I asked a math teacher if she allowed her learners to use notes or tools on tests. She said, “Absolutely not.” I asked why. She said if they learned the material they shouldn’t need notes. I asked her which demonstrated learning: memorization or application. She said it was application and the highest level of understanding is the ability to transfer knowledge. Ultimately, she came to the conclusion that if learners could not use notes or tools to take the test then there was a problem with the test. My response was, “Bingo!”
As adults, we never take closed book, route memorization tests. Rather, we take what we’ve learned and apply it within a context befitting our career. Surgeons use images, charts, notes, and a team of nurses, anesthesiologist, and other surgeons when performing a double bypass. Mechanics use handbooks, computer printouts, and the help of other mechanics when they replace a head gasket. Mail carriers use maps and notes when delivering mail. Why is it that students, who are developing their knowledge, are given higher expectations than professional experts?
I think the answer lies in our ability to write a good assessment.
Start with standards
Before I plan any lesson I consider what my learners are expected to know. Our department established essential standards for both English 9 and 10 for each semester.
- English 9 Semester 1 – Students will use text evidence to support a claim.
- English 9 Semester 2 – Students will identify and develop a literary theme.
- English 10 Semester 1 – Students will demonstrate character development/characterization.
- English 10 Semester 2 – Students will develop an argument to persuade.
At each level, students need to demonstrate these in presentations, writing, projects and leading a Socratic Seminars. Throughout the course of the semester, multiple units are taught but there is an emphasis on our essential standards.
Since it is clear that first semester, English 9 students are expected to be able to use text evidence to support a claim, assessments become easy to write. We divide the standard into criteria. The criteria for using text evidence to support a claim is:
- State a claim (thesis statement)
- Provide textual evidence
- Give analysis (reasons the evidence proves your claim)
The criteria are simple and clear. My assessments focus specifically on a learner’s ability to demonstrate these.
Learners can create a poster explaining why a Greek god or goddess is the greatest, or give a presentation explaining why Odysseus is guilty of robbery and assault against Polyphemus in The Odyssey. I can look to see if they have met all the criteria for using text evidence to support a claim.
If I want to give a test, I can provide reading passages either from previous reading or from unfamiliar texts and ask questions that will challenge learners to meet the essential standard. For example, I can include a copy of the story of Echo and Narcissus and ask questions such as:
- Was Juno’s punishment of Echo fair or unjust? Explain.
- What kind of person is Narcissus? What lead you to this conclusion?
- Did Narcissus deserve his fate? Why or why not?
While reading responses, I will know if a learner understood the story, was able to make a claim, use evidence, and provide analysis.
When I review a learner’s response to the above questions, I can provide feedback. If the claim needs to be better developed, I can make suggestions. If there is insufficient evidence, I can ask the learner to provide more. If no analysis is provided I can point that out and reteach it.
When a learner meets proficiency, I can provide suggestions for growth. I can challenge the learner to provide various types of evidence in their work such as direct quotes, paraphrases, and summaries. To help learners develop their analysis skills I can suggest they use different types, such as descriptive analysis, inferential analysis, predictive analysis, or comparative analysis. And since I do not give grades on assignments, I am able to promote growth to each learner at his/her level and move them beyond proficiency.
Assessment allows me to know the strengths and weaknesses of my learners. It gives me insight as to how I can challenge every student. Starting with a specific goal allows me to chart a path that leads students to proficiency and growth. It provides opportunities to differentiate and cater to every learner while empowering them to tap into their own personal interests.