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Guest Blog: Reinventing Assessment for the 21st-Century

Betty Ray

Senior Editor at Large
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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.

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Betty Ray

Senior Editor at Large

Comments (52) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Sarah Lanktree's picture
Sarah Lanktree
Middle School Science Teacher from Washington

I agree that option 1 is a better way to assess student knowledge while differnetiating instruction for multiple intelligences and abilities. I want my science assessments to take on this form but am finding it difficult. One problem is time, it takes lots of time to find ways for the students to show they have mastered the learning and then more time to grade the assessment because each one is so individual (we are a standards based school and cannot assess on groupwork). The other problem is teacher training. This form of assessment, although I believe it is better, does no come naturally to me and many other teachers. Teachers need to have more training opportunities on how to make this work in their classroom.

Amy West's picture

A 21st Century school is about more than technology. It is about student involvement and interaction. Option #1 allows students to figure out what they can do the best. It is Differentiated Instruction. A good example of it at that. It doesn't matter if students don't have laptops or whiteboards, it matters if they can demonstrate what they need to demonstrate.
The only thing I think needs to be considered is, State Standardized Tests are still done with paper and pencil. How do we also prepare students for this type of testing environment? There has to be some traditional assessment at some point.

Amy West's picture
Amy West
Eighth Grade English Teacher

A 21st Century school is about more than technology. It is about student involvement and interaction. Option #1 allows students to figure out what they can do the best. It is Differentiated Instruction. A good example of it at that. It doesn't matter if students don't have laptops or whiteboards, it matters if they can demonstrate what they need to demonstrate.
The only thing I think needs to be considered is, State Standardized Tests are still done with paper and pencil. How do we also prepare students for this type of testing environment? There has to be some traditional assessment at some point.

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

From what I'm reading it seems like there are two camps of thought. One being those who see technology as useful but an affectation, sort of an "efficiency tool". The other camp seems to deem technology beside the point of teaching/learning and almost regards it as useless.

I agree that any good teacher can be given two sticks and still impart knowledge with them. I also see that giving that same teacher all the curriculum content of the world, the technology to use it at their fingertips, and a system that notes individual and class trends, can teach a whole lot more effectively.

Honestly, how much time as a teacher do you spend creating content, creating and delivering assessments, logging and tracking grade trends, and attempting to understand individual student strengths and weaknesses through their assignments?

If these things were just simply "available" for you to see, use, and implement, wouldn't that give you more time and opportunity to work directly with students, do individual/class projects, and effectively teach rather than shuffling papers and crunching numbers?

Justin's picture

First off, 1:1 laptop/student ratio? Really? Wonderland?

However, your suggestions sound fantastic. I would love to be able to individualize education the way that you describe it, but in this current environment of high-stakes testing and its link to teacher accountability, I don't think it's practicable. Certainly, some assignments can be approached in the free form way that you describe, but much to my displeasure, I have to prepare my students to perform adequately on the upcoming tests. And of course, the word is "adequately." If our educational guidelines desired students to excel, we would be able to offer these means of assessment, but our system is focused on "Adequate" Yearly Progress and on the mediocritization of the American child. Who really cares if the student has learned to think? The question is can the student give the "correct" answer on the test.

However, even with all that aside, you seem to be minimalizing the essential skills that we need to imbue our students with so that they will be successful in college. My students must learn how to write good essays. If I haven't taught them to do that, then I am not preparing them for the future that they face, one that includes writing in college. In order to teach them to write those essays, they must write, multiple times. If I'm repeatedly giving them options that will keep them from having to write those papers, the ones who need the most help with their writing are going to choose other forms of assessment. Can we really as a rule offer these options to students and still expect them to gain all the skills that they need to gain?

Honey Denson's picture

I agree with several points in this article. I taught for a few years before stopping to stay at home with three young children and finish my Master's. I had taught in an inner city environment and my students did not have some of the advantages mentioned in this blog post such as computers or the ability to take their books home, but that does not mean that we could not do the first option for assessment. Many of my students did not do well with the traditional forms of assessment, but that does not mean that they were unable to participate in a lively classroom discussion on various topics that helped me to realize how much they had understood the assignment. Many schools do have a library, and no matter how outdated the computers may be, anyone still should be able to either wright an essay or do a powerpoint presentation or art project or anything else that showcases an individual talent to discuss with the class for a final assessment.
In today's classrooms, too much emphasis is put on the all might test score. I don't know how many times I had a student come into my room on test day and tell me how they were so nervous that they could not eat breakfast, or they didn't sleep well. I knew some children would not do well on the test because of their learning disabilities or other outside factors. Their end of year grades were near perfect, but one test was unable to reflect this. I understand the need for data for comparisons and reflection on how to improve teaching, but it should not be the only measure.

Brittani Hampton's picture

I agree that as teachers we don't differentiate in the manner that we should. Teachers should also take advantage of the technology available because it could definately come in handy, however as you stated you can reinvent assessment without it. Using real-life examples to introduce or reinforce and reflecting are also great methoods to show student progress. Great article and feedback!

sandra acevedo's picture

I agree with Andrew about the 21 century technology in the classroom. I believe that students beneficiate a lot of a lesson that used technology as a tool of learning. We need to prepare them to go to a 21 century world that operates everything with technology and changes very quickly. Mixing the curriculum, time, and technology is the challenge. It is very interesting to have projects that include picture taking, videos, mp3, and research. All these activities need more time and it is hard to finish some of the requirements in a school year as it is. I believe that the assessments need to be change but until then we can start with little steps.

Deborah Moreland's picture
Deborah Moreland
Chair of English Department in Independent Girls School in Dallas, TX

I agree with Teri Schlesinger that fundamentals are essential. As an English teacher, I squirm when a student expresses brilliant ideas in lousy syntax and less than forceful vocabulary. And while projects keep students excited about the material, I finally wonder what they learn about writing. I'm sometimes feel like one of those old-time "conservators of culture" in my ambivalence about moving into the 21stC (as it is described) in terms of assessment.

This spring I taught Eliot's "the Wasteland," a hugely difficult text. For activities, they researched hypertexts of the poem and read several pieces of scholarship on it (presented to the class in groups). The final project consisted of presenting an understanding of a segment of the poem (again in groups) in whatever way they thought appropriate to that part of the poem. Great projects resulted (videos, graphic novel, sculpture, etc)! And, the groups explained them well to the class, capturing "the essence" of the poem although not the nuance of language. As for grades, the projects were great in so many regards, all received As and Bs. In t his time of grade inflation, can we encourage this open approach to assessment and still keep some sort of standard that is "average" that provides a sort of basis of meaning for "excellence," which is quite beyond "average." How do we do that with creative projects?

Shawn Krinke's picture
Shawn Krinke
Junior and Senior Language arts Teacher, North Dakota

I think you make a valid point Deborah. As teachers delve more and more into 21st Century skills, we cannot forget that basics that get students there. Writing skills are hugely important, as can be seen in many state standards.

While I agree with this blog, that teachers need to allow flexible, performance-based, authentic assessments, we must also balance that with the fundamentals.

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