Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Assessment: Turns out I am lost and confused

I originally started this post to try to determine what goals I wanted to focus on this school year.  It took me down an unsuspecting path of questioning everything I know about assessment.  I felt this needed it's own post, so here we are.

I should probably write a post entitled "Why I love Mark Chubb" because the last post I shared stemmed from his as well.  To sum it up for you, Mark's blog posts and tweets challenge my thinking.  At first this made me uncomfortable, but now I can't get enough.  His blog posts never tell me what to think or do, they simply put questions out there to get me thinking about my teaching practices and philosophies.  So logically, when considering my goals for the year I found myself reading his blogs for perspective.

By far, my biggest pet peeve in the classroom is the students' focus on their grade.  7th grade is the first time students receive letter grades, and they are obsessed.  It isn't really their fault; it's the way the system is set up.  Their parents are obsessed with their grades.  Parents don't say, "You need to work with Mrs. Burns to deepen your understanding of proportions." Instead they say, "You need to raise your math grade."  This is part of why many districts have moved to standards based grading.  Although, to be honest most parents translate it into letter grades in their head, and just want to see high marks.  The focus is never on the learning, it is on the marks received.  
On the surface this is a mindset issue.  I have read the books and done work with mindset in my classroom. If I really think back on it, things have improved in my classroom because of this work.  In his blog So You Want Your Students to Have a Growth MindsetMark Chubb offers a perspective of some changes I can make with regards to mindset in math to continue to improve the mindset in my class. As I dug deeper though, I realized my main issue with mindset stems from my assessments.

Last year, I was very bothered by the fact that after a test students felt bad about themselves.  Even students who only made one mistake were disappointed in themselves.  While it has never been my expectation, the goal students set is always to get 100%.  Last night after reading this blog post, What does "Assessment Drives Learning" Mean to You, I realized that the problem is the assessment.  My summative assessments affect the way the students view their abilities in math and set the tone for learning in my class.  
My colleague took a class over the summer centering around the 5 Practices.  I am hoping she will be able to help guide our team with these to improve our day to day formative practices.  But what about our summative assessments.  Here are my main concerns/thoughts/questions:

1.  Do the questions on our paper and pencil test show a true understanding of the skills?  Students learn coping mechanisms to get through school.  The main coping mechanism in math is blind memorization of steps to solutions.  I think that our tests play into this.  We enable students to simply memorize math.  If a student can pass our test without understanding what they are doing, there is a problem.  It is now my 3rd year teaching 7th grade math and I am told (not sure by whom, let's just say it is the random professional development voices in my head) that this is the year to focus on assessment.  We have something in place and we can now look at our questions and look at what types of questions get at the understanding we are looking for and which questions are just jumping through hoops.

2.  Is there something I can do in the scoring of the assessment that would provide better feedback and result in a different student mindset?  When I score my assessments, points are deducted for mistakes.  I realize that this may make some of you cringe.  At least that is how I feel.  Why is this assessment worth points?  This is part of the culture that gets students focused on the grade and not the learning.  Plus, there is a difference between conceptual mistakes and procedural mistakes, yet this isn't really taken into account when scoring the test (except perhaps that difference between a full and a half point deduction).  What is my goal as a math teacher?  Last year, I purposefully shifted my lessons to focus on conceptual understanding first.  Here is another nugget from Mark Chubb if you want to reflect on this in your own classroom.  If I value conceptual understanding more than procedural why is this not being reflected in my assessment practices? This is what allows students to simply memorize and still pass my tests.

3.  What is a good alternative to paper and pencil tests?  The Classroom Chef has a chapter about alternative assessments.  I agreed to work with Elizabeth Raskin (great middle school math teacher to follow on Twitter if you don't already) on creating alternative assessments for our classes.  Elizabeth, I promise I haven't forgotten.  The trouble is that everytime I open the documents to brainstorm, I just can't envision what this looks like.  When I research it, it seems like tasks I might do in the classroom as we learn.  Is it something they would need to do independently?  If they have a question shouldn't I be helping them?  But then is that a summative assessment?  I don't like what I have, but replacing it with something that will also fall short of my goal is counterproductive.  Any feedback, suggestions, examples of alternative assessments would be appreciated.

4.  When does it become summative?  One last struggle that I want to touch upon and get advice about is the whole idea of summative assessment.  Isn't everything really just formative?  Students can go back and work on anything that we have summatively assessed.  Part of why students feel bad after a test is because for some of them, they have not mastered the skills.  Summative assessments on a specific day are trying to force mastery when perhaps the student isn't there yet.  7th graders definitely need some external motivators, otherwise working on math understanding would never make it to the top of the to do list.  And often in math students need a skill as background knowledge for the next thing.  But at what point should I be expecting mastery?  Isn't it ok if students haven't mastered something in October?  We will continue to work on it as we build connections with other topics.  In standard based grading isn't the goal to have met the standards by the end of the school year?  How does this translate in letter grades?

So at this point I turn to you.  What do you do in your classroom that works?  What do your assessments look like?  For those still using letter grades (something I do not have control over for now), how do you take student learning and turn it into a number value?


  1. One thing I think I'm going to try next year is not putting scores on any assessments. I will record scores in my gradebook and make them available online after the class has a chance to discuss what went wrong.

    Also as for alternative assessment, here are a few I'm doing at the high school level this year:

    Creating and administering a survey, then writing a report and presentation

    Having students recreate logos of their choosing on desmos

    A task involving linear programming and business decisions

    Another mtbos member has created a WODB project. I'm not sure of your standards but I'm sure there are more options out there!

    1. Thanks for the great ideas. I have used WODB in class, but I like the idea of using it on an assessment. It will help me assess students ability to communicate and justify their reasoning. So many times when students are supposed to justify they simply show their work or put their steps into words. Something like that would force them to truly justify their reasoning and use mathematical vocabulary.

  2. I wonder if breaking up the score by skill would help students to see where they struggled. Instead of the test being out of a certain number there would be smaller scores for each concept (perhaps just one for review items or it would get tedious). I could even put it on a number line/continuum so they don't see it as a fraction to simply calculate a grade, but a progression of learning.