field test, I wondered: What will it be like? Will my students be able to navigate this test without my help? Will they take it seriously? What if the computer freezes?
I have always taught a grade that has a standardized test, so I was used to the routine. I read the manual verbatim, walked around to make sure there weren’t problems, and answered questions. Surprisingly, though, my students didn’t have many questions. They were able to complete this test independently. Two students’ computers kicked them out of the system, but when they logged back into the field test, it had placed them exactly where they left off. I felt relieved! This was a common concern for many teachers.
During a traditional paper-and-pencil standardized test, there is so much pressure on the teacher. Keeping up with all of the documents, monitoring for cheating, hauling materials, completing paperwork, and other extra stresses make testing unpleasant. All of that is gone with the new assessment. There weren’t any documents for me to keep in order and I didn’t have to worry about cheating because each student had a different version of the test. This process was much easier than I expected. After the field test, my students told me they even felt more comfortable during the test. They didn’t have to keep up with all the documents on their desks and they didn’t have to make sure their bubbles were filled in all the way. They also said that they weren’t stressed for this test because they weren’t staring at a huge book of questions in front of them.
When I asked about the testing process as a whole, my 3rd graders thought it was pretty straightforward. Even easy! The shifts in math (focus, coherence, and rigor) have really helped guide my teaching. I think their confidence came from being able to focus on what was important this year, and having lots of practice in order to master those skills. Since we are changing the standards, we have to change the assessments, too. I feel confident in this new test because it will be assessing what the students actually know and how they know it, not just if they can fill in the right bubble. My students picked up on this difference right away, and they felt successful.
Tricia Ebner: Gifted and talented middle school teacher in an ELA-based program in Hartville, Ohio
I’ve been talking with my students, especially my 8th graders, quite a bit during the last few weeks about how the methods and tools we use in our English Language Arts class have changed in the last three years, and how their school experiences have changed overall. Their initial evaluation of these changes, especially when it comes to the assessments, is mixed. Change is hard.
Of course, one of the biggest changes for them is moving from paper-pencil tasks to computer-based tasks. They’ve told me before that using computers for reading and writing is more “real-world” to them. However, one student said she felt it was challenging to simply be working on the computer for more than an hour, that working on the computer keyboard and screen was tiring. Others, though, said they liked using the computers much more than the traditional paper-and-pencil, bubble-sheet tests we’ve used in the past.
One student said that using the computer and having a set amount of time made her focus, get down to business, and really work on the task at hand. Several other students echoed her comment about focus. It was interesting to hear the kids vocalize what I’ve been noticing for over a year now: When I ask the kids to complete a writing task on the computers, whether we’re doing a first draft of a piece or responding to a cold-prompt, they are much more focused and take it more seriously than if I give them the same kind of task as a paper-pencil activity.
The kids also talked about stress when I asked, “How did you feel about the computer-based tests you took recently?” One student responded, “stressed.” But not all her classmates had the same feeling. We use computers regularly in class, so I don’t think her stress was due to any unfamiliarity with using computers. I suspect her reaction has more to do with the change in testing format. Talking with middle school kids, I realized that our older students (middle school and high school especially) may find the computer-based format a bit of a stressful change, especially since every major test they’ve taken to this point has been in paper-and-pencil format.
As a teacher, I’m taking their comments and my observations of their behavior and performance, and I’m keeping those in mind as I plan for next year. I will need to give more computer-based assessments in my class, not just the writing tasks I’ve been doing. I need to delve into some of the other resources we have and develop online tests that will help my students become familiar with the technology and comfortable with the idea of communicating what they know on the computer. If I plan carefully, by next February my students will be ready to dive into the new assessments — technology and all — with confidence. They’ll show our state, district, me, and most importantly, themselves, exactly what they know and can do.
Cay Freeman: Grades 6-8 math intervention teacher and 28-year veteran teacher in Windsor, Connecticut
As we turn the calendar to May, my thoughts inevitably turn to the end of the school year and to planning for next year. As my school and district are preparing for the Smarter Balanced assessments next spring, I ask myself: What experiences have I given my students this year that will prepare them for success on these new assessments?
I know that I have helped prepare my students by giving them regular practice with online assessments. My math students take the STAR Math tests every two to three weeks, to monitor their progress in my math intervention class. The STAR Math test is adaptive, like Smarter Balanced will be – it adjusts the difficulty of the upcoming questions based on whether or not the student answered previous questions correctly. Students who make careless errors and answer questions incorrectly will see less difficult questions – a design which allows students who struggle with the material to demonstrate what they do know. However, carelessness will cause scores to suffer. This is why I require all my students to slow themselves down while taking the test and write the problems on scratch paper, which is not an intuitive practice for students when taking a test on the computer.
I know that my students will also need more practice with the types of rigorous questions that they will encounter next year. Anyone who has taken the Smarter Balanced practice tests or tried the released items knows that the questions students will face are much more difficult than most states’ previous tests. Students will need perseverance to continue working through the problems when they get tough. I know that I have helped them to increase their perseverance this year by asking more open-ended questions in class and not rescuing them right away when they struggle. It was difficult at first, but my students learned that they have a lot of resources they can use to figure out a solution to a problem when an answer is not readily apparent. This will allow them to feel confident in their abilities when they encounter a challenging question on next year’s assessments.
My students have also definitely improved their mathematical thinking through our “math talks” at the start of each class. We put down our pencils and use mathematical reasoning to see patterns and solve problems. Students have learned to be flexible and use different strategies to find a solution. Again, this was difficult for them at first; they were comfortable with being taught one — and only one — way to solve a problem that they could memorize (but would promptly forget after the test). But now, to solve a fraction division problem, for example, they may use mathematical thinking (asking questions such as, “How many equal groups?”), draw models, use a number line, or use the traditional algorithm to solve the problem. They have gotten better at modeling with mathematics, which is a skill I weave into all my lessons. They are connecting math to everyday life within the context of solving problems.
All of these skills take time to teach and time for students to practice. Inevitably, I do significantly fewer problems in a class period, but instead focus deeply on several well-chosen problems that will lead students to a higher level of conceptual understanding and develop skills that they can apply widely. I know that I need to sharpen my focus even more next year, but I take comfort in knowing that quality teaching practices and deep learning opportunities are the best preparation for any test. I believe that our combined hard work will ultimately lead to my students’ success not only on the tests, but in life.