A couple weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be a guest speaker in a San Jose State credential course, EDSC 182 Assessment and Evaluation. The course, as its syllabus states, “offers a glimpse of how the classroom teacher can acquire skills that allow for sophisticated and nuanced ways of assessing student learning.” I’ve spoken in this class before, and I always love the experience, for a number of reasons. First, I am a graduate of SJSU’s credential program. Secondly, this was the class that made me examine — deeper than anything else — my identity as a teacher.
I always start my lecture with a story from my first year of teaching. Like many of my colleagues, I was trying to stay afloat. I was balancing teaching, lesson planning, grading, staff meetings, department meetings, PLC meetings, IEPs, 504s, parent emails and phone calls with what was left of my personal life. I relied, in a tremendous way, on sharing materials and creating rituals in my classroom. Vocabulary words were handed out on Monday. The vocabulary quiz was given on Friday. And my tears flowed on Sunday grading the results. Reading and homework was assigned, but rarely turned in. It took me one semester to realize a very simple truth: what I was doing was not working. I found myself re-examining everything I was doing and focused on one simple question: What am I assessing?
This was a cathartic moment. Really, what was I assessing? What did I want the students to know, and how would I honestly, in a reliable and valid way, know the degree to which they learned it.
I threw everything out. I started from scratch. My mind was a blank canvas. I was going to build my classroom from the ground up. My foundation would be answering the question of what I was truly assessing. Homework was out. No way was that going to work. I learned too quickly that it lacked reliable results. There were too many outside factors that affected whether or not my students were going to complete an assignment, and their ability to do it was least among those. Points? Gone. What is a point anyway? How many do I give? And most importantly, how do I justifying assigning the appropriate amount of points per assignment or test or activity? Why should the final be worth 15%? Why not 17% ? How About 16.9%? How do you draw that line? For me, it just didn’t make sense.
As the world of grades, points, and homework started to drift away, I replaced them with standards, rubrics, and learner maps. This information would be entirely transparent to the student. They would evaluate themselves. They would evaluate each other. They would do this constantly and would become experts in what the different levels looked like, so much so that they would internalize what it meant to be at a 4 instead of being satisfied with a C because they played the game well enough. Late policy? Who needs one? I was most concerned with students advancing levels, not the pace at which it occurred. Every assignment, activity, and assessment could be revised and made better. I would provide feedback, and they could try again, proving if they had in fact learned the concept.
This is usually the place where the students in EDSC 182 pick their jaws up off the ground and ask me: How can you do that? What about life skills? How will they learn about deadlines? These are all good questions. I would love to teach about life skills and deadlines. Unfortunately, I teach English. But if I was teaching a life skills class, I would ask the same question: What am I assessing? In English, I am assessing their abilities to master standards. There is no “deadline” standard. No “life skills” standard. And with Common Core, this is becoming even more clear with a streamlined focus on skills that develop over time.
I always go back to the question of why I taught the way I taught my first semester. The answer is simple: I taught the way I was taught as a student. And when I realize that is exactly how my parents and grandparents were taught, it makes me realize how we may not be serving our students as best as we can. Everything in our culture has evolved over time, at increasingly rapid rates — technology, government, even social attitudes. Teaching evolved with better projectors and white boards instead of chalk boards.
In our days of redesign, Common Core, and 21st Century skills, we should all ask ourselves what are we truly assessing. We all know CSTs don’t measure many important elements of learning, but what about our own tests and quizzes and homework? Can they be more valid? Can we can make the results more reliable? Can we be more authentic in our assessments?
The answer, of course, is yes. We can all improve, just like we teach our students to improve.