Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What No One Will Tell You When You Come to Work at the DOE, Part 4: Assessment

Hello again! After looking at the harrowing and hair-raising subjects of Management and Discipline, we’re ready to return to Assessment. It is a word that many teachers no doubt would like to never hear again, right up there with “goals,” “engagement,” “accountability,” and “coverage.” So I am going to attempt to de-mystify assessment for you a bit in this post. Please note that if I sort of made things up as I went along in my own teaching career with management and discipline, I REALLY made things up as I went along with assessment, so the vets should scrutinize this post and feel even more free than usual to contradict, correct, and/or supplement my “advice” herein.

First of all, assessment sounds scarier than it is. It sounds scary because we’ve come to associate it with a few very negative things: high-stakes testing, big binders full of information, and the whole Acuity/ARIS complex. For teachers on the ground, assessment need not be scary and, indeed, you may actually find it useful. Assessment at its core is simply finding out about your students. Assessments break down into a few different categories:

· Pre-assessments are assessments you would give before teaching a lesson, a concept, a unit, or an entire year of content.
· Post-assessments are assessments you would give after teaching.
· Formative assessments are assessments you would give while teaching something—think of these as mini-assessments. They can be part of a sequence or a whole, or they can stand on their own. Indeed, a really good lesson will always contain an assessment piece, even if it’s only a few minutes long, and you should think of these as formative assessments, too.
· Summative assessments are assessments you would give as a culmination of teaching and learning.

So on the surface, assessment is a fairly obvious topic. “So,” you may ask, “you mean that assessing is just figuring out what my students know, and then, later, figuring out how much they learned?” Basically, yes. Go ahead and breathe a sigh of relief. People make it more complicated than it has to be.

Okay, so how do you choose and/or design assessments that will be useful for you and keep your administrators off your back? This is a tough question for me to answer. I’m a middle school ELA teacher and obviously my answers would be specific to my subject area. So, first, I’ll give some general tips for assessment in the first heady days of school. Then, those of you who are not teaching middle school ELA can stop reading and I’ll give some specific tips for you lucky souls in my content and developmental neighborhood.

General tips for assessments? First, keep them low- or no-stakes in the first few days and weeks of school. Make it explicit to your students that you are getting to know them and their needs and no one will be penalized for forgetting anything or temporarily slipping into bad habits. If you must grade assessment pieces just to keep your little darlings on their toes (and this may very well be a MUST in many middle school classrooms), grade them only on completion, legibility, and/or honesty.

Combine serious assessments with fun ones. Whether or not you believe in learning styles and multiple intelligences (and, yes, it’s okay to not believe in them), surveys about them can be fun for the kids. There are many interest inventories that are applicable to subject areas in which all the kids have to do is check boxes or similar about things they like and don’t like. This may sound like busywork, but it’s only busywork if you’re not going to read them and care about them. And you should. Most of the kids will be honest, and their interests can help you make some decisions in the classroom.

Try to make even the serious assessments fun. I’ve done an assessment in social studies in which students are given a pile of Post-it notes with some historical incidents and they work together in small groups to place them on a large timeline that stretches from one wall to another in my classroom. It tells me what kind of a sense students have about history just as well as a paper-and-pencil quiz, and they always like to stand up and walk around and talk. (Don’t try something like that, though, until your routines and rules are well-established—as you should already know!) Don’t skimp on the spoonfuls of sugar as long as the medicine follows immediately afterwards, so to speak.

Organize what you know in some kind of fashion. More and more, schools have a system for this—a binder, a spreadsheet, whatever. Don’t reinvent the wheel on this, especially not your first year. Do what your grade, department, or building does. Even if it’s not a perfect system, it’s easier than coming up with your own when you have more important things to worry about.

Finally, process your findings. I generally go kid by kid and write a short statement summarizing his or her strengths and weaknesses and where we might go from here: “Sarah’s writing is vivid and descriptive but lacks organization—share three examples of outlines and graphic organizers to scaffold organizational patterns in Sarah’s writing.” This is not a biography and it is not an IEP—just some notes for yourself and, of course, other interested parties, which may well include your School Quality Review team. So be forewarned and don’t be like me the first year I taught middle school, when I found myself in tears on the eve of the Quality Review because I had been handed a binder and told to put stuff in it and that was the extent of my “professional development” on assessment in middle school ELA. I need hardly mention (though I will) that such notes need to stick to the Dragnet rule—“Just the facts, ma’am.” No speculation and no comments on behavior or work habits—that needs to be accounted for, of course, but not here.

Now, for the middle school ELA teachers…

[Everyone else runs off]

Boy, I’m glad they’re gone! Let’s have some drinks and laugh at them! HA HA HA—

Just kidding.

Okay, my people. You can’t go wrong with these few easy assessments to kick you off:

· Teachers’ College Reading Assessments (should be available to you if your school is officially doing TC, and can possibly be borrowed/”borrowed” from a colleague or the Internet or somesuch if not). Even if your school is not a TC school, just about everyone has enough rough familiarity with the Fountas and Pinnell reading levels that they’ll know what you’re talking about.
· A simple writing assessment in which kids write a prose piece of their choosing for a certain period of time. Assess the pieces with a rubric—there are a million writing rubrics out there or you can make your own. I rather like the AUSSIE* rubrics and, again, your principal should have passing familiarity with them even if your school doesn’t participate in AUSSIE.
*AUSSIE? Like Australian? Yes. There are Australian staff developers who come and work in NYC schools. Seriously. AUSSIE is an acronym for something but they really are Aussies. Usually I would decry this as a terrible waste of money and resources but my school used to have AUSSIEs and I liked them.
· A reading interest inventory to give you a sense of what genres, topics, etc. could/should be represented in your classroom library.
· A listening assessment—you can use old state ELA exams, which are easily available online, to see how well your kids record and process what they hear.

And, again, in general: Keep it simple, keep it low-stakes, make it fun, organize your findings, and LEARN from them. Be able to talk about your findings with your kids, your administrators, and your kids’ families. Believe me when I say this will make you look very professional and ahead of the curve as a newbie.

I am considering delving into the extremely thorny subject of Getting Along (with the adults, not the children) next week, but I need to spend a few days assessing (!) how much I actually know about this topic to decide if I know it well enough to teach others about it.

See you next time!

Miss Eyre
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