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A Few Thoughts on Assessment
Most of us are so busy grading assessments that we seldom have time to fix what might not be working in each assessment so that next time we test over a unit or chunk of content we have a much better device to measure understanding. What is it about assessment that makes the system seem so complicated and how can we fix it so that we can make our lives easier and our data richer next year?
Know that I do not have any quick fixes for the crazy standardized tests that many of you face from your state or district offices. I am speaking here about the assessments we use in our classrooms to tell us if the kids understand what we taught. That is a chunk of content that we can manage and revise.
The first question is when to assess? I offer mini assessments throughout the unit. Most of these are self grading so they inform the student as to how well they are doing. These are just little quizzes and they take only 5 or 10 minutes each week. They help the kids get better at explaining that they are thinking when the graded assessments roll around. Graded quizzes come at the end of every 10 day cycle. I try to keep this regular as the kids need some predictable structure in the days. These are almost always 10 questions with a mix of short answer, one essay and some well written multiple choice questions. Larger unit tests come about every 3 weeks based on when we are at the end of one unit and ready to begin another cycle of inquiry. I use lots of essay questions but some folks like multiple choice for easier grading. If I do use multiple choice I ask the students to write me a bit of information telling me why they selected that particular answer. This really helps paint me a picture of understanding for each student. It also gives the test phobic student a chance to give an explanation of answer choice that may tell me they really do understand the concept but my item is not clear enough to them to show understanding.
The big buzzword is formative assessment. This is actually a good thing. Formative assessment is almost anything you do during a unit to figure out if the students are mastering the concept and where the sticking points might be. I use formative assessment probes at the start of the lesson to see what the kids understand and then use them throughout the unit to check in with what my students are having trouble with.
These probes are mostly based on the work of Page Keeley in her “Formative Assessment” books:
But, several sites have good examples that you can modify for any content.
The key idea of these probes is to get students to download their preconceptions about the concepts and then to allow you to structure a sequence of activities that will cause the students to question these preconceptions and construct more accurate knowledge. That sequence of activities is material for a whole different article in this series. I will post that later. But for now, thinking about assessment is enough.
Start small and look at one unit at a time. I did unit one through three the first year and then worked on other units in subsequent years. Now, I have a full assessment plan that includes a test item bank, an explanation for kids regarding what to expect, sample tests to help students study, and some great formative assessments that not only tell me what is working but also inform the students. Let me know if you want some examples and I will send them on. We are only as good as our ability to work and share effective ideas.