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Assessment Carnival: More Than Quizzes and Tests

Shawn Cornally

Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher (Iowa, Internet)
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Editor's Note: Today's guest blogger is Shawn Cornally, author of the Standards-Based Grading. Here, he presents a blog carnival on redefining assessment. It's a complex issue, and one that we tackle in the next Schools that Work series here on Edutopia.

As a kickoff to that series, Shawn has assembled some excellent resources here. We hope this post will inspire some great brainstorming and discussions below. What are some innovative assessments you've seen? Any experience?

Assessment is a topic like no other in education. Assessment has become synonymous with the monolith of "testing," which all teachers must in some way bow to; whether it be looming state exams or in-house productions, all teachers are asked to judge students' abilities. How we do this ranking can severely affect how students and teachers see and value school.

I began a quest to discover a way to make the seemingly adversarial task of assessment turn into a rich and powerful tool for learning. What's more is that I saw my exam-focused classroom missing entirely the much larger and messier task of preparing students to think.

I discovered some basic themes that altered everything I do in my classroom. My grades became sliding faders on the great mixing board that is a student's understanding. I stopped using averages and weights as weapons, and started changing grades as students improved. Second, I began clearly reporting things to parents and students, avoiding long explanations and curriculum documents; "Quiz 5" became "Student can solve logarithmic equations" and "Student can differentiate ln[g(x)]." Every time I graded something with logs, these grades received a look, and were modified depending on the student's output.

I asked myself the question: How can I use assessment to create learning, instead of just to judge it? It's been a long journey down the assessment rabbit hole, here are some folks I've met along the way:

Dan Meyer is the seminal Math Education blogger, and his writing on assessment has impacted thousands of educators around the world. He makes the points that: Learning is not on a time line, so grading shouldn't be either; grading should direct learning as it is really only feedback anyway; and you should be rewarded for putting in the effort to learn something you missed. Sounds perfect, doesn't it? Pretty close, actually.

Jason Buell has a blog, and he named it "Always Formative." He puts his money where is mouth is, and he's doing it all with middle schoolers. Jason believes that assessment's goal is not to judge but to guide. He wants students to know where they are, so that they can pack it up and go somewhere better.

Matt Townsley: Teacher-cum-administrator, Matt Townsley has blogged extensively on the role of practice and feedback in the grand scheme of assessment. His modus operandi boils down to: If you don't provide feedback beforehand, your assessment is nothing but a punishment.

Ms. Bethea is intensely introspective and questioning. Each of her posts about assessment, grading, and feedback highlight previous methods she's used and how they do and don't work. She offers solutions and arguments for today's most pressing assessment questions.

I have also logged my journey, and it is located at my blog Think Thank Thunk.

Feel free to continue the discussion of assessment below, or in Edutopia's assessment group. There are many issues to discuss. I look forward to connecting with others on these topics!

Shawn Cornally, author of the Standards-Based Grading. He's a science/math teacher at Solon High School in Solon, IA.

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Shawn Cornally

Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher (Iowa, Internet)

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Alan Matan's picture
Alan Matan
Co-Founder, Core 4 All, LLC

Betty thank you for providing Shawn with the opportunity to share his message with us. We are a nation that over-tests and under assesses. I have begun to make the change and move away from grade averages and focus on mastery of skills. There has been plenty of research that shows that averaging is actually not a fair way to monitor progress. Tests should not be used as the "gotcha police". Let's use assessments as a way to monitor progress and make instructional decisions to prepare our students for their futures.

Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher

I guess I use tests differently. In your Think Thank Thunk blog, Shawn, you talk about a kid who got 6 out of 10. So, in order to learn the other 4, the kid has to start over, do some learning that they missed, and then retest. I assume that this time for learning and retesting occurs after school and they must also keep up with what is currently going on in class. Also, the teacher must guide the learning, make the new test, make an answer key, and grade the test. There is not enough motivation to support all this extra work and extra time. The students who really need this are the ones that got 3 out of 10 and there certainly is not enough motivation in those students to do all this extra work.
Back to the student who got 6 out of 10. That student will most likely be incredibly motivated to learn the 4 they got wrong. They would give anything for a do-over on those 4. So, why not use all this motivation as a learning opportunity. Give the student a chance to figure out and learn those 4. Give him or her a do-over on those 4 questions. I do. I don't care if the grade is higher than they deserve. I care about maximizing the learning opportunities in my class.

Ashley's picture
4th grade teacher from Georgia

I really enjoyed reading the posts and comments. My school system has recently adopted standards based report cards, and I have had to completely change the way I assess my students. My quizzes and multiple choice tests are few and far between. I use more rubrics, projects, performance tasks, etc. each quarter. I have found that my students are motivated, enjoy the projects, and perform better overall. As many others have stated, testing has become a "gotcha" system. Our report card doesn't measure students against other shows clearly what standards have been mastered. If only we could convince our parents this is a better way!

Becky's picture
2nd grade teacher-GA

I really enjoyed reading this blog and am so glad I came across it today. Testing is something I struggle with as a teacher, and I often feel that standardized testing, as well as other assessments in the classroom, drive our instuction more than they should. I have struggled with balancing trying to cover all of the curriculum before these tests with providing meaningful educational opportunities for my students.

I currently provide my students with a workshop based classroom, which focuses a lot on reading and writing/responding about their thinking. I don't have my students participate in many paper and pencil tasks, multiple choice worksheets, etc. I focus a lot on their ability to express what they are learning and thinking through discussion and writing. My students have reading, writing, and math journals that they respond in frequently and I often determine their grades on these tasks based on rubrics or one on one conferences and discussions. I am currently taking courses to become certified to teach gifted classes, and based on my reading and research for this class it seems as though providing students with opportunities common through these workshop models is the best way to differentiate instruction for all students. We have studied using and creating rubrics, allowing for student choice in projects and activities, and assessing students based on the work produced through these opportunities rather than assessing students based on a test score. The problem I am facing is that when it comes down to it, all students will have to take the standardized test in April. While I am confident that my students will be able to read and think deeply about texts, write exceptional papers, and think outside the box in math I still ask myself, "Will they be able to be successful on a standardized test?"

At my school we are told to engage in "test-taking strategy lessons" weekly, which basically teaches children to think through a test. We discuss what the questions are asking, what the answer choices are, and why they may or may not be correct. I can't help but feel like during these lessons I am "teaching to the test" yet these lessons are expected weekly at our school. By doing these testing lessons am I doing enough to prepare my students for the standardized tests? By using the workshop model classroom and I doing enough to prepare my students for standardized tests? I feel as though this is something I will always struggle with, however I know that more important that a test score is providing my students with meaningful learning opportunitites daily.

LeeL's picture

I teach second grade and we do not have a standards based grade card, but I wish we did. I was part of a team of teachers who developed formative short cycle assessments that would allow a teacher to reflect and determine which students had mastered the standard and benchmark skills to be learned, and also determine who needs further interventions to develop these skills. I feel like were assessing them this way, but these assessments do not go toward the child's grade. Do you feel a standards based report card is more benificial than a short cycle?

Courtney's picture

I recently made the move from the traditional numeric grading system school to a standards based school. Although I initially had my doubts, I have come to really value what standards based grading provides for the student and teacher. Standards based, although still has its element of assessment, gives more insight on what a student knows in terms of academic standards. From a teaching aspect, it allows for easier pinpoints in mastery or gaps in skills, and sets a pace for curriculum. Standards-based grading encompasses formative assessment and performance tasks as the ultimate determining factor for mastery, leaving out the "fluff grades" of homework and drill work. I think standards based grading will become much more prevalent in school systems in upcoming years, especially with the new fad of data driven classrooms.

Natalie Dobbs's picture

I am currently working in a state that has had standards based learning for a year or so, however I was taught standards based lessons and assessments while getting my undergraduate so they concept was the only concept I have ever know. I personally do not understand why veteran teachers have such a hard time with the change. I had explain it to some of my older colleagues and reassure them that all that the standards based lesson and assessment were asking was for them to do what they have always done yet now they have to put it onto paper. I like the assessment because I use it for a checks and balances for myself. I feel like since the students have to all know certain concepts to make certain grades then the teacher will stress those points and the students will be able to test well. I like to think of it as my game plan for the year. It helps to keep me focused on what is important and the assessments help me to check my effectiveness in teaching the concepts.

Alicia Claflin's picture

My school is beginning a focus on formative assessments and a change in the way teachers assess the learning of their students. I found this blog interesting because I have been feeling like the same old quizzes and tests I have used in the past don't really do what I want them to: assess students learning. I know I need to work to change the way I approach assessment in my classroom and with my students and so I enjoyed some of the ideas I read about in this and the comments from other teachers as we..

Tierria Queen's picture

Honestly I believe assessments are helpful for teachers to use for student instructional planning, assessing skills mastered, and seeing where students are presently. However, now in the present era of education students are being assessed too much. We have had to give Kindergarten students in Baltimore, MD, benchmark assessments. (Utterly ridiculous!!!) Sometimes I am for informal assessments because they make testing children less stressful for the teacher and the student. There has got to be a way that school systems can reduce the usage of Formal Assessments. We end up teaching to "the test" and basing all lessons being taught up until the formal assessment on "the test". We have lost our creativity in lesson planning and changed our teaching styles to teach to the test. After the formal assessments have been given we then basically quit teaching our students and just give them whatever. Due to the fact that we are tired and basically feel that we have done our job and we lose the idea of stress since the test is over and we may feel what else is there left to teach students. We need to do something and soon!

Amanda's picture
High School Math Teacher from Minnesota

This blog got me to thinking about what I can do to make assessments more about the process of learning and not just a way of judging if they have learned. I have always dreaded giving tests to my students because there is such a stigma that goes along with those tests and it creates much unneeded stress in our students lives. Some students thrive under pressure but there are far more that tend to shut down and have a hard time concentrating. Because of this I have often given mini assignments after working on an objective and that is what I grade as my test portion of the unit. The students just think that I am being nice and giving them a short review assignment but I am actually looking to see if they have understood and if we should move on.

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