Part 2: The Phase of Justification

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.

Click here for Part 1: Wandering in the Wilderness
May 7th, 2014 - Part 3: Data-Based Decisions

Part 2: The Phase of Justification

I've tried something unique in my classroom. I think I've been on the path to this moment since I started teaching. I remember the first time I gave and graded a multiple choice test being totally conflicted. On the one hand, I gave a big test and got the results back quickly to the students. That was a 100 point test! I mean, that's got to be a big deal, right? 

On the other hand, I sensed like many teachers have that the multiple choice test simply wasn't good enough. It was backed by a whole bunch of research and pre-test testing from a textbook company, but it bored the sin out of both me and the students and I didn't feel that the class moved forward in any way because of it. I do think that the multiple choice test has its place in education. It's just that it should occupy a nose bleed seat way up in the corner. 

This week I gave two different types of short-answer exam. Neither is, in and of itself, particularly revolutionary. The Modern World History exam can be seen here and the US Government exam can be seen here

The Modern World History exam is pretty generic short answer. Keep in mind that this is a 9th grade test. There are four questions that are at DOK 2, three questions that are at DOK 3 and three questions that are at DOK 4. 

The US GOV exam is written for juniors and seniors and is a bit shorter and more specific. This is a unique type of test. Students were given three tiers of question - 10 points, 20 points and 30 points. Students could pick and choose which specific questions they wanted to answer as long as the questions totaled 60 points. The students had to pick at least one 30 point question, which were very high-level, DOK 4 type questions; the rest was completely up to them. 

Now here is the truly unique part that I think is going to be the start of the Phase of Justification in my assessment journey - I allowed students to use anything they wanted as they took the exam. Textbook, internet, notes, homework...whatever. I had a conversation with each class* about my expectation for the assessment. I told them in very straightforward terms that getting what we tend to consider the "right" answer factually was not going to earn full points on this exam. They were going to have to justify everything that they wrote. Simply finding the knowledge from their tool-kit of resources was merely step one of a two or three step process. 

*I think this is important. I really had a conversation with back and forth. I told them what I expected and I listened to their questions and tried to help them understand my reasoning for this rather significant change.

This is a change that will take time. I expect some pushback on this first test and I expect many answers that are the same-old low level factual answers. I told the students my reasoning, which centers around the following beliefs:
  • We now live in a world where knowledge can be found instantaneously, therefore...
  • The ability to know this knowledge is becoming less valuable, because...
  • The average person is able to become knowledgeable on nearly any subject quickly, therefore...
  • The ability to become knowledgeable and articulate knowledge is far more important than the specific knowledge itself, therefore...
  • Preparing students to enter the workforce should include assessment on their ability to answer legitimately difficult and open-ended questions (like they will do in their lives) with all resources available (like they will have throughout their lives), therefore I should...
Let students use all of their resources and ask questions of them that push them to apply their knowledge to new problems that they have never seen before. 


The idea behind all this is admittedly nothing new. If anything is truly unique about this, it is my decision to allow students to essentially have open resources while they take their assessment, including the internet. I see two main things that could cause this method to fail terribly. 

First, I have to write really good, thoughtful questions. If I ask all DOK 1 or 2 questions, or all questions that are information recall, the whole idea is shot. Without challenging questions* the whole thing is a glorified assignment. 

*My little phrase in class is that the answers to these questions will never be found with a Google search. 

Second, and in my opinion more importantly, I have to grade the tests quickly and rigorously. Quickly so that the students can gain something from the feedback. That is not unique to this particular assessment - think back to what Dr. Canada said in the above video about how quickly standardized tests get back to students and teachers. The rigorous part is the difficult part for a teacher. You see, when I grade my students' test really rigorously, I am not only grading them - I am also grading myself. 

If grades are low on this test* then it is not only an indictment of where the students are but also an indictment of how hard I have pushed them to not only do but to think. I am excited to start an entire class with this method of assessment next fall. This is probably the kind of change that will take some getting used to for both myself and the students. 

*And we'll see! They finish the tests on Friday and then I'll grade them over the weekend.

Now that I've started this, I want to know who else is assessing this way. From everything that I've read and learned about Common Core, this seems like exactly the way that the world wants assessment to go. I also am not sure I'm totally in favor of Common Core. Then again, I'm not as negative as the Tea Party is...

If you missed the first part in this series on how I assessed during the first four years of my career, check out
Part 1 of this three part series on authentic assessment. Join in the conversation below about how you assess in your classroom or in your profession!

Love it? Hate it? Leave your thoughts below and let's talk about it!
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