Beyond the Assessment Institute…

This is cross posted at the Cooperative Catalyst.

I do think words matter. (See a previous post here.) I think how we define words matter and it’s important to have common definitions, language and belief systems when working together and sharing kids.

Joe Bower ended his post today with a quote from Socrates about the beginning of wisdom and defined, “…assessment as a process where the teacher and student work together to nurture a desire to go on learning…” That made me wonder…Is that how I would define assessment?  Is that how YOU would define assessment?

I KNOW it’s not how many teachers would define assessment. This summer, I’m going to participate in a professional development opportunity in my county, one we call the CAI (Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction) Institute and the topic is assessment.    Two of the outcomes are supposed to be:

  • A shared model for a process of assessment among stakeholders
  • Develop knowledge and skills for participants in assessment:
    • process
    • task and item creation
    • leadership

So, clearly the leaders of this work see assessment as a process.  But, is it a process “where the teacher and student work together to nurture a desire to go on learning” as Joe says?  Is it a process to find out what is known and unknown?  Is it a process to define future steps for learning and evaluate past actions? Is it all of those and more–or less?

Will teachers leave after three days with new skills in assessing? Will we have an opportunity to define assessment and come to a common understanding of the purpose of assessment? Or will we simply go back to our schools and continue to do weekly multiple choice tests to see what kids have learned in math, or drill kids with online programs like Spelling City and Accelerated Reader to define what they know and don’t know?

In looking at this year’s purpose of the CAI Institute, will we change our practice and how will we know whether it has made a difference? Will the representative teachers chosen to go then return to their schools and share what they learned to make changes in more teaching practices? Will we see language shifts in talking about student learning?  Will “item” mean a multiple choice question and “task” mean a real world one? Will we spend time on developing common language and exploring beliefs and building on current understandings to deepen knowledge and experience? Will there be opportunities to really delve into the work of creating high quality assessments that will make a difference in classrooms and in students’ lives? Will students see a difference in how they are asked to show their learning, or will worksheets still abound?  Will principals allow that to occur or will they be the leaders who set guidelines that drive a change to deeper ways of assessing?

HOW will the Institute be set up to forge common beliefs, to change the language we use in describing student learning and to refine assessment literacy to move beyond traditional methods to ones that make sense to the learner?  How would you set up a workshop like that?

What advice would you give the people who are setting up this opportunity, and how would YOU structure my day to have the biggest impact on students when we return to our schools to share what we’ve done?  How would you ensure that this three day institute would actually change what teachers and students do in school?

THE State Writing Test

Our state writing test is coming up in early March and the tension around it is beginning to rise. Our fifth grades departmentalize, so one teacher teaches writing every day, and the others integrate it into Science and Social Studies some, as well as address it in Literacy and Math as they can, so these kids have gotten lots of practice with writing.

What I see, though, from many of the kids, is quite a bit of this:


In spring of 2013, our writing test will be online, so that all students will do it on the computer. Our teachers have questions about this decision:

Is it best for all kids? Don’t some of us prefer the actual act of writing–pen to paper-to feel that flow of thoughts?  Are we handicapping those kids by forcing them to tell their story through a keyboard?

Will this decision force keyboarding lessons? How fast should kids be able to type?

What about all of those articles that talk about how fast kids can text?  Is this even something we have to worry about?

What about the kids who do NOT text?  Is there an equity issue we need to address?

Will they be allowed, or not, to use a spellchecker? (If integrating contemporary tools, why not utilize the full functionality–is the test on writing or spelling?)

Will the font be fixed, or will they be allowed to use text features as part of their composition (such as bold, underline, italics, etc.)?  They can do that with their handwritten texts, so why not with ones using technology?  They will probably be allowed to use spacing and indenting, so why not the full menu of text features we teach?

But, in the bigger scheme of things, why are we even considering these mechanical kinds of questions about the tools of the word processor?

We have access to the features our state will test through a program called Perspective (formerly NCS Mentor).  Here we can learn about scoring, access anchor papers to show our kids, understand the scoring domains and rubrics, and actually practice scoring actual compositions submitted by real fifth graders.

We can spend a ton of time helping kids understand the process, the scoring domains, rubrics and anchor papers.  Would our time be better spent with kids writing? Some say yes.

I think that our third graders ought to be exploring the access we have to this kind of information.  I believe that when kids clearly understand the expectations and have seen examples–both good and bad–and know the rubrics by which they will be judged, they can more clearly write for the prescribed audience–in this particular case, the test scorers. In this case, the state has provided a reasonable tool by which we can do this kind of teaching. Why not use it–and not just right before the test? Why not make it an integral part of our instruction as one more tool in our arsenal?

However, isn’t the real question this:

Wouldn’t it be better if the state just allowed us to police ourselves and examine our student writing portfolios to see if they can construct a well-organized composition?

What a Hullabaloo!

Recently I posted this to the Cooperative Catalyst Blog, where I find myself blogging more often these days–I have no time to do both right here at the end of the school year. It generated a ton more conversation and controversy than I ever would have possibly envisioned.  See the comments at Joy in Standardized Tests.

Much of the conversation in response to this weeks’ blog posts has centered around joy in learning and joy in school. Here’s my story of this past week.

I am my school’s testing coordinator.  This is my first year doing it and we are doing all of our state tests online.  I am coordinating 10 tests–4 for 3rd and 5th grade and 2 for fourth grade. I decided we were going to take  them in ways that MADE SENSE and that took as little time as possible. I decided I wasn’t going to scare teachers to death about talking to kids, answering questions and supporting them. (Our central office coordinator has good sense–she told us early that what the state requires is that every child has the opportunity to “test well” in an environment that supports that and that folks don’t cheat.  I repeated that to my teachers and told them I trusted them to follow the rules they already know from past years–they are all experienced at this state testing rigamarole!)  I was NOT going to model this testing as a “do or die” situation.  I was going to be calm and assure kids they were going to be fine.

I set up a schedule and approved it with teachers, so they had control and some time to work on the subjects over which they felt less secure.  We started with subjects with which the kids would feel really successful. If kids hadn’t been taking tests in small groups all year, we didn’t set up those artificial situations this time.  Most kids are taking the tests in the lab with their class, as they have been working all year.

I started several weeks ago telling kids about brain gym exercises they could do, sharing success stories from my own experiences. I gave them strategies for relaxing, for narrowing down choices on a multiple choice test, and answered their questions as to what would happen if they didn’t pass. I kept reassuring them this test was simply for the state to let them show what they knew, so it wasn’t going to decide their classes next year, or whether they would “pass their grade.”  I work with kids in all grades 3-5, so I know what I was telling the kids I work with was spreading among most of the kids in those tested grades.

I shared with kids a story of last year.  I was proctoring in a 3rd grade online testing situation, and the computers went down. The teacher and I made eye contact–not knowing how long we’d have to stall. The testing coordinator came in and calmly told us they would get the computers back up as soon as possible and we just needed to be patient. So, knowing we couldn’t let the kids talk to each other, or leave the room as a group, I started teaching them brain exercises–a couple of tricks I had learned form a great PE teacher, Pam Walker. We spent a few minute doing these, with me talking about how it calms them down, gets their brain working to the max, and within a few minutes, the computers were ready for them to log back in and continue.  Those kids did GREAT on that test, and kids heard me when I told them these exercises really work!

(This year, when that teacher came to the lab with her kids, she handed me a copy of some brain gym exercises she had gotten from the web.  Knowing she wouldn’t have me in there this year, she came prepared to do her own version of pumping up those kids with brain gym work!)

So, I’ve had the joy each day of testing to see each child go into the labs, to smile at them to tell them how great I know they are going to do, and I have been the one, in the middle of the test, when they ask to take a break or get a drink of water, or go to the bathroom, to be able to smile at them and say how proud I am of them for being such a good learner, or how well I just know they are going to do, or how smart I know they are.  I get to touch their shoulder and give them a friendly “You can do it” smile. I get to reassure them someone believes in them and  I see their taller stance as they re-enter the testing room. I get to be another person (besides their teacher) who says in many ways, “I believe in you.”

It’s been an awesome week.  I have felt so great being able to pump kids up and see their smiles as they re-enter a testing room.  Teachers AND kids are talking about how they are not feeling the stress this year as in years past.  Our scores are coming back and they are good–we have LOTS of advanced passes, and high pass rates.

Are our scores perfect?  No.  Do we still have work to do?  Yes. But, kids and teachers are saying it doesn’t feel like they are taking an SOL test. They have had practice doing this, they know their stuff, and they are doing it in familiar surroundings with knowledge and comfort.

Kids are smiling and feeling okay about their testing. Teachers are feeling proud of their work this year, as their kids ARE showing what they know. Our tech folks have done a GREAT job setting this up for success and tech glitches have been few and far between.  One of them sits with me each day to support me, just in case, and those folks, too, smile at the kids and ooze calmness.

Do I think multiple choice tests are the best way for kids to show what they know?  Of course not.  Do I think they need to take over our lives?  Of course not.  Do I think they can be one piece of what we do?  Sure. Do I think kids can handle them?  Of course–it all depends on the adults around them.

While this may sound like it’s all about what I do with the kids, it’s really all of my teachers–they model belief in their kids.  They teach well.  They work hard all year and reward hard work in their classrooms.  They are simply reaping the rewards of their dedication and care. . .and I get  to help!

I have had fun this past week helping teachers be calm and helping kids be calm. I have had several kids walk out of the testing room to go to the bathroom and give ME a thumbs up sign!

And I’m not kidding, I have seen MOST kids smile beginning the test AND ending it.

Joy is often in how you approach a task.

Authenticity- Learning and Assessment

Many of us are asking what the school of the future should look like–what experiences students should have, how we can assess, how we can make sure the students learn the state and local curricular objectives, what experiences are crucial,  where it should happen, how technology plays a role, and the questions we have go on and on and on…

Many research studies have shown the importance of relationships in learning, and recent ones speak to the importance of the one between teacher and student.

My personal belief is that students are a lot more competent than we ever give them credit for, and sometimes all we need is to do is get out of their way.

I am a Gifted Resource Teacher. In my division, that means we have a lot of leeway in the services we provide our students.  For good or bad, it means I can really individualize and provide a lot of unique experiences to my kids, since I’m NOT locked into a core subject, for the most part. I am responsible to make sure they are challenged, and they grow in all areas–not just their area of strength or the subject I am working with them at a specific time. I do teach a 3rd grade and 5th grade math class 4/5 days a week, but even those classes can be flexibly scheduled, and because I teach the highest performing kids (who are not all identified kids) I can compact the curriculum and still have time to support kids as they  pursue their passions.

At the beginning of the year, I gave my kids wikis and some of them moved, in January, to blogging as well. It is amazing to me to see how they are using the various media and to see what I am learning about them through the  freedom and latitude I give them in these venues. I am learning more about them through this work than I could have ever imagined–I am seeing what they enjoy in their lives outside of school, how much they are motivated to learn, how much they challenge themselves, how much initiative they show and I am discovering what topics and activities truly draw out their passion!

I have become involved in a child’s struggle as she watches a beloved horse begin to slip downhill from a battle with cancer. I listen to her fears and show my compassion for her impending loss.

I am intrigued by another’s grappling to explain thinking processes clearly as she attempts to describe her fascination with and understanding of math through “math tricks.” She also maintains a fictional writing blog called “Duck In for a Story.”

I see leadership in some students  in the wikimail exchanges I read–skills I generally do not see visibly in school.

I watch a young man aspire to become part of a parent’s passion as he begins an independent study on Shakespeare in 5th grade.

I am amazed at just how GEEKY some of these kids are and how fast they figure out how to embed videos, create Google polls with Google forms and analyze the responses they get in spreadsheets.

I support them as they they ask to figure out why we are having such an unusually cold and snowy winter.

I have a 10 year old girl who wants to know how computers work on the inside–even to the differences between laptops and desktop machines.

I have another who is enthralled with the digital fabrication lab we have, wanting to create a 3-D eagle that really can fly. (She is trying to decide whether she wants to major in physics in college or become a veterinarian, as she writes passionately about her riding on her “Horsin’ Around” blog.)

My 8 yo third graders have created an Earth Protection Club on a wiki–their description of it says, “The Earth Protection club is about saving the earth and ways to clean up the earth so we can have a better place to live!” They talk about protecting endangered animals and getting together to clean up the environment. I believe these are pretty hefty goals for very young children!

I only have 2 who are heavily into gaming–but as they share code to play the games better across their wikimail, I realize again how much we underestimate  students’ abilities, how much the rote learning opportunities provided in school must bore them.

Yet, many of my kids said to me yesterday  (after returning to school from nearly a two week closure of schools due to weather) that they were so happy to be back and they hoped we got to keep coming to school. When I asked why, a HUGE part of their wanting to be back was the face to face social interactions and the mentoring and support they receive from intelligent others. They KNOW they don’t know everything, nor do they know HOW to learn everything they want to learn–and they want that support to learn and understand deeply.

And, as for assessment, I DO know what my kids know and need to learn in much of their assigned grade level curricular areas.

Exploring all of this UNASSIGNED work the students do OUTSIDE of school,  I can clearly talk with parents and the students about the strengths and weaknesses they have in the areas of literacy.  I can make lesson plans and personalize the lessons to individuals or small group to target the skills they will be tested on in the state writing tests they will take in a couple of weeks.

Yes, it takes time for me to look through the work they do.

Yes, some are more motivated than others to produce on the web in these areas.

Yes, the work is not done on any particular timeline that fits MY schedule.

BUT the student work is authentic, it engages them in real world topics,  it gives them choice, allows for novelty and variety and they learn from one another as they explore what others are studying and we share, discuss and delve into their projects together in class. (See the Schlechty Center’s work on engagement.)

It IS powerful learning.

It IS powerful engagement.

It is NOT compliance.

And, we are all confident they will pass the tests with flying colors.