Category Archives: assessments

Assessment Alternatives

Although I teach in a project based learning and standards based grading school, the standards are not always a part of the final product, but are assessed along the way as they are foundational knowledge for it.  So it seems I still end up having students writing short essays to explain the standards for most assessments.

I was looking for some ways to shake this up so students did not just have to write for every assessment. Here are two ideas that I came up with. The first was to have students create a short presentation of primary source images. Then students screencasted themselves explaining why they chose the images and how the pictures explained the standard.

The second was for students to sketch pictures to explain the standard. I have been thinking about visuals lately especially after meeting Amanda Lyons at Educon and seeing her great visual notes (check our her blog Visuals for Change). I showed them RSA Animate ‘s site and some of their videos as an example of images supporting someone’s thoughts. (If you want to make real RSA style videos check out this post from Paul Bogush.)

Amanda Lyons Community Mural at Educon

 Since I wanted this to be quick and easy for assessment I just asked the students to draw their pictures and then either write some sentences next to them explaining the drawings or come explain their sketches to me verbally. I wanted the process to be simple since I was more interested in their visual thoughts than I was in creating a video.

How do you encourage visual thinking in your classroom? What are alternative ways of assessment that you use to keep it fresh?

#sbar rejected

Exploded Model T 

We have a nice discussion started in the comments of my last post about #sbar (standard based assessment) in elective classes. In that post I think I had some difficulty articulating my problems with sbar in my classroom. Most of the comments came from a point of assuming that there needs to be specific standards for my class. I do not share that assumption.  I come from a more open perspective of giving students varied learning opportunities and they learn what they choose to learn.  I think I found an example to explain this that makes sense (at least to me).

This weekend my family went to Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. This is a huge building full of the history and culture of technology in America. It has tons of vehicles, planes, and trains in it along with farm equipment. The amount of history and science in that place is overwhelming.

Now I know how schools sometimes “do” fieldtrips with a scavenger hunt of items to find and write about or some other assignment. That is not how my family does museums. We came to the museum with no pre-determined agenda  about what we would learn.  My family explored the various parts of the museum, looked at the exhibits, and interacted when possible. Interactive items were my kids favorite parts by far, no matter how simple it was. We talked about the exhibits and asked each other questions. I never assessed my children’s learning. I just let them experience it. I (lead learner) did steer them toward things I thought were interesting or important and they steered me to the things they wanted to see.

Lin generating electricity

When the day was over I knew they had learned many things because we experienced them together. I felt no desire to give them an A, B+, or C-. They did not earn a 3, 4, or 5 either. The real purpose of grading of any kind is ranking students. Even sbar is ranking students against a list of norms for their age/grade level.

I feel the same way about my applied technology class. My goals for students are for them to problem-solve, think critically, and work collaboratively. These things are difficult to assess objectively. I want students to experience challenges in my classroom and feel free to attack them without worrying about failing attempts. Educators often talk about a “sandbox” space in schools where students can experiment and play. That is how I would ideally describe my classroom. Students, in my humble opinion, get enough standards in their other classes. I give them a freer environment to explore and experiment.

Again I think sbar is a good tool for core classrooms where meeting specific standards is required. But my classroom focuses on doing and experimenting and I believe a failed attempt at solving a problem can be just as important part of learning as success. Grades are not really necessary for any of us to learn.

I am not an assessment

As my regular readers know, I am teaching a 6th grade math class for the first time this year along with my regular technology classes. The biggest change for me is the scripted curriculum and standardized tests. I have a ton of academic freedom in my technology classes compared to most teachers, but my math students have the state standardized tests in the fall, quarterly district assessments, and district standardized tests for each unit we teach.

I am attempting standards based grading practices and some of my students are failing and make very little effort to do anything about it. I started the year off with the goal of helping every one of my students succeed in math and learn to like the subject. Utopian I know but I believe in No Child Left Behind-the concept not the ridiculous law. Well, reality has set in and I find myself stressed about the results-assessments, evaluations, whatever.

Some of my students love math and some hate it. Probably the same kids felt the same way at the start of the year. Lots of my students are successful and some are still grade levels behind in their skills and concepts.

I also find myself discouraged by the direction of education in this country. No, I am not about bashing public schools and United States education. I am discouraged by the political obsession of over-assessment of students and now the move to over-assess teachers with merit pay based on student achievement or just fire a whole school.

It really bothers me when a student performs poorly on a test or assignment (read anything). (yes, I was the student who wanted extra credit if I had an A- and actually read all (most) of the assigned readings in college) I think I take it personal sometimes.I truly want every student to earn an A in my class and enjoy it.

But the stress I feel this year is more personal. Since it is my first year teaching math I feel like if any of my students fail, my administration will see me as not a good math teacher. I truly want to be a great teacher for my students and want every one of them to be ready for 7th grade and be successful in the future, but deep down inside is also this ugliness about their failure making me look bad. It really is about my own insecurities and measuring my value based on results, assessment, pass/fail, whatever.

As is often the case, church put these feeling in perspective this morning. Rob preached (podcast will be here in a few days) about the obscure Bible story of David spilling water that his men had  risked their lives to bring him (II Samuel 23:13-17). David “wasted” the water by dumping it on the ground as an offering to God. David recognized that the water was sacred because of the sacrifice made by his men to obtain it. How did these guys feel watching David refuse to drink this water and instead dump it on the ground. It is easy to feel that efforts are wasted if we only look at the “results.”

We are not the sum total of our accomplishments. My value is not a reflection of my ability or lack of ability to inspire every child to be successful. Teachers and students can not be measured by test scores or other formal assessment. Teachers sacrifice for their students daily in hundreds of ways. That is how I would measure how good a teacher is: how do they sacrifice daily for their students.

We can not control the results.
We can not make our students learn anything.
We love. We care. We support.
We teach. We learn with.
We sacrifice daily.
Teaching is sacred.

Politicians, administrators, parents, success, failure, assessments, whatever.

I am a Teacher. I am sacred through my sacrifice.

Iranian Revolution re-mixed

How soon we forget about last year’s news. This remix by DJ Spooky AKA That Subliminal Kid AKA Paul Miller tells the story of the Iranian Election and Revolution. Enjoy!

I don’t know about you but almost all of my students like hip hop.Why not make this a history project for students to create their own re-mixed video of an era of history? How about a re-mix of a science or math concept or formula with great beats and pics to go with it. I think it would make a great summative assessment instead of a test.

Here is more about DJ Spooky’s latest work The Secret Song and how he meshes hip hop, history, and videos for powerful messages. Thanks to Wesley Fryer for pointing me to DJ Spooky’s work.

Warning: The grade you have received may not reflect your actual level of learning in this class.

As some of you know this is my first year teaching math. I am currently teaching one section of 6th grade math. The rest of my assignment is 6th, 7th, and 8th grade technology which I have taught for six years. This new math class is the source of my focus on grades and grading. In my district we have standards-based report cards and in math we have district tests for our required assessments. For this post I will focus on my technology class and assessment (I will save math for the next post).

My Technology class flies under the radar. We have standards that reflect what the class was like five years ago but not what it is today. I and my fellow middle school technology teachers use project-based learning and computers to challenge kids with fun and relevant learning. I truly have more freedom than almost any other teacher in my district to teach whatever I want however I want. I am accountable to my principals who are happy to see children “doing” creative things. We build pop bottle rockets, balsa towers, hot air balloons, pneumatic devices, and egg drop vehicles. We use Lego Robotics and some math software games. Starting last year students blogged and use Google Docs. This year we are using programs such as Google Sketchup, Pivot, and Scratch.

I grade of course in Technology because I have to but my grades are either a rubric of checklists or once in a while based on reaching certain levels. So many of my grades reflect effort of students to complete the projects rather than measure learning. I am ok with that I guess.

For example some excellent students attempted some unique balsa tower designs (the picture is one of them) that totally failed when tested. By the way, most of the class voted their towers to be the strongest before we broke them. They did not receive an A but I would argue that they learned and taught the rest of the class more about good design that anyone else. Why, because they took a creative risk and tried something the rest of the class was unwilling to do. We do not have time or $ for materials to have students build multiple towers to improve their designs which would be the best way to show their level of learning.

Even more difficult for me was when my students made their own Pivots, Sketchup, and Scratch program. We created rubrics together as a class and then I made a grading form in Google that the students embedded on their blogs.

How does one grade creativity? What makes my opinion more valid than anyone else’s?

Therefore I was just going to count the students’ assessments of each other. This did not work out as planned as too many of them did not grade each others’ projects because some were completed late and some did not take the rating seriously. Basically I question the whole point of this grading as a waste of my time.

My ideal system would be to share these tools and projects with students and have them complete them as creatively as possible to the best of their ability. Their “reward” would be the learning that they experienced as a class. Would they all learn the same things or even the same amount? No, just like now they would learn based on the amount of thought and effort they put into their work. If they slacked off then they would learn less; if they worked hard then they would learn more.

I really don’t know how I can accurately measure their actual learning anyway. Grading feels like a game to me and some of the greatest projects like this and this happened for no grade or extra credit. I fail to see how the “grades” that I assign to them contribute to their learning experience and oftentimes do not adequately reflect their actual learning. I also know that grades do not motivate my at risk kids at all, and they motivate the “top” students just to perform for me not to actually learn.

The ultimate thing that matters to me is that students are challenged, given a chance to be creative, and explore in a hands-on way math, science, and technology. The rewards are internal for the students who give their best. Those who just go through the motions miss out no matter what their report card says.

Next post I will explain the conflict I feel comparing this class and grading to my math class.