Part 1: Wandering in the Wilderness

Today's blog post is the first of a three part series on assessments in education. At Center High School and around the country, we are preparing to take a slew of standardized tests. Center has done well in recent years, so I suppose it is unfair to complain too heartily. However I cannot help but feel that there is something profoundly wrong at a foundation level with how we judge educators and students in America. This series was inspired in large part by this TED talk from Geoffrey Canada, founder and Principle of the revolutionary Harlem Children's Zone.

April 30th, 2014 - Part 2: The Phase of Justification
May 7th, 2014 - Part 3: Data-Based Decisions

Part 1: Wandering in the Wilderness


Assessment is one of the most vital pieces of the educational puzzle. It is an important part of any profession. Without assessment, one cannot find flaws to improve and find ways to become a better [fill in the blank]. Assessment should be a key point of data collection for teachers and a key benchmark for students and parents. It was also a key flaw of much of the first four years of my teaching career. I am evolving as a teacher like we all are. I have gone through a few different phases of evolution with how I have assessed my students. I have learned from each as I have experienced successes and failures.

The New Teacher Phase
What an awful phase of teaching. If fraternities are not allowed to haze, then educators should never have to be first year teachers. It simply isn't good for the soul.

In this phase, my assessments could be characterized by the term plagiarism. Teachers are encouraged to beg, borrow and steal, and that is what I did in earnest for the first six months of my career. I either gave tests straight out of a textbook-provided test bank or I copied a test that had been given by another teacher. There was very little in the way of matching my assessments with my in-class teaching.

Grades were simply a number. I was slow to grade tests* and slower to get them back to students.When I finally did trudge through the process, I entered the number in the book and forgot about it.

*One of the key mistakes of assessments in education is how quickly results are delivered. What the hell good does an EOC test do when teachers don't get results until the summer!  And then teachers come back the following year to teach a different set of students. Any value such an assessment had as a tool for improving learning was lost in the two months it took to get results and the following two months before the teacher actually interacts with a kid again.

The Performance Event Phase

My principal for the first four years of my career, the wonderful Beth Heide (@BethHeide) is a big proponent of the performance event. It has been a required portion of our class finals in addition to any multiple choice portion the teacher chooses to give. A performance event could be any number of activities, from conducting a lab from start to finish on your own, to a speech or video that the student makes, to an in-depth discussion or essay that the student participates in.

I quickly attached to this idea of a performance event. It was the center of my assessment world for the end of that first year and most of my second year of teaching. This phase was so long because there is a lot of merit to it. In fact, I think this phase is probably the cousin of the phase that I'm currently entering. More on that later.

The issue with the Performance Event Phase is that it is easy for a performance event to feel authentic and real even when it is not. This particular flaw is a recurring theme in how assessments can go wrong. I would give a lab (I was a science teacher at that point) or a data table that had to be turned into a graph, call it a performance event and feel pretty damn good about what I was doing.

This phase ended towards the end of my second year of teaching when I realized that I could successfully train students for a specific type of performance event, give that type of performance event, enjoy their success, and at the end realize that they were no better at thinking through a never-before-seen problem and finding a solution from their intellectual tool kit. I was teaching a more complex version of rote memorization.

The 'We-Are-All-English-Teachers' Phase
This is one of my favorites!* I thought I had found it. The key to success! If I could get students to write, I would win! I would be the best teacher ever! Common Core, here I come! So I talked with a colleague of mine, Steve Parker, about giving tests that were all written response and no multiple choice. I stayed in this phase until probably a month ago. Much like the Performance Event Phase, there is a lot of good in this phase - I was putting it into action poorly.

*By the way, I do still believe this to be true, even if I've moved on from this phase! Reading and writing are the foundation of success. The task must be started earlier (shout out to the brilliant Kelly Wachel (@KellyWachel) and the Center Made Smart program), but I still have a role in the process as a high school teacher.

I started to give assessments that would have some multiple choice questions and some short response questions. I felt pretty good about what I was doing, but the test scores were low. Like many teachers, I figured that when the entire class scored low, it was at least partially on me. I still believe that to be true, but the story was much more gray than that.

I made a big mistake at the start of this phase. I started changing the type of questions that I would ask on my assessments because these new questions saw higher test scores. I got away from why in my questioning and strayed darkly into the zone. This zone, while it has its place in education, has a mansion built in the land of DOK 1 and 2. I got better test scores, but I was not really assessing critical thought or problem solving. The students, again, were being assessed on a higher level of rote memorization. That is not where I wanted to be.


Now we get to the million dollar question: How do you create an assessment that reflects student learning and growth both in your content area and from a holistic perspective?*

*Spoiler alert: I don't have the answer. Yet. 

In large part due to the writing of this blog, I have started to ask myself more questions about how I teach. One of the great benefits of this is that I am finding more simple errors in what I do before I start the topic in class because I know that in a week or two, I'll want to write a post about this. As 3rd-grade as it sounds, that knowledge encourages me to be better in the classroom each day.

Like the essential questions that guide a good unit, I have started to look at a few barometer questions for the assessments that I give:
- Does the assessment require the student to think? Like really, truly, deeply think?
- Can the answer or solution to the assessment be found with a quick google search? If yes, then the assessment needs to be changed.
- Does the assessment require the student to utilize multiple skills or resources?
- Does the assessment give the teacher and the student usable feedback that can help feed changes in future instruction and learning?

The idea that a child's learning can be assessed through a multiple choice test is bogus. How many young people flop on the ACT then go on to be wildly successful in college? Equally as bogus, though, is the idea that fill-in-the-blank alternative assessment is inherently better than that multiple choice exam. Each form of assessment needs to be carefully thought out before the unit ever begins. The end-game must drive the entire unit of study. Further, the idea of a single, big, scary test at the end of the unit is becoming more false to me each day.

Assessing students is similar to an orchestra in concert. I may have an affinity for the sound of the trumpet much as I may do particularly well with a single type of assessment. Though the trumpet may have a glorious solo at a moment in the concert, the beauty of the whole orchestra will always supersede the singular sound of the trumpet just as a mixture of well-developed and well-timed assessments will give a much clearer picture of student achievement and progress. It is the role of the teacher, much as it is the role of the composer, to find that perfect tune for each and every unit of study.

It is this string of thought that has led me to change the way that I assess students once more. I have entered the Phase of Justification. I hope you'll check back in a week for Part 2: The Phase of Justification.


Check back again next Wednesday for Part 2: The Phase of Justification. I'll take a deeper look into authentic assessment in my classroom and why I chose to allow students to use the internet while they take their tests.

Join in the conversation be getting in touch or by commenting below. I am especially curious what non-educators think about assessments in schools. After all, schools should prepare students to be more than just a good student.

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