Saturday, September 28, 2013

What is Important in Assessing Students | September 20, 2013

Seth Furlow

What are the features of assessment that make it a valuable practice?

I love data. I like numbers, relationships that emerge from them, predictive information, and whatever else comes from analyzing data. Assessments provide me with data. They can give at least a clue as to whether or not my students grasped some of the new concepts I taught. They easily identify which students need a lot of help, which students found the questions too easy, and sometimes assessments can highlight topics that students struggle with universally. There is one major disconnect that I have always struggled with when it comes to traditional assessments in my classroom: is the information gathered timely enough to do anything with it? Most often I would answer no.

I have started to shift my mindset when it comes to traditional end of the unit assessments or even final exams. The data gathered from these assessments isn't all that valuable because of the structure of our current curriculum framework. We move on to the next concepts, pounding away at new material as some of the old material is clearly visible in the rear view mirror still a little tattered. The most important data should be used to quickly modify instructional practices in the moment. How do we generate this kind of data? This is where the paradigm has really shifted for me. It is not the end of the unit that matters the most to me any more. At that point, I should feel I have done all I can do. But what about when I get done walking through an explanation and I see a room full of blank stares? Isn't that data more valuable than the fact that 74% of my students got question 6 correct on the unit 3 exam? With the push for high stakes testing ever so strong I think we have lost our focus on assessments for learning as being valuable, and I would argue, more valuable than any assessment of learning. Diane Ravitch argues, rather convincingly, that we do need more testing, but tests that teachers write, as they know what was happening within the four walls of that classroom more intimately than anyone else. I would not argue for the abolishment of all summative assessment, it does have a place, but it shouldn't be the end-all-be-all of what has happened in the classroom. Teachers should begin to rely more on what their students are saying and doing at the moment, not worry so much about the common timeline established by the department. Focus on helping students learn and master topics while at the same time helping them recognize their shortcomings and giving them the tools to overcome them.

Two years ago I attended a workshop that gave me a massive set large student whiteboards. They sat mostly untouched in my classroom last year, as I wasn't really sure how to incorporate them in a way that would become routine for my students. This past summer I attended another workshop which, in part, focused on HOW to use whiteboards. It was awesome. My students use them now almost daily. I see what they think almost at the moment they think it. It's been fantastic. I can address issues individually with a student or if I quickly see most of the class has a misconception I can speak with the whole class. This is not the kind of data that I was used to analyzing, but data can come in a lot of different forms, right?