Assessing the Assessments

Just a brief note on an illuminating (to me) incident from earlier in the week: I’m trying to work on better formative assessment of summative assessments – that is, on looking (and listening) for signs that projects aren’t going smoothly, and figuring out (immediately if possible) how best to improve things so that the project is (hopefully) more effective, interesting and successful.

As the number of parenthetical qualifications in the previous sentence probably make clear, I’m in the habit of pausing to think about things from different angles, and am more or less constantly reconsidering my point of view on any given topic. However, when things get underway in the classroom I don’t always notice all the little ways projects might go astray, and these observations don’t always make it into actual improvements. The first step in this process is, I suppose, the noticing.

The scene: I was reviewing the idea of introductions and conclusions with students in Grade 7. I don’t always do this as well as I should, but I do try to take time to explicitly review with students just what type of text or section of text it is that they’re supposed to be producing, with examples and maybe some practice writing. I like to think I’m a bit more conscientious about doing this since an excellent in-school PD session we had on the topic last year (thanks, Mariko!).

So I was saying something like “the introduction is just where you tell your audience what topic you’re going to be discussing, so your audience knows what they’re about to…” and a student said “but we don’t have an audience for this introduction.  It’s just you.” He was right. Why hadn’t that occurred to me? In planning the project, other considerations aside from the elusive “authentic audience” component must have seemed more important, and it got neglected somehow. I’ve already got some ideas on how to address this – but the point is that I didn’t see the issue, a student did – and that if I want to catch on to these things, I have to always be listening.

One thought on “Assessing the Assessments

  1. I’m with you on a few levels here…
    For one, I’m increasingly unimpressed with the validity of so-called summative assessments as a means of really understanding student learning and skills. I find that (at least in the PYP) there’s a habit of adding these “projects” to the end of units of study that are supposed to give me an overview of learning, but rarely offer as much insight into thinking as all the mini formative steps along the way. Maybe as we exalt process over product we need to think about the nature of building towards summative assessments as a be all and end all.

    The other thing, is the authentic audience factor and, I imagine, that when teahcing essay writing as I think you’re doing it must be particularly challenging. If we accept that “pleasing the teacher by guessing what’s in their head” is a particularly bad learning goal for students, then it’s hard to make essay-writing with an audience of one a particularly valuable task. I guess part of it for me connects to the idea that I heard Ron Ritchhart say a few weeks ago that “in the real world we don’t work on problems we already know the answer to”. Essay-writing at a middle school level must be particularly prone to that kind of redundancy. And I kind of believe the form itself is in need of another look. The amount of effort we put into teaching students to write something that 99% of them will never return to after their formal education seems somewhat misplaced.

    Thanks for the post!


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