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Aurora Institute

Testing Myths

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Courtney Belolan

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Create Balanced Systems of Assessments

The word “test” has a negative connotation.  It conjures up images of students sitting in rows, number two pencils, and bubbles.  It feels like long amounts of time, tricky questions, and essays. The test is a difficult task in which one must prove oneself.  The students are the Odysseus, Perseus, and King Arthur, suffering through test after test on a long arduous journey. Teachers are the archetypal meddling Gods, monsters, and dragons of mythology providing one test after another for students to show what they really know. Teachers’ main goal seems to be creating elaborate tasks for students to conquer on their own in order to prove that they are good enough to be marked as having performed satisfactorily.

Assessment can, and, in a successful proficiency-based learning model does, have a much more positive connotation.  Assessing is judging or appraising.  In the case of proficiency-based learning, an assessment is a tool used to judge or appraise a performance against a particular learning target, or standard.  It is about finding evidence that a student knows or is able to do something, then documenting it. Assessments are ways to see if students are “getting it” or not. Students are still our mythic heroes, moving ahead on their journeys, breezing through at times and struggling at others. Teachers are now the archetypal wise man, or guiding sage: Athena supporting Odysseus, Hermes helping Perseus, Merlin guiding King Arthur.  Instead of constantly testing the students they work with, these teachers are constantly judging where students are in their progress toward a learning target, and providing them the support, help, or guidance they need to continue making progress.

Yes, constantly. But remember, it is more like the Arthur-Merlin dynamic.  Assessments must happen constantly in order for teachers to know how students are progressing in their learning and if anything needs to change in the instructional plan.  This is true for one particular student, small groups of students, and even the whole class. When combined with effective feedback and progress tracking tools, constant assessment allows students to take on much more ownership of their learning by making it clear to them where they are in relation to a target, and what they have to do in order to meet that target.

Constant assessment sounds like a huge drain on a teacher’s time, but it doesn’t have to be.  Again, think Athena, not the meddling Greek Gods.  There are ways to craft assessments so that students barely know they are being assessed.  The best assessment, much like the best sage guidance, feels like it is just part of the regular flow of things. It is important for students to apply their skills and knowledge in longer, more complicated tasks, just not all the time.  If we want to be like the mythical wise men and sage guides we have to be ready to give just-in-time support so that we know our heroes will be successful when put to the test; if we wait for the test, it is often too late to provide any meaningful guidance.

Below is a list of some quick assessment methods, each with a brief explanation. Any of these methods can be modified, or added to, in order best fit your classes. Feel free to create your own variations, and play with programs like Google Forms in order to digitize some of these methods. Also, think about your system for recording the data from these methods. When you are ready to learn more, or remind yourself of what you already know, my number one recommendation for further reading about constant assessment is Embedded Formative Assessment, by Dylan William.  Also check out the September 2012 issue of Educational Leadership.

Super Quick Assessment Methods

1. The Exit Slip:  This is a short task completed and turned in at the end of class. An exit slip can be used for a variety of purposes: to document learning, reflect on a process, get feedback about the class, highlight questions, etc. They can be open response to a question, or more structured. Here are some examples:

a. 3-2-1:  three things you learned, two things you still want to learn, and one clarifying question.
b. Plus-Delta:  one thing that went well, one thing to change
c. Rate Your Learning:  one a scale of 1-5 (one lowest) rate how your understanding
d. One Question:  write one question you still have, or a request for more explanation on something from today’s class

2. Individual White Boards:  Teachers pose a question, all students write an answer, then hold it up at the same time.  Teachers get an instant picture of the class, and kids get to see one another’s answers too.

3. Observations: Observational data absolutely counts as assessment data.  Carry a clipboard, or other means of recording data, as you move throughout the classroom during work times.  When you notice a student doing something that shows they now have a foundational skill or understanding, or even a more complex skill or understanding, record it.

4. Ticket In The Door:  Similar to the exit slip, but done at the start of class.  Give students a question or short task that they can complete in 1-5 minutes, then use the instant data to do some on-the-spot planning for class.  Make groups, move ahead, or back up the learning.

5. Conferences:  Talking to students is often an excellent way to find out what they know.  Start out with a general opener, like “So, how’s it going?” or “Talk to me about what you are up to.”  Ask more focused questions to see exactly what their understanding is, then articulate their understanding back to them and give some feedback to help them move forward in their learning.  Keep the conference under five minutes, and be sure to record your data!

6. ABCD Cards: Students each get a set of the cards, and the teacher poses a question. The students are given a silent moment to think about the question, then hold up one card as their answer. The question can be one with a definite answer, or it could be a question with more than one answer.

7. Colored Cups:  Each student gets three colored cups in a stack for their desk: red, yellow, and green.  During class students can change the cups to signal their learning needs.  For example, green means that they understand everything and the teacher can keep going, yellow means that they need the pace to slow a bit or something needs to be explained again, and red means that they are confused and need help, or want to ask a question.

Courtney Belolan works at RSU 2 in Maine where she supports K-12 teachers with performance-based, individualized learning. Courtney works closely with teams and teachers as a coach, and with the school and district leadership teams as an instructional strategist. Courtney has worked as a 6-12 literacy and instructional coach, a middle level ELA teacher, an environmental educator, and a digital literacy coach. Her core beliefs include the idea that the best education is one centered on student passions and rooted in interdisciplinary applications, and that enjoying learning is just as important as the learning itself.