Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Teachers: own the assessment of your students

Image result for a better grade

"Be the change you wish to see in the world." - Ghandi

I have been silent lately because I am working on perfecting my craft this year.  It is my first time teaching Geometry and I am excited to apply all I have learned to a new academic concept while continuing to implement new practices to enhance the student experience.

I have written before about the importance of owning the assessment of student mastery.  I am a firm believer in my profession, and I know that one of the most important tasks we have, if not THE most important, is to assess the knowledge of our students.  The challenge is to do so in a way that appreciates the child, fosters inquiry, and supports continued learning. As teachers, we have endless ways to do this: from watching students interact with one another to administering formal assessments.  (Side Note:  the formal assessments I give are both formative and summative.  I call it "summormative" since it's never too late to show learning.)

The pitfall we face is when we sacrifice our professional judgement to the test gods.  One of the most vengeful and spiteful test gods is Multiple Choice.  A not-as-evil-but-still-kinda-bad test god is the Objective Raw Score.  I think all of us as teachers sacrifice to these gods in our careers.  The entire education industry forces us to do it (data, data, data!).  I used to do it, too.  I then took ownership of my professional abilities and I changed.  I want all of my colleagues to think about the way they assess students and see if there is a better way.  We cannot afford to blame "the test".  We can control the narrative of assessment and fight from our classrooms.

I want to show you a sample of my daughter's work from last week. This is about to get pretty mathy, but hang in there, it's only 3rd grade math.  Please look at my daughter's work from a 25 question math test (this is not the time or place to discuss grade-level appropriateness, I'm making another point here):

Her score is an 88% B.  This means she has B level mastery over the math concepts presented in this test because she was able to answer 22 out of the 25 questions correctly, leaving one to believe she has missed 3 concepts.  To me, it is fair to say that if you have missed 3 concepts you do not have "A level mastery" over the material.  A closer look at her work reveals the nasty influence of the test gods in the professional assessment of student knowledge.  I don't fault her teacher.  Again, we all either do it or have done it before.

In the first item that was marked incorrect, there is no evidence of my daughter's thinking.  There is only an incorrect response for the simple operation of 4 X 3.  Instead of 12, she mistakenly thought the product was 16.  Clearly incorrect.

The second item is where the fun begins.  Though this item begs for the student to perform the simple operation of 5 X 4 as the teacher recommends, my daughter's work (her evidence of thinking) shows there is another correct way to arrive at the answer.  In fact, her way of arriving at the answer pleases me more as an algebra teacher.  She is displaying evidence of understanding the distributive property.  You may wonder why she was adding 16 + 8.  That is a fair question until you look at the diagram.  If you see the way the counters are arranged, you should see why a student may want to add the product of the top line of counters to the product of the bottom line of counters.  The bottom line of counters is clearly 8, as a result of 2 X 4.  But then the question becomes: Where did she get 16?  Recall her first incorrect response.  The top line of counters in the diagram would be a result from 3 X 4.  What should have been 12 was once again 16.  So, in a problem that could have been as simple as 5 X 4, my daughter made only the mistake of thinking 3 X 4 was 16 (again) while correctly and beautifully applying the distributive property; a skill that will be much more beneficial to her than a simple math fact.

The third incorrect item is the funny one.  Again, a simple operation of 4 X 3.  Yet 16 was not a multiple choice item.  What did she select as her answer?  Certainly not 12.  She chose 6.  Any one of you who has ever taken a multiple choice test knows exactly what she was thinking.

On a third grade 25-item math test, she had 3 incorrect responses.  Yet a professional educator should be able to see that she made only 1 mistake:  4 X 3.  Since the god of Multiple Choice created this test, the teacher yielded the opportunity to see these mistakes more clearly.  Since the god of Objective Raw Score graded this test, the teacher yielded the authority to determine my daughter actually has pretty darn good mastery of the material (chip off the old block?).  Again, I do not blame the teacher. I am using this example to beg us all to reflect on our practice.

I am not asking the teacher to change the grade.  That's not the point.  The point is much bigger than this test or her teacher.  It's our entire profession and the way we approach assessment.  We must re-think the way we are assessing student knowledge and claim our authority to evaluate students accurately.

So, what do I do for my "summormative" tests in my classes?  The first thing I do is make sure the god of Multiple Choice is not invited to any of my parties.  If he happens to rear his ugly head, I will make sure he has insignificant impact on my ability to assess what my students know.  I need to ensure that I can see what my students are thinking on each item as they work toward their results.  My test items vary in complexity and value from item to item.  Some items are worth only 1 point, some are worth 5 points.  I am able to assess my students' work and thinking the very same way I could tell how my daughter was approaching the 5 X 4 item.  I can then give my students credit where it is deserved while knowing exactly where remediation may be needed as we move forward.

I also avoid the god of Objective Raw Score.  I believe this is where we, as teachers, sacrifice most of our assessment authority.  We don't need objective raw scores to know what good understanding looks like.  We don't need to nit-pick and bean-count points to know if a student has A-level mastery of our concepts.  If it's A work, score it as an A. If it's C work, score it as a C.  If we rely on "22/25 as an 88%, therefore a B", we may not only be missing the errors in our calculations as I have pointed out, we also may be giving students a false sense of their own comprehension.

I am trying something new this time around, thanks again to Alfie Kohn (he would say I shouldn't even need tests or grades).  I am allowing students to look over their own tests after I have marked up each item.  I again emphasize what the test was asking them to demonstrate.  I then ask them to give themselves a grade based on their own work, writing to me with: "I believe this grade should be a ________ because I clearly __________."  If I disagree one way or another with a student's self assessment, we discuss it.  Otherwise I enter a 95, 85, 75, 65, 55, 50, or 25.  If a student has not demonstrated a C level of mastery, I encourage them to continue learning the material until they can achieve that level and I use all the academic resources available to make that process as simple and convenient as possible.  I will change grades at any point in the year.  I tell students "your grade is as permanent as you allow it to be".

For the next unit in my class, I will ask students to forecast their test grade before taking it.  They already know what they are being asked to demonstrate, and they should not need MY test for them to know where they are.  I want them to truly think about learning, to embrace it, and to enjoy the challenge. So, I am looking forward to this experience with them.

I am still experimenting with methods of accurately assessing knowledge while encouraging students to reflect on their own learning, explore ways to deepen their understanding of concepts, and enjoy the process of gaining knowledge.  I do this because I am a professional.  I own my authority to assess student knowledge, and  I will not yield that authority to anyone.  If all my colleagues demand the same, our education environment could be drastically different.  We can create great change from our classrooms.

"Be the change you wish to see in the world." - Ghandi


  1. I love that you're letting students go over the mistakes themselves and get them to self-assess! I get tests sent home (5th grade, 8th grade) and my kids haven't gone over the answers they got wrong!

    This reminds me of the techniques outlined in Make it Stick (have you come across this book?) going over best strategies for successful learning. http://makeitstick.net/about.php
    "Grappling with the impediments that make learning challenging leads both to more complex mastery and better retention of what was learned. Many common study habits and practice routines turn out to be counterproductive."

  2. I think you have hit upon an excellent way to integrate assessment into the learning process as it should be. Predicting grades beforehand as a way to assess themselves is superb! As teachers, we so so often forget the real point of assessment sometimes in our test obsessed culture.

  3. I think you have hit upon an excellent way to integrate assessment into the learning process as it should be. Predicting grades beforehand as a way to assess themselves is superb! As teachers, we so so often forget the real point of assessment sometimes in our test obsessed culture.

  4. My heartiest congratulations to the writer on writing this.