Assessment


Having kids has given me an acquaintance with health care that I virtually would have never thought possible. My boys are not the unhealthiest of children, but their conditions (severe autism and apraxia for my elder son, slightly less severe autism and mild hypotonia for my younger) have required some further investigation.

We had one of these investigative moments this past year with my younger son, specifically regarding the possibility of a metabolic disorder causing his hypotonia (and perhaps contributing to his autism and global delays as well). To get more clues, blood work was needed to test for the level of certain amino acids and other chemical markers. One of these markers was lactic acid: elevated levels might indicate a metabolic disorder and provide something for a geneticist to work with.

There was a problem with this, however: lactic acid levels tend to rise with muscle exertion, so the blood needed to be drawn from my 18-month-old son without causing him to exert himself while we were trying to get blood.

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I’m a big believer in switching things up, getting away from the traditional assignments every once in a while to give students a different perspective or to find a different way for students to demonstrate what they learn or discover on their own.

One of the most traditional assignments I can think of is the book report. I had to do these in high school – some presented orally for the teacher (I don’t think I ever gave one in front of a whole class, although I might be mistaken on that), some written before class, and some written during class – and I hated them. In fact, I frequently managed to fool my teachers into thinking I had actually read the book, once with Fahrenheit 451 and once with The Scarlet Letter, because the reports focused more on plot summary than on the overall themes or issues in the books. (I ended up reading and enjoying both of them, of course, but that’s beside the point.) I am acutely aware that book reports are not only tedious (generally for both student and teacher) but also largely ineffective in accurately assessing students’ independent reading.

In my very first language arts methods course, we looked at some alternatives, 50 of them to be exact, set out by one of the coauthors of our text, Diana Mitchell (the text is Exploring and Teaching the English Language Arts, coauthored with Stephen Tchudi). They are unique and require a great deal more thought than simply spewing out plot summary or perhaps personal reactions to the events. A few examples:

Critique from the point of view of a specific organization. Select an organization that might have a lot to say about the actions or portrayals of characters in the novel you read, and write a critique of the book from its point of view. For example the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals might have a lot to say about Lennie’s treatment of animals in Of Mice and Men, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on the portrayal of Crooks, and the National Organization of Women on the portrayal of Curley’s wife and the fact that she was never given a name.

Chat room conversations. Imagine that your character has found other people to talk with while in a chat room he or she found while surfing the Internet. Describe the chat room your character was in and why your character would be drawn to the kind of group that operates the chat room. Then construct the conversation your character had with others while in the chat room.

Music. After reading a novel, figure out how you would divide the book into sections. Then select a piece of music that you think captures the feel or tone of each section. Record the pieces and if possible do voice-overs explaining what is happening in the novel during the piece of music and why you felt this piece of music fit the section of the novel.

Those are just three of 50, and I could see modifications of each that would work equally well, in my opinion. I also think – and I may do this in my own planning for independent reading projects in two of my courses – that it would be interesting to align some options for students with Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory. Clearly, “Music” would align with musical intelligence, and I could envision some additional assignments (for interpersonal intelligence, having two students read related books independently and record a dialogue of a conversation they have about the major issues in the book they each had read).

So here’s a question for any teachers, English or otherwise: what overly traditional assignments have you decided (or would you like) to discard, and what type of authentic assessments would you replace them with?

I spent this morning doing some work in my classroom, and while I am pleased at the progress I am making in getting organized and making everything feel like my room (although it will feel more like my own room once my wife and I put up posters and other things in the classroom on Wednesday), I must take a moment to rant on a subject that is often a source of frustration for teachers: assessment.

However, my gripe is not with the current institutional assessment practices – standardized testing and what-have-you – but with how some teachers handle assessment individually in regards to instruction.

See, I have this crazy idea that assessments are intended to, you know, assess the learning that students achieve during the course of instruction. Which means that assessments should reflect what is being taught. Good so far? I think most teachers would agree that this is a start.

So when I look at your assessments, you the unsuspecting teacher who doesn’t know that I will inherit your classroom once you leave, I should expect that you taught everything that you assessed, either the content (if fact-based responses are required) or the skills, right?

So if I notice that on every single assessment (and study guide) I happen to look at that covers a unit surveying an author’s work – say, for instance, Robert Frost – you have included the author’s birth and death years as a fill-in-the-blank question, then I can assume that you believed that information necessary for the full and proper comprehension of the works of that author, correct?

Wait, you mean that knowing the exact years that an author was born and died in aren’t all that relevant to the specific understanding of that author’s body of work (aside maybe from knowing the general historical era they produced their works in)?

This isn’t difficult, teachers: teach what needs to be learned, and assess what needs to be learned. I have been guilty of this in the past, too, but no more. If a significant portion of your test is filled with objective information that is meant merely to activate the rote knowledge part of students’ abilities (and thereby help out students’ grades), then I don’t know that the assessment will really be a successful one, since it will skew the results of the assessment by favoring students who have mastered memorization and by penalizing students who have not developed good memory skills or who freeze up and forget information even after the most well-rehearsed memorization because of test anxiety. When assessments are not accurate – or just, to use a more evocative word – then no student succeeds, even if they pass.

[end rant, exeunt]

Today was my final test that I have to take for Illinois teacher certification, the APT (Assessment of Professional Teaching) test. The day, to put things lightly, could have gone better.

For one, I hate Google Maps for telling me to take a non-existent exit and making me approximately 10-15 minutes late for the test (which I was still able to take, thankfully).

The test itself wasn’t really bad, for the most part, but I was thoroughly annoyed by some of it. The test consists of 120 multiple choice questions dealing with 6 subareas and 2 “constructed-responses” – basically, extended writing – given on prompts that would be specific to one’s content area and age range (e.g. early childhood, elementary, secondary). I took me about 2 hours and 15 minutes to complete it, and my wrist still hurts a little from the writing.

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Friday was satisfying for me, satisfying in a way Fridays normally aren’t (that is, satisfying not just because it’s the end of the week). I feel like I’m finally starting to pull everything together – for the most part – and Friday was a good example of this.

I went to school thinking about my thought of the day, and I decided at some point that I needed to address the elephant in the room with my seniors – the fact that my relative inexperience has been keeping us from progressing like we should be. I can’t explain why, but I felt like I needed to be honest about the situation that I – and by extension, all of my seniors – have found myself in with this course.

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Today was another day, one that started off in sort of a frantic rush. We got a fair amount of snow overnight, and I was stuck clearing off two cars (the first car, which I drove over to pick up the car I would drive to school, which was also covered). This compounded the fact that I was running late, and the roads were bad enough that I was rather slowed down by other cars (I tend not to be too slowed down by snowy and icy roads, only by people being more cautious than I). Then I realized seven miles toward my destination (which is about 20 miles away) that I had left my lunch and my briefcase in the first car, so I turned around and went back. To my horror, I ended up making it to school about 10 minutes after school had begun.

Fortunately, I caught a break: today was our Mimio training, and the trainer hadn’t even made it in yet!

Which brings me to that imperative that I’ve so often told students but not remembered myself: Don’t panic! (It’s too bad that very few of my students get the reference – why isn’t Douglas Adams more appreciated?) I need to remember this a little more, even though I don’t consider myself a worrying person.

The training, though, was quite excellent, not to mention a lot of fun, and now I’m really hooked on the device. I will be using it tomorrow, trying to get students involved in its use. Hopefully, it will be something that I can keep doing – somewhat sparingly – in order to keep students a little more engaged. The more they can interact, the better, and the more of them that I can get to interact, the better.

Now I have some planning ahead for the seniors, who really need some direction. The real problem I’m having is not being assessment minded – there is a very tangible product of the unit – but in trying to teach skills rather than information. Everything is so individualized that it’s much more difficult to find ways to have every student doing work without doing it individually. I have some thinking to do – how do you deal with instruction like this that is so much less of a corporate affair?

I am normally a very logical and orderly person – I like to know where things fit and like to see them fit there. A professor of mine once said that his philosophy on grading was merely “administering justice,”  and at least at one point, I agreed with him.

But now I’m not so sure that justice will always do.

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