Looking back on my own school years, I can only remember one reason for teachers giving tests: to measure if (or to what extent) we learned the content the teacher had delivered. It was a high-stakes, end of the road sort of thing. There were various formats for assessment, including essays, quizzes, tests and lab reports. Yet, there was this finality to assessment that is unsettling to think about now that – as a teacher – I have a wider perspective. Recently, there has been a great deal of useful research on how we can use assessments to inform instruction, rather than just as a measurement tool for student learning.
When I was in grad school in the early 2000’s, my professors talked a lot about linking the assessment to objectives. For example, if I want my students to understand Steinbeck’s use of foreshadowing in Of Mice and Men, the assessment would ask students to demonstrate their understanding by identifying and using textual evidence, by answering teacher-generated questions, etc. This all seemed perfectly logical to me. The teacher guides students’ reading, they come to understand the concept, and then they show that they’ve learned it. So simple! The true teacher reality check (and you know you’ve been there) is when you forego watching the Sunday afternoon NFL games, sit down at your kitchen table with a large cup of coffee and start grading a set of essays you find atrocious, incoherent and, most of all, frustrating. Realizing most of your students actually do not understand foreshadowing, you quickly switch to wine and lament your failure as an educator or, just as likely, the total apathy of the kids. Unfortunately, both might be correct. It’s a dangerous practice to treat any assessment as the last step in the learning process because – newsflash! – not every student is going to understand (or, for that matter, care enough to understand) when the teacher decides it is time for him to get it.
For the love of words
We became English teachers because we love words. We love literature. We love to engage students in critical thinking. But we can’t ignore the fact that we are responsible for teaching specific skills that can be measured. So, why not measure them in a way that can make future learning more useful? According to my brilliant and thoughtful colleague, Matthew Morone, “We need to (begrudgingly) acknowledge that English education is not some random assortment of esoteric and ambiguous ideas/nuances/beliefs and recognize that we do, in fact, teach measurable skills. Things like writing a thesis, recognizing rhetorical devices, vetting a source…can and should be measured throughout a unit of study, not strictly presented on a unit test as a gotcha question OR forgotten about entirely with no assessment whatsoever.”
Data to the rescue
Fortunately, there are ways English educators can design assessments that are not so high stakes and not so final. We can view student outcomes and analyze data in order to design future lessons and curricula that are differentiated and meaningful for students. If you are like most English teachers, you might have wanted to immediately close this window when you saw the word data. I, for one, never thought I would be using Excel spreadsheets for my job as an English teacher. Luckily, my previous, albeit short, career as a paralegal prepared me for this aspect of today’s data-driven, show-me-the-evidence-to-prove-it world of education. I can certainly understand why data is scary to educators today. There are so many unfair measures in place that use student scores to evaluate teachers and to determine whether or not we are doing our jobs well. But we’ll save my feelings about teacher evaluation methods for another day.
With the technology available to us, we are able to immediately access data regarding student answers to reading comprehension questions and written responses to literature. I personally use the LMS, Schoology, for all of my classes. After giving an online quiz, I can, within minutes, see average student scores and responses for each question. I can identify the skill required to answer that question and make a conscious decision to refocus my instruction to meet students’ needs for that skill. Turnitin.com allows teachers to write comments and identify areas of student writing with ready to use explanations of grammatical concepts. Students can then utilize this feedback for another draft or their next writing assignment. One of the most useful technologies I have used is the website Academic Merit. One area of this site, Assessments 21, includes readings of various genres and levels, followed by reading comprehension questions and essay prompts. The multiple choice questions and writing rubrics are aligned with Common Core standards and allow teachers to identify specific areas of concern for each student. We have used this data for our department’s Student Growth Objectives, but I have also found it helpful in guiding writing instruction. Measurable skills like stating a clear thesis, using supporting details and making direct textual references are skills that cannot only be measured, but can be improved with subsequent lessons and class activities. Let us also not forget all the new and innovative ways students can demonstrate measurable skills. They can tweet, post, screencast and share collaborative docs. There are endless tools we can use in our classrooms to not only encourage student engagement but also measure what they know and on which skills they need to work.
Join us in Chicago
Speaking of assessment, CEL is proud to announce our Summer Institute on Critical Issues: Assessment for School Leaders and Teachers, which will take place July 17-19, 2014 at Elmhurst College in Chicago, IL. In addition to hearing from keynote speakers on the topic of assessment, we will work in focused collaborative groups on three strands: formative and summative assessment, assessment of teachers and assessment of curricular programs. Institute participants will select their own strands and form collaborative groups to discuss these issues in depth and develop content to share. For more information about the institute, check out http://www.ncte.org/cel/institute.
Tracy Recine – @tracyrecine
Pascack Valley High School, NJ