Sunday, September 9, 2012

Assessing all the Assessments

For our second language arts class, I administered one of the many assessments students will have to face this year.  This one was not purchased by a testing company nor is it state approved, but it is the one that I value the most.

Due to the new teacher evaluation system adopted by New York, teachers in all subject areas will have to give pre-post assessments in their courses.  When you do the math, it is troublesome about the loss of actual teaching time that will be lost across the state.  Teachers now must demonstrate a student's growth over the course of the year in order for their "teacher score" to be calculated.  Under this new system, teachers will now receive a grade.  And while the start of a new school year is always a bit crazy and hectic, this one was particularly difficult as teachers had to add to their lengthy to-do list  things like developing student learning outcomes (SLOs), creating a pre-assessment, creating a post-assessment, making sure they were able to accurately calculate how much time students are in their class, and other things that took the focus off of what we usually work on in those first few days.  I know for must of us, it was an exhausting week.

For me, I have always started the year with my students with a writing assessment to determine the kinds of skills they have.  It contains no multiple-choice questions; there is no scan-tron sheet to bubble in.  It consists of only one direction and requires some loose-leaf and a writing utensil.  I simply ask each student to create a piece of writing and turn it in at the end of class.  The only wrong way to fulfill this task is to turn in a blank piece of paper.  Students almost always look at me as if this is a trick.  I can really do whatever I want?  Any question they may ask is met with a shrug of my shoulders and the response, "What do you think?"  After a few minutes, everyone has zeroed in on that sheet of loose-leaf and begins to fill it up.  The room gets very quiet and we all enter what my friend and colleague refers to as "the writing zone".  It is a feeling that I relish in my classroom.

You might ask what it is exactly I learn from something that can elicit so many different types of responses.  The knowledge I gain about my students as writers is profound.  The assessing begins immediately for me as I can see just by my observations, who began writing immediately, who took their time before beginning to write, and those who were clearly frustrated.  This year was actually the first year in all my years of giving this assessment that I did not have to give any additional help to someone who just didn't know where to begin.  I can see by glancing over their shoulders and seeing what direction they went those who are comfortable with writing and those who might be more unsure of themselves.  I learn who might have a lower stamina when it comes to writing for an extended amount of time and for who writing is clearly a pleasure.  And this is all before I have collected a single page or read any of their drafts.  You can imagine the kinds of things I learn when I actually read their writing:  clarity of ideas, paragraphing, spelling, mechanics, etc.  Not to mention some of the personal information they choose to include.

Now this is clearly not something I could "score" in the traditional sense.  For it is not about points.  Rather, it is about getting to know my students, assessing where their skills are at, and making a plan for the year that will work on areas that students struggle with and build upon their strengths (for I have new students each year, which means my teaching must adapt to those in front of me).  Having a team of 116 students demands that I figure these things out sooner rather than later as it can be a daunting task to find one-on-one time with each in the course of the first month.  This piece of writing serves as an initial conversation with each individual student as we move forward and work on making them a stronger, more confident writer.

Students will see this piece again next week, as I ask them to revise and edit their piece.  Again, this is a single direction on which I do not expand on.  Understanding the difference between these two writing moves is an integral part of our writing year, and so it helps to see who already knows the difference and who doesn't.

Students will actually see this piece for a third time as it functions as a post-assessment at the end of the year.  But I don't want to ruin that surprise just yet...

But in October, April and May, we will be faced with our state-mandated 7th grade assessments.  Some will be be administered on the computer, some on bubble sheets.  These will turn each child into a number and give me data on where there skills are at on that particular day.  Some of these scores I won't have until next year, which makes them all the more less useful to me as their teacher.  And while I can appreciate the intent of all of this, all I can see is how it gives me less time to have my students do the real work of reading, writing, speaking and listening in our classroom. 

As this crazy year continues and students are asked to sit for all of their pre-post assessments, I hope that we will be having conversations at home about all of this.  We need to as citizens let the politicians who are making all of these education reforms (none of whom are educators themselves) know how it is going.  Inform them on the impact that it has on our children and our schools.  We must, in essence, assess all of the assessments. 

No comments: