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Assessment Traps and ILTs

I’m going to take you to a couple of situations that teachers face, and each situation presents a challenge.  Unfortunately I’ve been in each on more than one occasion, so I’m sharing from personal experience.

Situation #1:  It’s the afternoon before the test.  You announced it to your students a couple of weeks ago, but things kept coming up and you never got around to actually creating the test.  You’ve had an idea of what it would look like for some time and even communicated details to your classes, but those details were never actually recorded.  Now, you are just hoping that you are uninterrupted so it can be done quickly and the copier doesn’t jam when making these last minute copies...

Situation #2:  Or maybe you are a part of an ILT.  The “assignment” of creating the test for this unit went to someone else.  Your first look at the test presents issues.  You already are a week into the unit, and much of your approach for the unit is not reflected in the questions you’ve been given.  This is a unit you’ve taught many times before and it’s not that the test is terrible, it’s just not assessing what you think is most important.  Now you’re trying to figure out if you should speak up in the meeting and blow the test up, or if you just go with it and spend the next two weeks adapting your approach and teaching to the test.  You choose to say little, because this is the easiest way to get through the ILT meeting and the next few weeks…

Which situation is more difficult for you?  For your students?  Which situation results in more frustration?  For several years I had two preps:  AP Calculus, a class that no one else taught in the building; and Algebra 2, a prep that was shared by several teachers.  The first situation is more reflective of my first few years of teaching calculus.  I knew all along what I wanted to assess, I just didn’t actually have the test ready.  When searching through the test bank and previous exams, I knew what I was looking for and could put together a balanced assessment that reflected what was taught.  More importantly to my students and the continuity of the course, it reflected what I felt was important in that unit.  After one afternoon (or maybe evening) of frustration to actually put everything together, the students took the test the next day, the results were useful and trustworthy, and I could make changes for next year that would make the test and unit better.

Life in a PLC is much different.  Working with colleagues requires compromise and deep discussion, but all too often good teachers with solid ideas and perspective give in quickly to avoid conflict.  I know I took this view on occasion.  What often results is a feeling that the artistry and autonomy of teaching is being removed from our craft.  We become drones, teaching against our instincts to a test that we don’t believe in.  Some would argue that state standardized tests have a similar effect.  In any case, this is a much uglier scenario than the first, and has lasting effects for good teachers who traditionally have had success educating young people.

So how do we fix this?  Where did we go wrong?  Collaborating in a PLC or ILT is essential in today’s educational climate.  There is too much work to do, too much expertise in each building to ignore.  Working in isolation rarely results in personal growth, and our role is too important for us to reach a state of complacency.  I know personally that I didn’t get much better after a few years of teaching AP Calculus on my own; I needed the thoughts and ideas of others to stimulate me professionally.  Eliminating PLCs, going back to individual classrooms behind closed doors, is not an option.

I think there is a part of the process that is missing, one that we can prioritize in our ILT meetings.  We make the mistake of assuming that each of us has a similar idea about content and what is important, but this is where I believe we need to spend more time.  When tests are created, we too often depend on what others believe is important.  The Quality Core test banks and textbook-provided ExamView banks contain some good questions, but they often do not have enough to create good, quality, deep assessments for each unit based around what we believe is important.  Our textbooks cover so much material that it is hard to deem if one topic is more important than another, yet we rely on their sequencing and treat each section with equal importance.

My challenge to each PLC is to spend some time before each unit talking about how we want students to use the content knowledge, and then record it in some way and center the assessment and instruction on this.  There is a subtle difference here.  It’s not about the knowledge itself, the content topics that we cover; it’s about what we expect our students to do with that knowledge.  Do we want them to create, to explain, to analyze, to transfer knowledge in an unfamiliar context?  Once this is determined, we have a focus for our unit that doesn’t strip us of our autonomy or surprise us at the 11th hour.

I’ll focus more on this last piece in the next post.  Thank you for reading, and feel free to continue the discussion with me at any point.

1/8/13