Pretest, post-test: how ’bout no test?

Confession (again): I dislike assessment. I’m the kind of teacher who loves to zoom through my favorite topics (which is all of science, really) without stopping for tests so I can get to even more interesting topics. After all, there is only so much time in a semester, right?  But with my binary grading policy this semester (see my earlier posts to this blog), I’m faced with having to provide quality assessments for my students, perhaps for the first time in my teaching career.

In the search for answers (a.k.a reading my Twitter stream), I ran across Tom Whitby’s blog post http://tomwhitby.wordpress.com/2010/01/22/in-my-humble-opinion. A quote from Tom near the end reads:

Let the need to continually learn and communicate in a literate manner be the Goal of All educators. All decisions should be weighed with this in mind. All assessments should address this goal. We would need no standardized tests with this as a standardized Goal. IMHO.

Here’s where this last bit about standardized tests leads me: Why don’t I teach so that students assess themselves in authentic situations where actual learning is taking place? Couldn’t I give them the proper framework of expectations or standards and let them judge each other and themselves?

Think about it:
Who gives teachers tests? I mean real tests that matter once you have started a teaching career. At least where I teach, to renew my teaching license I need to merely prove that I attend professional development sessions, not that I actually learn anything at them. So if teachers don’t take tests, then how do WE know that WE are correct in what we do for our students? We reflect, that is our assessment, and it is self-assessment. No one else is usually telling us if our teaching stinks. Or if they are, it is for a very good reason. They have observed us in action in an authentic situation: doing our job.

So why do we give students such fake tasks to accomplish in the name of assessment? Do any of us really encounter multiple choice/ T/F / matching / short answer problems in our daily lives? Nah, life is more complex than that.

Obviously, I am left with the nagging feeling that my assessments need to change.  I need, using Tom’s words, to figure out ways for my students to communicate that they are continually learning in my class. That will probably still involve some of the traditional quizzes and tests via Moodle or paper. But my challenge now is to see if I can find much more meaningful assessment tasks for my students.

The funny part is, I am not sure students are ready, either, to make the switch to far more meaningful assessments. Our educational system, at least at the high school level, usually has students as notetakers while the teacher talks and worksheet-completers when teachers are finished talking. To suddenly ask our students to tackle big problems in novel ways is going to shake them up some.

For example,  I recently changed one of my Anatomy and Physiology quizzes to have a research component rather than being strictly recall from readings and discussion. In the prompt I asked students to explain how a particular venom or toxin (of their choice) effects the normal functioning of neurons. Keep in mind that we never discussed toxins or venoms in class before the quiz. They were specifically asked to show their understanding of basic neurophysiology (the content being assessed) through their response to the prompt. They completed the quiz in class using their laptops to access online information, a “real-life” skill that I want them to have.

The problem was that students wrote plenty about venoms and toxins but very little about how the nervous system normally functions, which was what we had been studying for the couple weeks previous to the quiz. In other words, nearly all students were  proficient at accessing information but very few were able to integrate their previous studies with the newly acquired information. The class ended up taking the quiz again, this time without the research component, and many students did demonstrate that they had been learning about neurophysiology. They may have misunderstood the original prompt or perhaps their first failing quiz score motivated them to study for the retake, I don’t know for sure. I will give that kind of quiz again, though, because it assesses the kinds of thinking tasks that I want my students to be able to perform.

So am I going to abandon multiple choice tests? No. Am I going to have students grade each other for the rest of the semester? No.

Am I going to struggle along with my students as we find ways for them to show off true learning in my classes? You bet!

Binary Grading in Practice (Update 1)

As described previously on this blog, I am experimenting with a grading system in which students earn either 1 or 0 points for daily assignments that reflect learning activities or practice.  Quizzes, tests, and projects that do measure individual learning earn higher point values in the gradebook. With a few weeks-worth of grades in the book, I’ll risk a few early observations about how the system is working.

Best outcome so far: I have found that I need to assess student understanding more frequently so that one quiz does not doom a student’s grade.  Even better, students are now asking for more chances to demonstrate their learning. Student athletes, in particular, are approaching me with requests for ways to show that they understand what we are discussing in class in order to remain eligible for sports.

With only a few quizzes in the gradebook and no “extra” points from daily assignments to buffer their grade, many students have found their grades to be much lower at the start of this quarter than they would like.  This may be because they are still getting used to the system and are only now realizing what the new point system entails. Most students do seem to realize now that they are not being rewarded just for turning assignments in. They have to perform well on the quizzes for the grade to show any progress. I think it helped that I put the new grading policy in writing and distributed it to students and their parents on the advice of my principal, Bud Ozzello.

Another outcome of binary grading is that some aspects of the daily assignments themselves have changed.  Since most daily assignments are now defined as learning activities, not assessment activities, I send home the answer keys with assignments as much as possible.  This makes my job as teacher a lot easier. I used to be in the role of “copy policeman” where I would have to scrutinize homework to see who was copying whom. No longer. Now it is the student’s responsibility to make sure that they are using their time wisely. Students may still cheat, but now at least they have the correct answers and are getting very little credit for it in the overall course grade. They are still held accountable for learning the material since it appears on quizzes and tests.

The most surprising observation so far has been that students still complete the daily assignments even though they are worth only 1 point.  I had worried initially that students would lose motivation due to the lack of points, but I think most realize that they are still being held accountable for the daily work. Their parents can check my online gradebook to see if they are doing their work and if they are understanding it based on the quiz results.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Paula White’s article http://tzstchr.edublogs.org/2010/01/26/gradefog/ on effective grading in which she passes on a warning about the hazards of formative assessments taking over the gradebook:

Coaches don’t grade practices, so why over-grade ongoing assessments?  Students need opportunities to practice, analyze work, and learn from errors in a safe context.   The formative assessments given should be just that—formative—not final grades.

I’d like to think that that is what is beginning to happen in my classroom with this change in grade reporting. My challenge now is to routinely produce quality assessments (formative and summative) that do measure individual student levels of understanding in a timely manner. I am still shaking myself out of the past several years of doing things the same old way. But I hope that my students and I will continue to work the kinks out of this new grading system and find ways for them to learn to earn the grade.