This week was interesting, to say the least. Due in part to exhaustion, another in part to stress, and mostly due to a nasty stomach virus I picked up over the weekend, I missed FOUR whole days of class. Therefore, most of my time this week was spent either in bed or the bathroom. I missed my school, my students, and most of all, the feel of teaching. And because of this, I did a great deal of thinking. I thought about many things concerning education… why the achievement gap is so large… why the drop out rate in America is climbing every year… what would need to be done to “fix” our public school system… what I could do in my classroom (once I finally got back in it) to make a difference in the lives of my students. But most of all, I thought about assessment. Although it sounds like a random, insignificant thing to be thinking about while you’re suffering from nauseas pain, it actually proved to be an incredible topic to distract myself from my misfortune.
Before I came down with the virus, I took two class sets of Unit 3 Post-tests home with me to examine and grade. Looking over the post-tests, I came to realize two priceless facts: students DO in fact learn something in my class and assessment is the foundation for a solid classroom. The former was more of a surprise to me than the latter, as I often am my own worst critic. I have been telling myself ever since I got into the classroom that I am not doing a “good enough” job. I constantly see things I could have done better, I become overwhelmed when I ask my students questions they should be able to answer and they sit there with blank stares, I even remind myself daily that I am very inexperienced, very raw, and very untrained. All of this to say, I was delightfully surprised when I saw the vast improvement in knowledge, comprehension, and skill my students displayed on their post-tests. I continually found myself in amazement when comparing a student’s work on their post-test to that of their pre-test.
For example, look at this student’s pre-test in these five links:
On the question portion of his pre-test, Austin simply states the obvious. He is definitely able to identify the surface issues of the nonfiction piece. But the purpose of this assessment is to see how well the student can think and develop deeper ideas about a given nonfiction text. Austin struggles to do so. He points to the surface topic on question #3–writing about how the article is on, “alcohol ads and young people”– when in reality there is so much more going on in the article. On question #4 he only draws on his own personal opinion for his reasoning, rather than pushing his thinking to a greater, more universal frame. Finally, he doesn’t even attempt to answer questions #6 and 7, showing us that either he doesn’t know how to “dig deeper” or that he ran out of time. Either way, we see Austin struggling to get beyond the surface elements of the nonfiction piece. This is also evident in his notes/annotations. They are short, simple statements rather than complex, deeper thoughts and observations. Questions are asked, but he does not attempt to answer them. All in all, Austin’s ability to read the text, annotate it, think critically, and articulate his ideas in written form are all at a basic level, at best.
However, now look at the same student’s post-test in the following four links:
Drastic improvement! In the question portion of his post-test, Austin not only identifies the surface elements of the article, but also attempts to go beyond them! He can not only identify the groups at conflict with one another, but also dig deeper into each group’s motivations, fears, needs, wants, and goals. Question #6, in particular, showcases Austin’s development. His response is thoughtful, well articulated, and attempts to dig to the bigger, deeper issues at work in the article. As he begins exploring how society should solve this conflict, and all conflicts for that matter, he displays a keen ability to think critically about the article he has just read. In similar fashion, Austin’s annotations/notes also speak volumes of his development as a reader/thinker/analyzer of nonfiction texts. He writes all over the article, asks questions, attempts to answer questions, makes comparisons, identifies, labels, and digs deeper to universal issues. All in all, we can clearly see a dramatic amount of learning and growth from pre-test to post-test.
Obviously, I cannot take full credit for this wonderful growth. For one, I am not the only teacher in the classroom. Two, I did not force Austin to work hard, to practice, to constantly be improving his critical thinking skills, and to put in the energy craft a more effective ability to write analytically. No, I did not do ANY of this! HE DID! He was in charge of his learning, HE took ownership over his education, and HE was the reason why he succeeded. But I can say with confidence that the assessment I gave him in this unit allowed him, and I, to see his dramatic improvement. Without a pre and post-test, Austin and I would not have had this tangible proof of just how far he has come in his learning.
This fact reminds me of SPU’s Principle “P3,” which states, “the teacher candidate practices standards-based assessment.” The use of a standardized pre-test offered me the opportunity to inform my own teaching. I was quickly able to recognize–by Austin and many other students’ tests– how much time and energy my class would need to devote to improving annotation skills and critical thinking abilities. Therefore, we spent many class lessons reading, annotating, thinking, and writing on nonfiction texts. We studied mentor texts, we discussed, we practiced over and over again, and we worked tirelessly to improve these deficiencies. So when I handed out the post-test and saw the drastic improvement, I was clearly able to see the fundamental necessity for standards-based assessment.