Thursday, January 10, 2013

Let them Assess

Assessment. That is a word that can send cold shivers down the backs of teachers and students alike. In our society, that word has been linked to a "gotcha" mentality where standardized testing scores have become punitive towards districts, schools, teachers...sometimes affecting entire communities. I have spent a lot of time contemplating, researching, and discussing this topic and I realized that I needed to reframe my ideas and ultimately my teaching practice in the area of assessment.

Like many of you, I am in a district where standardized tests scores pull much weight and drive many of the decisions made at the district level. Often as classroom teachers, we may feel disempowered. Is this where we throw up our hands in defeat? And the most important question: Is this what is best for our students? I think that any one who works with students know that the answer is a resounding "NO."

The question that I often hear is, "So what do we do about it?" I thought I would take a few minutes to share where I began in my journey of rethinking assessment. As I have continued to grow (and still do each day), my practice has adapted. In the interest of not overwhelming anyone, I'll share more of my journey in future posts, but I wanted to share where I began.

Those of you that follow me or have read my book, Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?, know that several years ago, I made the shift from a teacher-led classroom to a student-directed one. In this amazing journey, my students led the way with many ideas. The idea to let the students take control of their assessment came from one of my fifth graders.

Now like many of you, I have used rubrics my entire teaching career. I'm sure we've all had the frustration of going over a rubric in detail at the front end of a project; then we observe our students trudging ahead with little (or no) regard to how they will be assessed at the end. The shift was that I wanted to make should address students' lack of connection with the purpose of a rubric as well as their idea to take control of their own assessment. I would not be presenting them with the rubric; they would be creating it for each learning project.

When you stop and think about it, if we are giving them control over selecting what they learn within a topic (or standard), how they are going to learn it, and in what manner they are going to create something that proves that learning, shouldn't they also have control over how they are assessed on that learning?

In order for us to make this shift, I relied on my students' previous knowledge. Since third grade, they had been trained to write towards our state writing test using a rubric. They understood what the specific difference was in earning a 4, 3, 2, or 1 in each category on a rubric because they had already been doing that for at least two years. When we began a new project or learning activity, I would guide my students in designing the criteria. Then I led them into determining the specifics assigned to the 4, 3, 2, or 1.

Yes, when you look at it, their copy is much simpler than most rubrics, but this is their rubric, not mine. The "master" list of the specifics would stay on our interactive whiteboard for reference, as needed, although most students took down notes (by choice) as a reminder of how to earn each score. As is our regular practice, my learners would meet together with one another for peer reviews and ideas, as well as, conferring with me throughout the project.

Once we reached the end of a project, they would assess one another's work based on their rubric as would I. My initial trepidation was that they would assign high scores to one another afraid to be honest. On the contrary, I discovered that my students held extremely high expectations for one another. When you think upon it, it makes sense. They design the projects and set the expectations. They talk about it with one another and me a LOT throughout the process. They know exactly what is expected to prove their learning.

This put an integral part of the learning process firmly into my learners' hands. Assessment plays a vital role in determining what our students know, what they need to know, and how much they have grown in each area. It informs and guides our instruction so that we can help each of our students meet their fullest potential. Having this knowledge is important not just for us, but for our students as well. If we want for them to take ownership of their learning, they need to be informed and see the goals that they have set in front of themselves.

This is only the beginning for me an my students and we sharpen our assessment practices. Stay tuned as I continue to grow and reflect upon how we can empower our students with relevant and authentic assessment practices.

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