Tag Archives: Assessment

The Problem With “Measure”

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One of the biggest blessings in my life is my marriage; I love my wife.

When I dislocated my knee (twice!) I experienced pain.

I can react with anger when personally confronted with injustice.

Joy warms my entire being when one of my daughters suddenly slips her hand into mine as we walk.

With some thought and effort I believe I could describe my love, pain, anger, and joy to you. Perhaps I could even express some degree of the intensity of those feelings, but I can’t measure them. My wife is pretty good at assessing my frustration, and my doctor does her best to assess my pain as she seeks to alleviate it and diagnose its cause, but neither of them are engaging in measurement.

Measurement requires a standard unit of measurement, a recognized standard that can be objectively applied in proper context. I can measure my bike ride to school in units of length (centimetres or kilometres). If I share that measurement with my colleague who also pedals to school, we can objectively compare that element of our commutes and determine who travels the greatest distance each day. What isn’t measurable or objectively comparable is the peace that the twenty minute ride brings to my day.

When it comes to measurement, learning fits into the same category as love, pain, anger, joy, and peace of mind. Learning can’t be objectively measured. There is no standard unit of measurement to apply to “Learning.” A skill can be demonstrated, progress can be noted, understanding can be communicated and shared, but technically this evidence of learning isn’t measurable.

As a teacher I have been moving away from traditional grading because I have recognized the limitations of grades in motivating, communicating, and promoting learning. Part of that journey has included using standards based learning and grading and prioritizing meaningful learning over the measurement of learning. However, I’ve been hanging out with the TG2 crew, and they have me reflecting on the power and importance of the language that we use in our conversations about education.

I wrote the post (linked above) about measurement and learning less than a year ago, but now I feel the word “measure” is fatally flawed when applied to learning. I moved to SBL/SBG to shift attention from grades to learning, and I think it is arguably an  improvement over traditional grades because it can help more clearly communicate learning. However, I hadn’t used SBG long before I realized words like “measure” and “accurate” were popping up in my conversations with colleagues and parents about standards-based learning. The problem with words like “measure” and “accurate” is that they aren’t about learning, they are about grades.

I am not working hard to reimagine my classroom and structures and practices to produce more accurate grades! I want to better nurture learning. The danger of using “measurement” language when we discuss learning is that we will mistakenly believe that we are talking about learning when we are actually perpetuating the very system we are seeking to reform. I have no desire to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic or improve the aesthetics of our scoreboards.

So, what language should we use instead? Any thoughts? For now I’m using “communication” language to help me share learning with students and parents. Also, and forgive the cheesiness, what might happen if we replaced the word “measure” in our conversation with “treasure?” Imagine a world where learning wasn’t measured, but rather, like love and joy and peace, treasured.

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Attentiveness and Participation Assessed! Sort Of.

In an attempt to reframe effort in the classroom I’m trying to sift through the more traditional elements of effort (attentiveness, participation, compliance, focus, organization) and save the learning kernels after the chaff has drifted away. In my SBL and TTOG classroom I’m finding the learning outcomes that help students see the reason we tried to value effort by awarding points.

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My less-than-effective way to encourage and grade classroom conversation: Track how often students participated in class activities. Award points to frequent talkers, hand-raisers, and question-askers. Remind infrequent participators that class participation is part of their grade.

My less-than-effective way to assess attentiveness: Observe the body language of 20+ students while I lecture. See who can answer the occasional pop question. Prod the inattentive or slumbering with a walk down the aisle and/or a reminder of the importance of attentiveness to their participation grade.

Even though it has been a long time since I practiced those methods, it’s pretty embarrassing to see them in print. What specifically did I think I was teaching those students? And while I stopped using such methods (which were far more about filling up a grade book than about learning) I didn’t find alternative ways to help teach the skills that I was ineffectively trying to value with my participation grade, skills such as speaking and listening.

Speaking and Listening are two of the language arts that appear in my curriculum, and they are a big part of what I was trying to encourage when I stressed the value of participation. They are valuable tools for learning and everyday skills that can improve quality of life in and out of school.

Here is my more effective way to teach and develop attentiveness and participation in class:

The beginning of the year includes mini lessons on speaking and listening. For example, I try to simplify speaking to the intentional use of face, body, and voice in order to enhance meaning. A good speaker will use a gesture to emphasize an important point or feeling; they will use a pause or change in volume to draw attention to a key idea. Other teachers use other methods (PVLEGS for example), but once the basic instruction for speaking and listening is in place, the classroom is ready for some practice.

Next I will ask the students to listen for moments of quality speaking in class. Perhaps, Jason shrugged emphatically when he replied, “I’m not entirely sure,” to a question. Maybe Sherise paused effectively when challenging Greg’s line of reasoning. I will also point out a few quality moments as a model.

Once a few examples have clarified the type of observations that I’m after, I will more formally assign a minimum number of positive observations to be made in a set time period; something like five observations in the month. I’ll have students post their observations using Google Keep notes. If you haven’t used Google Keep, it is basically a Sticky note app with variety of helpful functions like tags, sharing, and colour-coding. I will have students tag their observation notes with tags signifying standards/skills (eg. speaking, voice) and then share the note with me and the observed student speaker. When it is time for me to track or assess progress, I can search and filter my Keep notes by standard or by student.

There are many benefits to this assignment:

  • It creates artifacts of learning that can be tracked over time for both individuals and the entire class.
  • It creates teachable moments for speaking and listening.
  • It offers insight into further instruction based on which standards/skills are underrepresented or observed without adequate sophistication.
  • It values attentive listening and quality speaking in everyday classroom conversation.
  • It builds community and reflection through the encouraging, positive observations of peers.

That’s my rough draft idea, one way to reconcile “effort” and standards-based assessment. Already I can see the potential to teach responsible social media use by having the observations shared class-wide, but at this moment I haven’t imagined how to make the tech happen (a Padlet wall? A class social media account? Any ideas out there?). I’m excited to try it out in class, and I will report on field testing during the semester.

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Effort in the Classroom

Like many educators, I’m trying to develop a more student-centred classroom that focuses on learning, skills, and mindset more than grades. One of the struggles that I see shared among teachers making such changes is how to handle effort. The quick response to questions of effort in outcome or standard focused classrooms is that the outcome is what matters and that effort will show in the outcome. The Olympic athlete is evaluated based on result (speed, distance, etc.) and in some instances form or technique (gymnastics, diving) but never do the judges tally the hours of practice involved nor do they measure the kilojoules of energy burned during competition and factor such analytics into the medal standings.

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In theory this perspective on effort makes senses, but in practice I’m finding it lacking. Certainly the Olympic judges and officials do not concern themselves with the hours of practice and other forms of effort the athletes invest, but as a teacher I feel the analogy breaks down because I’m uncomfortable being placed in the role of judge. I feel much more connection to the role of coach, and you can bet the Olympic coaches are very much concerned with the effort of the athletes. On the field or in the classroom, effort is an essential component of growth and development.

I’m beginning to think my struggle with effort in the classroom stems from lugging an older definition of effort into the context of a changing classroom environment. This older definition of effort includes items like participation (talks or raises hand often), attentiveness (listens to lecture, eyes on teacher), focus (compliantly completes in class activities) and organization (work is neat and completed on time). When I started teaching I handled effort like my former teachers handled effort: award marks for plenty of talking/hand raising and deduct marks for work that wasn’t neat or handed in on time. There is no room for that type of sub-par motivation or cloudy grading in my class today, but when I jettisoned those practices, I was left with a vacuum which is the source of my struggle with student effort.

As an instructional coach, I know the importance of effort in the classroom, but my old coaching techniques weren’t effectively developing learners. At the same time, I was left with the feeling that I somehow threw out the baby with the bath water. I believe there are many teachers in the SBL and TTOG movement who are feeling the same way. I want to join the larger conversation about reframing effort in the classroom and finding new ways to effectively communicate its importance and effect in school/life to students and parents.

During the beginning of the school year, I plan to post some specific methods I’m trying in order to reorient effort in school, but here is the general game plan. Instead of dismissing effort, I’m searching my curricular outcomes for connections to the skills and behaviours that I formerly lumped into “effort”. For example, listening is one of the language arts, so rather than arbitrarily awarding a mark based on how attentive each student appears to me, how will I teach, assess, and communicate progress when it comes to listening? Informal and impromptu speaking is an essential skill that we each use every day, and it deserves more attention than a simple tally of how many times a student volunteered an answer. Which speaking outcomes and assessments might help all students develop conversational skills that are part of day to day classroom practice?

Shifting to classrooms that help students take greater ownership of their learning is crucial, but as we make the shift, let’s not inadvertently unmoor learning from effort, but rather, more clearly (and fairly!) define and communicate how they are connected. As I plan my next posts, I’d love to hear how you handle effort in your class. How do you define effort? Are there manageable ways to teach, evaluate, and communicate progress when it comes to effort? Do you think it is advisable or commendable or even worthwhile to do so?  Of course, you can leave a comment below or add to the conversation on Twitter using the hashtags #sblchat and #ttog.

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Meaningful Learning Over the Measurement of Learning

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Note: This post is one in a series on The Agile Schools Manifesto that I introduced in an earlier post.

Have you ever had one of those moments? The bell rings to end class and every person in the room jumps with surprise because the engagement level was too high for a trivial detail like the time/space continuum to distract anyone. As everyone begins to transition to the next class period as if waking from a really great dream, you steal a brief moment to revel in the joy of learning as it should be–filled with collaborative curiosity and exploration.

What price would you put on that class period? What would you pay (or how much prep would you be willing to do) in order to guarantee that every class period resulted in the same level of learning as that class period?

Here is a different set of questions: What grade would everyone get for the learning during that class? How would you fit that class into your grade book or share it on the parent portal?

I don’t mean to be a buzzkill, but I’m afraid that too often in school meaningful learning is subordinated by our over-emphasis on measuring learning. I know that the dream class as described above (they do happen!) involved quality learning, but I don’t have to think long about a string of those classes in a row before I start getting this nagging sense of guilt from the empty columns of my PowerSchool grade book (see my post on individuals over tools). Even though I know that great learning took place during that dream class, the difficulty of measuring and reporting it in the context of a typical school system actually makes me question myself and the planning that led to the highly engaged class.

“But if I can’t measure the learning, how do I know there was any learning at all?” Agile education and I are not saying that measurement of learning is unimportant, but rather that the learning is a higher aim and priority than our ability to measure it. And, when it comes to learning, measurement isn’t the exact science we attempt to make out to be. It can be falsely comforting to stick with easy to measure assessments that are “straightforward” and “airtight” on PowerSchool or during Parent/Teacher conferences, but that tendency helps perpetuate a culture of chasing after grades instead of focusing on learning.

We can assess the learning of that dream class, but it won’t be communicated by a 7.5 out of 10 on a quiz. No, the dream class learning will be revealed by observation and conversation, reflection and anecdote. This type of evidence is no less valid or important than neat and tidy columns of quiz scores. Formative assessments and professional observations are vital components of practice that prioritizes meaningful learning over the measurement of learning.

Of course, let’s measure learning, but let’s find ways for our measurements to support meaningful learning. Collect anecdotal evidence and video feedback from students. Paste urls for Padlet walls or Google Shared folders into columns/comments in your digital grade book or parent portal. Pack portfolios full of formal and informal artifacts of learning. As the new school year begins, let’s commit to finding and sharing practical new assessments that better support a long string of dream classes and that communicate all the dreamy and essential learning to parents, students, colleagues, and ourselves.

 

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Google Forms for Record Keeping and Formative Assessment

I should probably take my own advice more often. Today I’ll try.

Every time I use Google Forms, I wonder why I don’t use them more often. Ten years ago when I first tried reading workshop (inspired by Nancie Atwell‘s In the Middle) I had clipboards and several trees worth of paper charts to keep track of student reading. Looking for trends and growth was a time consuming process. Now I use a very simple form (see photo) that has several key improvements on my paper charts:

  1. Instead of me writing 20-30 entries on a chart, which takes 15 minutes at least, now students fill out the Form each week, and it takes a few minutes.
  2. The Form doubles as an open invitation for students to communicate with me.
  3. The data the students send through the Form are stored in a spreadsheet.

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Number three may not seem like a big deal at first, but it is the most important improvement. It means I can sort the data to measure growth and trends over time. Viola! Formative assessment that requires very little time and effort in class, but provides a wealth of information about the reading habits of the class and individual students. Sort first by date and then by student name, and you have a list of each student’s reading progress. Find out which books or genres students enjoy or quit. It is a simple form, so the sorting options are limited, but the concept can be scaled up.

Recently I developed a Form to help a number of teachers and Educational Assistants support a student with an individualized education program. The Form made use of Google Form question styles such as checkboxes, grids, dropdowns, and linear scales, in order make data entry easy and consistent. Teachers and EAs could all access the Form and someone filled it out each class period in the student’s schedule as they worked with him. Once the spreadsheet was populated it offered an impressive number of sorting options that helped better understand patterns of behaviour for the student and the support staff.

  • Is there a connection between optimum learning and the time of day? The subject? The teacher or EA?
  • Do behaviour incidents correlate with lunch? Days of the week? Medication administration?

We are still learning how to design Forms and interpret the data, but I think the potential is clear.

Recently on Twitter, Jenni vanRees asked,

and I immediately thought of Forms. I teach high school, so my experience with running records is limited to my role as parent. It seems that there is a huge variety of styles when it comes to running records, but in the right circumstances, a Form that uses linear scales, checkboxes, etc. could save time when working with students and really increase the usability of the data afterward. Certainly there would be time invested in the design and creation of a running record Form, but that investment would pay dividends all year. After creating the first Form, additional Forms could be created by making a copy of the original and tweaking some questions. If there are prompts that need to be changed, the original Form could be edited and the data would continue to compile.

I think it could be done with a little creativity. Anyone out there using Google Forms for Running Records? I’d love to see how you approach the task (Jenni, too).

 

 

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Edusight Notes: Simple, No-Nonsense Assessment Aid

I often know the right thing to do, but my execution is regularly lacking. I know the power of writing conferences and their many benefits, including mentorship, relationship building, deeper learning, and occasionally outright joy. Unfortunately, my memory isn’t what it used to be. After a few weeks into a semester, I can’t recall what Savanna is working on, whether Tyler needs practice with voice or structure, or even what advice I offered Faith that led to a great moment and revision. Once I start second-guessing my memory, my conferencing slows down and becomes much more tentative. In my head I’m thinking, “I should know this. I’m going to damage a relationship that we’ve built if I can’t even remember this. She/he will think I don’t care when I really do care.” 

Now I show how I care by finding ways to remember and keep track. Edusight Notes is one of my go-to ways to remember. It is sometimes billed as a student portfolio app (and it can be), but I use it as a note-taking app for conferences, and anecdotal evidence of learning that too often disappears into the mist at report card time.

Edusight Notes is an iOS app that does one thing simply and well. It takes notes. The simple interface begins with card icons for each class. Tap on a class and the students appear by name (and picture if you’d like. How about a first day of school selfie for everyone?) in rows of icons. Tap a student and you are directed to their timeline/portfolio where you can review past notes or add a note in the form of a picture (from the camera or roll) and/or text. That’s it. It isn’t fancy, but it is exactly what I need. My only minor complaint is that you have to type in the names of your students (though it will remember them for future classes).

Now, my memory of that great conference moment is only a few taps away. I take my iPad to all conferences and record anything I wish to remember, including pictures of perplexing paragraphs and items to review during the next conference. In a day or two when it is time for that next conference, I review the notes and pictures of work in progress and pick up with the student where we left off.

Now I don’t forget…because I do care. Edusight Notes helps me show it.

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Learning From Setbacks: Next Steps

My last post discussed how some of my standards based assessment plans went awry. The next post or two will document the adjustments I’m making in the new semester in order to improve the process. I’ll begin with communication.

The SBA grade book I created worked well for me, but it was difficult to share with students who only were able to see a PowerSchool summary of my much more detailed assessments. This semester I’m using the =importrange function to open up my grade book for each student. It requires some initial setup, and there is probably an easier, more elegant solution, but this is how I’m getting the job done on the fly.

The =importrange function allows me to take information from one spreadsheet and display it in another spreadsheet. In this case, I created a spreadsheet for each student in class and imported only their grade information to their personal sheet. Then I shared the sheet with them on Google Drive. The best part is that whenever I make changes to my grade book, the =importrange function updates the student sheets, so after my initial investment in time, the grade information flows to the students without any extra work on my part. Here is a quick look at part of a student spreadsheet. (And, here is the link. Feel free to make a copy.)

Importrange Capture

I could explain how to use =importrange, but anyone really interested in the details should check out Alice Keeler‘s posts (like this one). I don’t have anything to add to her already helpful explanations.

Some tips:

  • importrange moves information in cells but not formatting
  • Create one student sheet as a template and include any colour formatting you would like, then duplicate the template for each additional student using FILE–>make a copy…
  • My grade book is one spreadsheet with a tab for each student. Once I set up my first student sheet each duplicate sheet only required me to change the tab name in the formula to import the student specific data (No need to rewrite the entire formula). For example, in the photo above, if I change the tab name, “Student Sample” in the formula to the name of the next student tab, “Jane Smith” suddenly Jane’s grade information is connected to her spread sheet.

Once the setup is complete, I’ll assess as I did last semester, but the communication (and hopefully conversation) around assessment will drastically increase. It isn’t a perfect system, but it is an important next step.

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