Turns out my son loves the online preschool we signed up for this year. And I’m glad. Not out of relief that I don’t have to coax him (I was definitely prepared to drop it in a heartbeat before I ever used one of those motivational badges they mail out). But because it’s simply a pleasure to watch him enjoy learning.
He loves the the dancing letters, the rhymes, the songs.
But there is one thing that he does not enjoy: the tests. In fact, I recently watched him go through a brief alphabet assessment, clicking the bottom right choice for every single letter.
The program seems unable to detect the growth I perceive. After all, its assessment does not know…
…that he loves to practice making letters with his body.
…that he walks around sounding out the phonemes for various objects around the house.
…that he often turns his toys into letters or numbers and eagerly shows them to me.
…that he is actually starting to read (he seems to know the sounds letters make better than the names of the letters themselves).
So no matter how slowly the charts might curve upward on his data reports, I know the truth that more is happening than is being measured.
The fact remains that tests simply can’t pick up on growth indicators that trained humans can. We must be careful not to place too much weight (and certainly not too much anxiety regarding our kids’ growth) in what those computers “know.” Focus instead on emphasizing the learning you observe!
Communication shows up on just about every school’s plans for self-improvement in one way or another. A school might work on newsletters, automated texts, or social media, all of which are worthwhile.
However, as I recently learned at an active transportation conference,
“Good solutions solve many problems; access to active transportation solves mobility, but it also addresses obesity, isolation & depression, and connecting with ‘the other'” (Tyler Norris).
Similarly, focusing primarily on student ownership is a good solution that can address many problems; it solves students feeling more invested in their learning, but it also strengthens the school/home connection, lifelong learning, and a more empowering school culture.
Here are some examples of how leveraging student ownership might help improve school communication in particular:
2. Authentic audience. Rather than waiting for that unproductive “what did you learn at school” conversation, students can provide their families with a window into their learning as it unfolds. Tools like Seesaw, student blogging, and more make this doable even for young students.
Student ownership has so much potential to strengthen our students and our schools. Putting more of the planning and decisions in their hands can yield astonishing results if we are courageous enough to control less and share more.
Fountas and Pinnell believe very strongly that students’ reading levels have no place in teacher evaluation or on report cards to be sent home to parents. Too much emphasis on levels can lead to misconceptions on the part of families. Informing parents of the level at which their child is reading can make them uneasy. They may see the level as a very exact measurement, but students don’t always read at a precise level. Parents also talk with other parents, and if they find that their child is reading at a lower level than other children, they might panic. But they don’t understand the intricacies of how those levels work the way you do.
I completely understand where Fountas & Pinnell is coming from here. As a teacher myself, I was glad during my daughter’s last parent teacher conference to possess the background knowledge of these assessments’ imperfections — we chatted about their subjectivity and the uneven spacing between levels (for instance, in the program my school used, it was an extra wide gap between levels T and U for some reason).
I also worry about our students and their parents taking too much stock in these assessments and therefore experiencing pressure, lack of confidence, and yes, even labels. And I recently wrote about my quandary over whether to share scores at all yet with my first grader (Will it Help Or Hurt to Review Scores with My First Grader?).
All that said, I believe that in order for students to take the wheel in driving their own learning, they should be able to reflect using available resources and data to inform their decisions and progress. Not to mention the whole idea of “No secret teacher business!”
So is there an in-between place here?
The more I reflect on this, the more I believe there can be — but with some important considerations, including, but probably not limited to the following:
Data should only be one piece of the feedback puzzle. Reading benchmarks are a much less frequent and much more formal form of assessment. Students should rely much more on regular formative assessments as they make course corrections in their learning/growth.
Seek transparency not just about the data itself, but on its limitations. That it’s not an exact measurement. That there is a definite degree of subjectivity. That it’s meant to compare individual students’ levels against their own progress — not against anyone else in the class.
Ensure there’s a clear connection between the data, metacognition, and “what’s next.” Help students tune into their own thinking about their progress, and maintain a dialogue on the strategies that will best help them move forward.
Ensure that students understand that the data is never the goal, but a guide. The goal is always learning, and data serves as lampposts along the way.
Protect intrinsic motivation. Students should want to progress for the sake of progression, not for the sake of their levels moving up.
There’s not necessarily a clear-cut answer to the question of whether we should share benchmark data with students. But as long as we are actively engaging with our students to help them take ownership over their progress, we are on the right track.
With an abundance of clever crafts, cute bulletin boards, and coordinated decor, Pinterest generates much that is adorable in classrooms. But the meatier stuff is out there, too–if you dig a little deeper. Below are 10 Pins to brainstorm better self-assessments for your students.
When you barely have time to suck down occasional gulps of air amid swells of paperwork, it’s understandable to lose some perspective. Unfortunately, this is a condition many teachers face when it comes to approaching formative versus summative assessments.
Opportunity for impact?
But how important is it, really, to keep track of such minute details on student progress? Well, Google defines formative as, “serving to form something, especially having a profound and lasting influence on a person’s development.” Black and Wiliam found “that innovations which include strengthening the practice of formative assessment produce significant, and often substantial, learning gains.” And we have discovered teacher-student relationships become elevated as students recognize just how invested teachers are in their daily progress–not just in what they produce at the end of units.
The nature of the beast
Formative assessments do not cast the intimidating shadow of their summative counterparts. They are so authentically woven into the day, it can feel almost spontaneous as you uncover quiet learning moments, pinpointing students’ true understanding. Meanwhile, summatives are not only highly concrete and measurable, but they’re also accompanied by pressure for results–pressure that may come from administrators, parents, politicians, and even sometimes teachers themselves.
Educator’s catch 22
And so, we run into the classic teacher dilemma: on the one hand, we know part of the value of formative assessments lies their authentic, unassuming quality; on the other, it is precisely that quality that makes it easy for them to slip under the radar. The key is to make a plan for a record-keeping strategy that works for you. This sounds easy enough, but it does take a little trial and error as you find one or more methods that feel comfortable and easily accessible in the flow of your classroom. Below are a few personal favorites, all of which have functioned well in various contexts.
This is the Mary Poppins carpet bag of education apps. No matter how full I’d pack in anecdotal notes for each student, it stayed organized and easy to navigate. It was also easy to share with parents during parent-teacher conferences. Some details I appreciated include:
The option to sort notes in practical ways, including by student names, groups, and feedback.
A design in that’s conducive to appropriate feedback with fields like “strength,” “teaching point,” and “next step”–great to remind teachers to look for what’s going well along with what needs work.
The ability to apply one note to multiple students simultaneously–and the fact that it saves a previously-used note so you don’t have to type out the same phrase again.
The color coded flags to remind you who currently needs some extra support.
Note: At first, some students were unsure about my typing on my phone during our discussions–they worried I was texting, or otherwise distracted. Be sure to introduce this method of note-taking to your whole class, telling them exactly how you are using your phone during your conferences.
2. Notecard Waterfalls
This one is a bit old-school, but I found it especially handy for reading groups. I would write each student’s name on one notecard, sort them into their groups, and then tape them into a waterfall on half a piece of laminated cardstock per group. (see photos below) I found this to be the perfect place to keep tallies for simplified running records and reading notes. After a student would read aloud, I would say something like this:
“Ok, I’m writing that you are rocking your punctuation expression. You paused appropriately at every comma and period! I’m also writing that we’re working on paying attention to the endings of words, since you left off -ing and -s a couple times as you read. Do you want me to add anything else for us to remember next time we work on reading together?”
This kind of feedback was quick and simple, but extremely effective as it kept us both on the same page. Another bonus: when a card would fill up, I could easily throw it in the student’s file and pop in another one.
3. Status of the Class
Status of the Class is the perfect tool to keep track of student-driven projects or independent work time. Simply call out each student’s name, and then jot down their selected task on a class list. This works well for long-term processes involving steps, stages, or centers with which the students are already familiar, such as the Writer’s Workshop, the scientific method, or math or literacy stations. Some advantages include:
Stay informed of where you can coach students in their individual processes.
Teach students metacognition as you require them to give a brief statement explaining both the what and the why of their choice. (I would periodically model how that would sound right before taking Status of the Class to remind them how to explain their choice. For example: “I’m working on illustrating because I want to better visualize how to describe my characters,” or “I’m going to read to myself because I just got to a cliff-hanger in my book.”
Keep track of students who seem to be stuck in one place.
Maintain accountability for students who may get off-task during independent learning time.
If appropriate, give on-the-spot feedback as you help students learn to spend independent time wisely (ie, “I see you’ve chosen that 3 times in a row here. How else could you spend your time to help you grow?”)
Tips: Use wet-erase marker to write on a laminated class list chart, such as the one pictured, and keep it posted in the room so students can also keep track of how they’ve been spending their time. Make a key for your abbreviations on the bottom.
What are some of your favorite methods for practical formative assessments?
Featured Image: Elli Pálma via Flickr Creative Commons