Tuesday, September 6, 2016

My Teacher Said The A-word (and I hope she says it again)

       It is has become the dirtiest word in education.  It is the subject of many heated arguments among parents, educators, and politicians.  Not a day goes by that I don't see at least one angry meme, blog ranting, or Facebook post by a vehement parent who worries that his/her child has been harmed as a result of it.  It is one of major "flaws" in our educational system that homeschooling parents will cite as the reason behind their choice to opt out of public education.  The word, of course, is assessment.  These days many parents and educators alike claim that students currently spend too much time taking "lengthy, meaningless tests"  that encroach on students' time to learn and grow and think creatively.

       Is their argument valid?

       The honest answer is that it depends.

The Purpose of Assessment

       Let's ignore high-stakes standardized testing (like the PARCC or Smarter Balanced) for a moment and focus solely on assessments that are teacher and district created.  We know that in a true professional learning community, lessons are planned with the end assessment in mind. This philosophy is known as backwards planning and helps to ensure that teachers are not simply filling their calendars with activities until after they possess a clear understanding the learning objectives they want students to master.
       Writing that summative assessment prior to lesson planning enables teachers to understand the vehicle that be used to provide evidence that students can in fact master those standards deemed important. In an ideal world, once summative assessments are crafted, teachers can now plan with their students' needs in mind relying on quick, nonintrusive formative assessments throughout an instructional cycle that enable them to make a myriad of instructional decisions:  choosing which lesson is right for which groups of students, determining when it is necessary to switch gears and reteach, analyzing which concepts will take longer for specific students to grasp, and deciding which classroom strategies are most effective for which groups of learners.
           If implemented correctly, formative assessments happen as a natural part of learning and are really the catalysts that change tomorrow's lesson.  Formative assessments need not look like giant paper and pencil tests but should be more organic in nature, taking on many different forms:  individual or group conferencing, exit slips, socratic seminars, and online discussion boards to name a few.  Furthermore, if implemented correctly, assessment becomes a natural, fluid part of the classroom environment (as opposed to a stop and test method) and enables a teacher to determine next instructional steps while also differentiating for the various levels of learners in her class.  Without these types of assessments, teachers would just be lesson planning in a haphazard fashion -- throwing darts at a dart board and hoping one of them hits the target.  Quality assessment is actually what ensures that students get what they need when they need it.  Imagine, for example, that you have a horrible cough that continues to linger and without even listening to your breathing, your doctor immediately writes you a prescription for a medication that worked wonders for the last patient who complained of similar symptoms.  This is what happens if assessment is not a foundational part of our educational system. What works for one student does not always work for the next.  We need to dig deeper into the data to determine next instructional steps.
         If the assessment process follows the prescribed plan detailed above, then the arguments of those condemning the time spent on assessment are completely invalid.  However, if holes in the system exist and assessment is not used to drive instruction, those memes and angry blogs just might have a leg to stand on.   So how do we, as teachers, ensure that assessment maintains its focus on learning and not scoring?

        When using assessment in your classroom, it is important to keep these things in mind:

1)  Pre-Assessments should change what you do in your classroom with specific students.
       When my son was in first grade, I attended his fall conference with his teacher who announced happily that he earned a 100% on both the first two unit pre-assessments in math.  I smiled back, and said, "That's great.  So what did you do differently with him as a result of this data?"  She told me that she did nothing.  My son received the same lesson plans that she had crafted in July prior to giving him this test or having ever met my son.  That the test was just to "measure growth."  Was the pre-assessment a waste of instructional minutes in this case?  Absolutely.  If you are going to take the time to give a pre-assessment prior to teaching specific learning targets, you need to make sure that you look at the data soon enough to do something about it and that you create lesson plans as a result of what you have learned.  Even if my son had only gotten half the problems right on those pre-assessments, am I not learning as a teacher that he might already know some of the skills that I'd planned to spend days teaching?

        This might seem like a no-brainer, but if we give a pre-assessment and then do not get to looking at the data until weeks later or only look for trends and not at the individual student level, there really is no point to giving it.  Save yourself and students the time it would take to give it.   Students will be in another place by the time you decide to do something with it, and the data is no longer relevant. Thus, when you pre-assess, my recommendation is to make the assessment short enough that you can have quick turn around time.
        Rather than looking at a pre-assessment (or any other assessment for that matter) with the goal of deciding how to "score" it, look at it from the lens of "what will I do differently with this child tomorrow knowing what he can and can't do?" If this answer to this question is "nothing" because your lesson plan is already written in ink that won't erase than don't give the pre-assessment.  Additionally, if we pre-assess but continue to deliver a series of whole class lessons, not differentiating for the various needs in the room, our pre-assessment was for naught.

2. Use Creative, Real-World Tasks For an Authentic Audience Whenever Possible
        Tim Shanahan, literacy expert from University of Illinois Chicago, has stated that one of his biggest fears with the backwards planning model that is the backbone of professional learning communities is that he worries that teachers will focus their instruction only on the one task students will need to shine on during that summative assessment and not expose them to other types of tasks that could also potentially hit the same learning target.  Backwards planning design definitely runs the risk of this happening and can be why some students and parents feel that assessment seems redundant and unimaginative.  Nobody wants to feel like their classroom is a clip of the movie Groundhog Day - an identical replication of the day before.  In English class, for example, I know of very few students (even the most voracious of readers and most talented of writers) who can be inspired to repeat the same type of written task for an audience of one -- the teacher-- on a consistent basis.  The first purpose of writing (unless it is private, journal writing) is to communicate one's thoughts with an audience.  If students are constantly only sharing their thoughts with their teacher for school-type tasks, is it a wonder that they are less inspired to revise their work? If I were crafting this blog today knowing that only one other person might potentially read it, I'd probably care less about the words I use, the examples I share, and the message I send.  Students, like adults, need an authentic audience.
         Technology today makes it possible for students to communicate safely with others across the world easily via blogs, websites, and the internet.  Why not link assessment to authentic tasks?  Instead of requiring all students to write the daunting school five paragraph essay about the theme in an author's work for the third time, why not ask students to create their own vlog critique of the author's message and find a safe avenue for students to share their vlog with their peers?  The learning target is the same for both tasks, but one has a more authentic purpose and will most likely glean more interest from students.
       When he grows up, my eighth grade son is convinced that he will become a famous Youtuber (in other words, he plans to live in my basement for the rest of his life).  I'm sure that just by changing the format to a video blog or a website rather than a paper to be viewed only by the teacher, his teacher would definitely see a more engaged student.  And we all know, the research is clear on student engagement:  engagement leads to increased learning.....
       Thus, thinking outside the box in the assessment arena is pivotal to student success.

     3.  Be careful how far in advance you craft your lesson plans  
         In general, as a group of teachers, we are planners.  We like to check things off our color-coded to-do lists and move on to the next item.  It feels good to know that we are prepared.  We can breathe easier knowing we are ready well in advance for all things life might throw at us.  While preparedness is usually a positive trait that yields fabulous results in all other facets of our lives, our tendency to over-plan can also hinder our ability to use assessment data to its fullest.
       When we plan in advance, we tend to put too many things on our calendars.  I've heard many teachers repeat this same statement over and over again the first few weeks -- even the first few days-- into the school year:  "I'm already behind."  What does this mean exactly?  This usually means that when I sat down over the summer or the weekend to plan out my lessons for the month, I've included too many activities.  In my imaginary lesson planning world where everything runs smoothly (i.e. no unexpected fire drills, no behavior management issues, and no instances where any child didn't get what I was teaching the very first time I taught it),  all those activities fit neatly into the twenty minute time segments I've allotted.  Then reality hits and real bodies fill those seats in my classroom and things take longer than I expect them to take and I'm teaching Wednesday's plans on Friday and constantly feeling like I need to "catch up."  Is it any wonder, then, when children in my room need reteaching and when the data suggestions that I will need to differentiate my instruction for various levels of learners in my classroom, that I am now completely overwhelmed with the fact that I just don't have any time?
        If I took a step back for a moment, I would probably see that the burden of feeling behind is 100% driven by my own need to follow my beautifully crafted calendar that may even have worked perfectly last year with a different group of students.  The only problem is that I forgot that student learning is often messy and that the first rule in teaching is to expect the unexpected.  I'm not saying that planning ahead and having goals is a bad thing -- I'm just saying that leaving some days open on that calendar from the beginning and knowing that they will get filled in as a result of formative assessments might be something to think about unless you want to feel like you are constantly "behind."    Nobody likes that feeling.  Especially not the list makers.  By switching your inner dialogue and reminding yourself that the day you spent reteaching in small groups enabled more learners to move forward toward their goals, you will soon realize that you haven't wasted a single moment.  If you took steps to ensure that your learners are moving forward, you can't possibly be behind.
      We need to stop our attempts to rush through curriculum and shift the focus from teaching to learning.  Even when our lesson is orchestrated perfectly and ninety-five percent of our students master a target, let's celebrate but continue to ask ourselves:  what can I do next for those five percent who didn't get it?  What new strategy can I use that might help them join the group of mastering students more quickly?  I bet your colleagues might have a few great suggestions you haven't tried yet.

4.  Know That State Assessments Help Schools Evaluate What Is Working and What Isn't

      If you sat a roomful of parents and educators down and asked them if they wanted students to learn to think and read with a critical eye, to synthesize sources of information and draw their own inferences,  and to communicate coherently in both speaking and writing, would anybody really say no?  The reality is that these are all skills demanded by the Common Core State Standards and assessed on the PARCC (Smarter Balance in some state) exam.   Very few complained about testing when the ISAT test existed,  maybe because that test was of low rigor and students could earn much lower than a fifty percent on the exam to be considered "meeting" on this state exam.   If there was ever a time when people should have been complaining about standardized exams, it was during ISAT testing.  But yet ISAT is gone, yet here we are.
        Now, with the more rigorous tasks and texts on the PARCC exam, a fear exists.  For teachers this fear is often the following:  do I possess the skills needed to help all my students master these more rigorous tasks?  And for parents it should be:   how do I help my child to understand that exams help provide evidence about his/her individual strengths and needs?  If school systems do what they should with the data they receive from these exams, and parents lend their support, the data from standardized tests will be analyzed by district leaders and teachers in order to make appropriate curricular changes and provide professional development for faculty to ensure that all students receive the best education possible.  Again, the time students spend taking the PARCC exam (which is now quite similar to the amount of time it took to take the previous ISAT) is only wasted if parent and teacher support does not exist as this can trickle down to students not doing their personal best. If students don't do their personal best, the assessment won't help schools evaluate their systems.  The choice is in our hands.

Final Thoughts

Assessment is not a big scary monster that is worthy of the intense criticism.  If it is used the way it needs to be, assessment is actually what allows all levels of learners to achieve their maximum potential.  But if this isn't your current reality, use this list above as a tool to reevaluate current practices and you just might be able to cross off a few items on your assessment checklist.

Which practice might you want to change for tomorrow?

What should be added to this list?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.....

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