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Guest Blog: Reinventing Assessment for the 21st-Century

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation
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Editor's Note: Our guest blogger today is Andrew Marcinek, an English Instructor at Boys Latin Charter School of Philadelphia. His post is inspired by this week's #edchat topic, "What's the ideal classroom design for 21st-century learning?"

The answer to student achievement and mastery is not found in shaded bubble. This, however, is what we work with yearly in American schools. We teach. We Test. We re-teach. We differentiate. We struggle. We do everything within our power to promote student learning, but in the end, it comes down to the mighty test. This is the culture we live in and until we have teachers in congress and school boards eliminated, this is what we have to work with.

I will now come down off of my soap box and offer some ideas for promoting 21st century assessment in your classroom while synching your lessons with state standards and objectives. In the past, many of us would design a unit, create a test, and develop lessons. While this is still a good practice, we need to change the method of delivery and assessment in rapidly changing world.

Today's students' are unlike any other student in history; they have access to more information than any generation in history, yet they are underperforming. Wait...what? Underperforming! In the most affluent country on the planet? The numbers are shocking, but they're real. How did this happen in America?

One of the reasons this is happening is because of the way we assess our students. Students are residing in a 20th century classroom equipped for the 21st century. Students are taking 19th and 20th century exams in a classroom that has an interactive white board and 1:1 laptop ratio. This is where our problem begins.

We give assessments to gauge mastery and understand how our students are performing, however, do we vary and differentiate those assessments? No. Everyday teachers hear the word differentiation, yet only a few actually follow this trend through to their assessments. A 21st century assessment is a menu of options. It allows students to pick and choose the best method for showcasing a specific skill. It is an authentic method of learning and something adults do every day.

In the work place - be it a school, law office, or a graphic design start-up - employees are faced with a set of problems daily. Those problems need solutions. You see where I'm going with this? Why don't we apply the same principles to our classroom assessments? At the beginning of each unit teachers present essential questions that are hovering over each lesson and are constantly referred to throughout the unit. These questions need answers. It is the students' job to find the best answer along the way and make their own decision.

Let's consider two options.

Option 1

1. My students are currently reading The Kite Runner. In the beginning of the unit, I presented three guiding questions.

a. What is a family?
b. Do our childhoods shape the adults we become?
c. Can a person truly forgive another or themselves?

Throughout the unit we cover various standards via NCTE for ELA - activating prior knowledge, analyzing vocabulary, summarizing, examining figurative language, etc. These standards are implemented into the daily lessons and each day is met with a reflection blog that students maintain and are responsible for on a daily basis.

So what is the end product? How do I know if my students mastered the skills set forth in the beginning of the unit? I let them choose.

We have a classroom outfit for the 21st century learner. We have 1:1 laptops, a classroom wikispace, a class blog, projector, smart board, and digital cameras. Students are given a review of the unit. We revisit main ideas, plot points, characters, and themes. In the end, we recall our essential questions. I ask students to take one essential question and answer it by using support from the novel. I don't give them a handout or a packet. I don't even use paper. I give them a problem, a question, and now they must find the best solution.

This type of assessment emulates real life and what we, as adults, are faced with daily. Students are forced to think critically, analyze the literature, apply what they know and synthesize that with some form of multimedia, and then the class, myself, and possibly my learning network can assess and evaluate what they have mastered. This type of assessment not only embeds the entire ladder of Bloom's taxonomy, but it adheres to all of the standards and provides an audience for student work.

Students may choose to work in groups, they can choose to present via multimedia, or they can simply write an essay or blog post. The parameters are flexible and I am constantly monitoring for questions and progression. They have a deadline and a rubric that will assess their work. The rubric is broad and allows for students to showcase their talents and skills rather than travel down a myopic tunnel. The assessment meets all of the standards and allows for all types of learners to shine. It is differentiation at its best.

Option 2

Give them a unit test. Print it out and staple it together. Differentiate it by providing multiple choice questions, matching, short responses, and an essay. Have the students sit in rows, take the test all at once, and hand it in when they are finished. Run their answers through the scantron machine and get results, data, and a nice print out with an easy to read graph. You know exactly where each student is lacking and behind right? Sure, the data says so. Here is what the data does not account for...

...a bad day, a good guess, a sleepless night, a fight with a boyfriend or girlfriend, an upset stomach, a visual learner.

There is no data for that and there never will be.

Andrew Marcinek has been an English teacher for six years. He is also an adjunct professor of Language Arts at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, PA. Next fall Andrew will take over the Instructional Technology Specialist position at The Boys' Latin Charter School of Philadelphia. Andrew also authors a blog, iTeach, that focuses on 21st century classroom innovation and offers lessons and ideas for teachers seeking to advance their curriculum and tweets by the handle @andycinek.

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation

Comments (52)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ellen Cavanaugh's picture

I have had students that can provide a beautifully interpretive poem that captures perfectly an empathy with the characters and the themes of redemption and sacrifice. The same student, on an objective test, places Kabul somewhere in Latin America, think a pomegranate is some type of pine cone, and interprets the quote refering to a "brotherhood between people who had fed from the same breast" as eating chicken together.

Sandy P.'s picture

I don't have laptops or an interactive whiteboard but I manage to use multiple types of assessment, many involving student choices. The technology would be great, but it's not necessary.

I have taught for 20+ years at 5 different schools in 3 states and have never seen a Scantron. I have known many teachers who do not exclusively assess through the kinds of tests described in the blog.

Although I agree with the general idea-- that we need to differentiate assessment as well as learning and use as much authentic assessment as possible, I don't think it helps to over-simplify the situation and make sweeping generalizations about what others have and do.

Dr. Mike Todd's picture
Dr. Mike Todd
Chief Learning Officer

Hey not sure about the texting in moodle. I apologize, but meant that teachers text students via cell phone and work with moodle for homework

Teri Schlesinger's picture
Teri Schlesinger
Parent and substitute teacher

[quote]I have had students that can provide a beautifully interpretive poem that captures perfectly an empathy with the characters and the themes of redemption and sacrifice. The same student, on an objective test, places Kabul somewhere in Latin America, think a pomegranate is some type of pine cone, and interprets the quote refering to a "brotherhood between people who had fed from the same breast" as eating chicken together.[/quote]

This is exactly my point. Would this student be able to do real research or critical thought? Or does the national onus on test scores and results force teachers to train students to be reactive to the questions posed them in classes and tests, rather than proactive in independently exploring a subject further. And, can a student do the latter if he/she is not taught basic skills and knowledge first, regardless of the technology present in the classroom?

Chris Miraglia's picture

I'm thrilled to see teachers use 21st tools to assess student learning. As a 8th grade US History teacher in a urban California district I constantly am searching for ways to engage my students whom of which have iPhones, smartphones, text, and use Facebook and MySpace on a regular basis to communicate. Others are media savy and can create music, vidoes and a variety of other content. In order to assess the students I utilize podcasts, videocast, and the creation of mock Facebook pages and historical tweets. Without these mediums my students would be disengaged. My students use class blogs to answer content related questions and participate in live blogging. I also assess them with traditional methods such as writing prompts in order to foster literacy skills.

In conclusion I feel that our government needs to invest in 21st learning which includes the infrastructure to carry this out. Moreover, we as educators need to jump on the bandwagon and learn about these modalities so that we can keep our students in a stimulating learning environment. If not we stand to lose a whole generation of students to 20th century practices that no longer are effective.

geoff collins's picture

Mr. Marcinek - Your basic idea is fine, although there are obvious logistical issues, both technological and otherwise. My real beef is with your guiding questions in the example assessment you gave. Take a good look. All three questions exist fairly low on Blooms taxonomy. Two of the three questions can be answered with one word. The third question is a basic definition. Those would not work, in my opinion, as guiding questions for an entire novel unit.

Hey, I basically agree with you, but we've got to keep you on your toes. If you are going to pronounce your expert opinion, then you had better give us some real-life examples that would actually work. just my opinion.

Andrew's picture

I use blogs and Google sites with my AP classes, which tend to be higher socio-economic groups and have Internet access and computers at home. My regular classes are quite a bit more spotty, so I use Google sites with them in a more passive, informational manner. We do not have 1:1 laptops or reliable computer lab access at school. That makes this type of technologically based education difficult to enact as Mary Willard argues as well.

Also, when the skill being taught is writing and kids don't have reliable computer access, we are unfortunately through back to pen and paper much of the time.

The chasm between the haves and have nots is ever widening...

Shelley's picture

As you probably already do, you can teach the skills through the project. When skills are embedded in a meaningful project, there is a greater probability that skill acquisition will be retained in long term memory.Using the traditional teach, question and answer method, you are only assessing short term memory skill acquisition. The key is to differentiate and provide skill support with effective models. Students who are new learners can have a more modified project with simple goals that still answer an essential question. Stronger students (even those who may have limited experience) may be able to muddle through the muck of research if they are engaged in a meaningful question in an interesting area of study. The key is to create a small project which meets time restraints. With a lot of low tech tools like post-its, index cards, and card pockets, kids can use the Internet and old fashioned books and magazines to learn and practice basic research skills. Yes, you may have to bring them in from the public library. You can even structure the project through multiple documents so that you ask smaller questions and send kids to specific pages to find answers (concrete and inferred). It's important to use books kids can hold as well as scanned and Internet documents. It can be a lot of work and sometimes, it doesn't always seem as efficient as the old skill and drill method. However, when a group of children present the fruit of their endeavor through a creative Power Point to an interested audience...white board or TV makes them say "Hey, I did that!" And from there we can help them build to the next level. And better yet, they'll remember it!

Emerged's picture
Program Director, Lead Teacher, MA in Teaching, Systems Engineer

Interactive white-boards? 1:1 laptop/student ratio? Access to the web (not just a district authorized site or two)? Digital CAMERAS!? Teacher and student access and utilization of such things? Is this a fantasy school we're talking about?

Okay, I'll play along. Should teachers be creating tests to measure student learning and achievement? To foster critical thinking? Of course! But for the real 21st century that should be the icing on the assessment cake. We've got to get out of this 1800's mindset when it comes to assessment, i.e. teach, test, adjust, teach, test, adjust (with an over-worked and under-paid teacher turning the conveyor belt crank all along the way).

What we need is a constant flow of interactive adaptive testing and assessment, tailored and adjusted to each student's strengths, weaknesses, and levels of ability. We need all of the work students do analyzed and assessed, and the curriculum and methods of instruction individually adapted and tailored, on the fly, for them. We need all that information in a usable form for teachers with a simple click. We need all of this propagated throughout a reciprocal feedback looped system encompassing all students, classes, grades, and schools from the micro to the macro levels of our education system.

What we REALLY need is a unified "smart system" that does all these things constantly, in the background, so that educators are freed to do what it cannot: Connect with students and help them learn. -imo.

Susan Nichols's picture

This article states exactly what has been going through my mind the last couple of months. Since Earth Day, I have been heading towards going paperless in the classroom (a promise I made to my students), and so far I can do it on my end by not making handouts/worksheets, but my students are still having to use paper for notes, writing etc.

I need to know more about which types of technology are good for student e-portfolios. We currently have a class and individual student blogs, and are starting with wikis (although I don't really know how to work this--groups by topic or individual pages?) I also want to look into Weebly and Moodle. Anyone have any good ideas for me?

Another current topic of investigation for me is shifting to problem-based learning and creating assessments around that. Any ideas, send them my way:

Thank you for this article!

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