Building better assessments—classroom teacher’s view

Going through some of my personal teaching journals, I came across this piece I wrote back in 2003 describing pre and post assessments that I had designed and used in my high school English classes from the mid-90s, through about 2004, until other, less effective assessment practices were forced upon my classroom by policy changes. I offer it to you as seed for thoughts about how effective assessment of student learning could look if it were designed and implemented by teachers at the classroom level. What place (if any) do assessments such as these have in our current atmosphere of increased accountability and equity for the learning of all students? Would love to hear your questions or comments:

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September 2003: What if high school English were a place of wondrous discoveries and meaningful accomplishments? While that vision is nothing like what I experienced in high school, it is exactly the image I want shimmering in my students’ memories long after they have left my classroom.

I believe in highly individualized instruction within structured, cooperative settings. Each student develops his or her communication skills while pursuing the questions, topics, or mediums s/he finds most compelling (or challenging). This is no small task for a high school teacher considering there have been years when I’ve taught 150 students per day. Still, every year I strive for the goal of giving each student a very personalized education, while creating a true community of learners who feel a sense of collective responsibility for one another’s success.

The first step towards this goal begins with the first two weeks of school. I set the tone the first day a student arrives in my class with a discussion about my classroom standards which must be upheld by everyone who enters our room, including me. Along with the obligatory list of consequences for student violators, are the steps students may take if I fail to come to class prepared or show disrespect towards anyone, up to a conference with the principal. Each student also gives me the name and contact information of a significant adult; someone the student respects who is genuinely concerned about the student’s academic success. I contact this person and invite him/or her to act as the student’s mentor for the school year.

For the next several days, we will work our way through a series of self-explorations that I use to help me (and the students) learn about their relative strengths and weaknesses as communicators. I have designed and re-designed these activities to cover every aspect of the language arts (reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, thinking), as well as probing their control of vocabulary, language conventions, and researching skills.

For these pre-assessments, I select inspirational or motivational materials to plant the seeds of success and high expectations. However, the most energizing part of the process comes when I meet privately with each student to review his or her preliminary activities, and together, we develop a Personal English Plan. The plan, designed on a grid, is part analysis, part wish list. I try to help each student strike a balance between course requirements and personal goals. In our discussions, I usually pose the question: “By the end of another full year in English, what do you want to know or be able to do that you don’t know or don’t do very well now?” Once we agree upon skills to be learned or perfected, we begin to identify topics or questions of special interest to each student. These Personal English Plans guide our work for the rest of the year with checkpoints and updates at the end of each grading period.

With the exception of large group discussions, which are conducted in a large circle in the center of the room, students are free to move about the room to accomplish the learning tasks on which they are focusing each day. Some may be peer editing a classmate’s work in a small group, while others may be at the computers. Some are reading, while others may be working with study partners. I am moving around the room, clipboard in hand, as I conference with students, check on progress, encourage fresh thinking, or suggest resources.

All this energy culminates at the end of the school year with their presentations of their individual Communications Skills Portfolios to the class, mentors, and other invited guests. Then, final individual conferences (posttest) with me as we use their portfolios to determine how many of the original goals of the Personal English Plan have been met and how to translate those accomplishments into a final grade based on the district requirements.

P.S. Be sure to check out the Teachers Letters to Obama group’s first Virtual Teach-in: “Testing, Testing, Too Much Testing” featuring panelists Dr. Young Zhao, Monty Neill, and Doug Christensen, Monday, June 14th, 8:30 – 10:30 p.m. EDT. To register click HERE.