Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Think Big, Focus Small, Demand More

Student Achievement Best Practices

By Kristin Crowley

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Thinking Big – Assessing Student Achievement

student achievement best practices--sometimes you have to think big in order to focus small
Assessment - the cornerstone of any good teaching.  Right?  It tells us what our students learned?  What they still need to learn?  And provides us the insight as to whether we as teachers have an impact on our students learning.

However, assessments themselves can be altered, adjusted or manipulated to allow for measurable gains or losses altering outcomes and skewing data.  Lets face it, from the school level to the state level to the national level we decide exactly what we want to assess ahead of time, teach it until we can’t possible teach it anymore, give the students a test on it, then pat ourselves on the back for doing a great job.  Did the kids learn something – sure.  But did their said “learning” become something intrinsic; something that can be transferred from unit to unit, year to year?  That in itself is really the essence of student achievement, not just some number on some test.

How then do we as teachers truly measure student achievement?  Do we focus on the skills? Content? Both?  Reality is we need to assess everything but if we present our students with broad formative and summative assessments we lose valuable data and overwhelm the students to the point where they will lose interest and become lost in the process.

So how can that realistically be done so that it not only allows for a true measure of student achievement but also allows for engagement and interest on both the students and the teachers? By thinking big but focusing on the small.

Focusing Small – Measuring Achievement One Skill or Concept at a Time

However, before you can even develop a process like this you have to think about exactly what you want to assess.  One of the reasons why assessments seem to fail is because we as teachers try to test t0o many things.  Of course we want our students to be able to do everything but if we are really considering ways increase student achievement then we have to think big but focus on the small.

Consider a literacy unit in which you want your students to write an argumentative essay, which is the very essence of Writing Standard 1 in the Common Core (CCLS W1) and an part of the future PARCC assessment.  Within the unit there are several overarching goals on the fundamentals of writing an argumentative essay but of course there is more to the skill of essay writing that needs to be taught for this unit to be successful.  One must also teach background information on the topics for the focus of the essay and research skills.  You can also incorporate reading strategies like comparing and contrasting, fact and opinion, and inferencing.  All of content knowledge and skills are very important to the success of the unit but not necessarily what the ultimate assessment of the unit will be because the units goal is Argumentative Writing therefore the assessments only focus on that and just that.  The question ultimately being – “Can my students write an argumentative essay?” It doesn’t matter much what the content is, or the grammar and conventions, or even their ability to research, revise or edit.  What matters is what the unit intended to teach the students – the skills needed to write an argumentative unit.  Therefore, to determine if your students have achievement mastery of said skill an assessment plan needs to be created and should include various forms of assessment.

A Plan that Values Student Achievement

In my small school in Bronx, NY, we have developed an assessment process (beyond the standardized testing) that blends not only projects and traditional testing but also our own formative and summative assessments to measure student’s growth and achievement overtime.

While on the surface the process seems complicated, the truth is we have instituted a series of smart assessments rather just develop tests for the sake of testing.  Students become more engaged in the learning and testing process and see assessment as a way to showcase what they have learned rather then take a test because their teacher told them to.  Therefore we have developed the following assessment cycle which allows us a picture of what our students know before, during and after a unit.  It also incorporates a variety of assessment strategies and structures to allow or students to showcase their learning in different ways.

Our Assessment Cycle

A table showing student achievement best practices assessment cycle
click to enlarge
While some may argue that this type of unit planning is assessment heavy, the reality is that we as teachers are constantly assessing.  Further doesn’t good instruction mean teachers should assess student comprehension and then create plans to adjust as needed to meet student needs?

By having an assessment plan that everyone can follow, unit development becomes more streamlined and in turn student learning and achievement becomes richer.  Teachers can actually see data that shows true growth and not just scores from multiple-choice tests.  We are able to see not only what our students have learned but what is also being transferred from unit to unit and then adjust future units as needed.  Our student achievement has grown and we have a deeper intrinsic value of learning with our students – which is every teachers goal.

As the Common Core continues to infiltrate school districts around the country and more and more states are faced with a redevelopment of teacher evaluations, assessment is becoming more and important but at the same time seems to be losing its purpose – to truly gauge what the students achievement.  Therefore having a true assessment plan really is the cornerstone to student achievement.

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