Real teachers, real assessment

As the beginning of the school year approaches (for some of us it has already begun), we may hear discussions about “diagnostic testing” of students. I dislike the term “diagnostic testing” because it implies that the students are sick, and that our purpose at the start of the school year is to find out what’s wrong with them, presumably, so we can “fix” it. Rather, they are where they are along the educational continuum toward whichever specific standards we are responsible for teaching. Our task, is to meet them where they are, and together move as far along the continuum as we can in the time allotted to us.

A few years ago, I wrote in detail about my pre-assessment process, and I share it here as an example of teacher-developed, performance-based assessment.

My pre-assessment process revolves around having students demonstrate through performance their abilities in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Only reading and writing are tested in the district or statewide tests; however, I include oral skills, not only because they are part of the state framework, but also because they are highly valued communication skills within the local African American community and the ones in which the students tend to be the strongest.

We begin with a short, carefully chosen reading passage It is almost always by or about an African American (preferably someone with whom they may not be familiar). First, we do a timed reading to determine their speed. Then, they are allowed to read the article in full, set it aside, and free write what they remember from the article (this tests recall and ability to pick up on main ideas and key details). Next, I’ll have them listen to an audiotape of a professional speaker on a motivational or inspirational topic (such as how to be a better reader or how to be a successful student in high school). They are required to take notes during the tape. Scanning these later gives me an idea of their skill at listening comprehension. Finally, they may use their notes from both exercises to draft an essay. I make sure to give the essay an I-Search twist, such as “What, if anything, did you learn from the reading or the lecture that might help you this school year? What goals would you personally like to accomplish this year in English class?” These essays become my writing and grammar samples. All this usually takes a few days.

By the end of the first full week of school, we are ready to begin analyzing the results together and developing personal learning plans (PEPs). The PEP is the first requirement in the communications-skills portfolio for my class. I spend at least one full class period introducing the portfolio. There are several points in the portfolio that are negotiable, both initially and as the school year progresses. The final step is for them to take the PEP and the portfolio checklist home. Each student must identify a significant adult of his or her choice (parent, relative, neighbor, teacher, church member, Scout leader, etc) whose role is to encourage the student to keep up with the class and complete his or her portfolio. Students must explain the portfolio to the mentors and get them to sign a contract. [For those who could not find someone, I kept a list of school and community volunteers ready]. As soon as I know who they are, I contact the mentors to introduce myself, answer questions, take suggestions for adjustments in the PEP or portfolio, and open the door for communication throughout the year. All these steps help us create a culturally engaged learning environment….

I [used] the term culturally engaged instruction to describe how teaching and learning occur in my classroom. The students and I are engaged (committed to an interactive, mutually satisfying relationship over an extended period of time) in an exchange of cultural information. I have learned over time how dependent upon and integrated into the cultural context language arts instruction truly is. The students and parents must develop a level of trust with the teachers in order to compensate for the historically derived mistrust that language arts instruction has engendered with large segments of the African American community. This goes beyond just a superficial “I like my teacher” (although that may be the way the students articulate it). It is rooted in respect and communication.

Like that of so many of my colleagues, however, my classroom work has been affected by the current frenzy of reactions to the No Child Left Behind Act. I have spent years developing and analyzing my preassessments, only to have my school district insist I use a pre-packaged pretest for all students. Similarly, the administration has attempted to move all the major assessment of students out of teacher control by requiring only district office-generated end-of-grading-period tests. This stripping of professional responsibilities from teachers cannot bode well for the development of quality teaching in our classrooms.

At the time I wrote that passage, I was teaching English and journalism at Broad Street High School in Shelby, Mississippi. Broad Street served 370 students in grades 8 – 12. Of our students, 99% were African American and 100% got free and reduced lunch. (For more on my classroom research, teaching practices, and to meet some of my wonderful students, visit my website: Culturally Engaged Instruction (CEI): Putting Theory into Practice). We had state testing data from the previous school year available, which we were obligated to review. Unfortunately, it yielded very little useful information at the classroom instruction level. [“Student is weak in grammar, usage, and mechanics.”]

I’d love to hear about some other teacher-developed assessments. Those of you who have used both your own performance assessments and more standardized pre-tests, which have you found more useful?