Monday, October 21, 2013

Research as Authentic Assessment

As a part of my participation in the Learning Beyond Letter Grades MOOC, we have been investigating “authentic assessments” as an alternative to traditional assessments.  I’ve always thought that I had a pretty good handle on describing authentic assessment but I have since learned that my definition was a bit more like that of obscenity: “I’ll know it when I see it.”  This lack of clarity on my part probably hasn’t helped me to support the teachers and administrators that I work with but I have since learned that educators and researchers have had a difficult time agreeing upon a definition. However, in “Defining Authentic Classroom Assessment” the authors distill research and writing on the topic to nine components that the field can agree define an assessment as authentic:

The context of the assessment:
• realistic activity or context
• the task is performance-based.
• the task is cognitively complex.
The role of the student:
• a defense of the answer or product is required.
• the assessment is formative.
• students collaborate with each other or with the teacher.
The scoring :
• the scoring criteria are known or student developed.
• multiple indicators or portfolios are used for scoring.
• the performance expectation is mastery

These criteria expand the definition beyond simply “real life” and provide some nice talking points when looking at what makes an assessment “authentic.”  As a part of the course, I’ve decided to take a look at the topic of research, not just because it was a sample for us to consider within the course but because in New York State – the “research paper” has become a hot topic of discussion.  (Please note – the NYS Board of Regents has not made a final determination of a research paper requirement, the proposal has changed since this initial linked discussion and this post is merely for the purpose of examining research through the lens of authentic assessment, not to debate the merits of this proposal.)

In my social studies classroom and in the district in which I taught, research played a large role.  Our students were required to complete an eighth grade research paper but there were no guidelines about what that looked like.  In fact, each “team” developed their own process.  Some involved the entire team, some focused on one content area and no two teams in our building or our district did it the same.   Each year, my team sat down and determined where the research paper assignment “fit.” One year it might be about the Holocaust because students were reading Anne Frank in English class.  Another it might be about the Pan American Exposition in 1901 which was held in Buffalo since we had a history museum exhibit on it that year.  Or it might be on diseases since they were covering that in science class.  Regardless of the topic, it was teacher driven.  We never asked our students what interested them – what burning questions they had about anything in our curriculum.  They may have been provided choice but it was pretty tightly controlled.

Reflecting on the practice of our team and the information in the course – this quest for a research question is what would be needed for an authentic research project.  Students can learn methods of research or how to cite or even how to write the research paper itself – but it will never be truly authentic until they can uncover the one question that drives them, intrinsically, to find an answer.  To evaluate their findings and then to determine that one, of many, answers is the “correct” one.

This is hard work!  Putting my teacher hat back on, how will I – as a classroom teacher – manage 126 different research topics in one given year which may or may not be in my curriculum?  How do I help students distill their questions into something that is research-able?  And then how do I help them determine the best method to share their findings?

Putting some perspective on this – it really isn’t about me and it certainly isn’t about my content area.  It’s about equipping students with the cognitive skills needed to complete this type of task.  It’s about making the work purposeful, guiding students through the process, providing feedback and expressing a genuine interest in their learning.  In short – it’s about the students.

Our task for this assignment was to redesign an assessment that we had given or experienced to make it “more” authentic.  While not exactly fitting those parameters, I decided to instead review a current resource to determine whether it meets the criteria of authentic.  The New York State Education Department (NYSED) has provided its teachers (and anyone who can find them on the web) with Core Proficiency Units for English Language Arts/Literacy that can be used in Grades 6-12.  Research, specifically “Research to Deepen Understanding,”  is one of those units and I have spent some time with the Grades 9-10 unit on Technology.  When I say “spend some time” I don’t just mean read.  I mean I engaged in the lessons as a learner – conducted research on the topic, used that research to define and refine my question and presented a claim – not in writing a paper, but a claim nonetheless about the power of social media to build professional learning communities.  I have since taken that learning and put it into practice.  That is authentic.

I invite you to explore the materials – to see the purpose that is set out in the Researching to Deepen Understanding units and to explore the research framework that is used with students.  And then look back at the nine criteria I listed where the field agrees about how to define “authentic assessment.”  Every single one of them is there. Every. Single. One.

Monday, July 08, 2013

PLN: It's been more than one year since my last blog post...

Excuse the poor reference to a confessional, but I have been feeling pretty guilty about this lately.  Especially since I have been pushing the amazing people I work with and our region to find new ways to share and collaborate.  And bragging about how much I have learned from my PLN over the years.

It isn't really a Fear of Sharing as @benjamingilpin suggests.  I got over that a long time ago - as anyone who knows me well will tell you.

And it isn't really a matter of perseverance as @ColinWikan intimates in his post Your Perception is Not Always Reality. I also view failure or setbacks as a learning opportunity and can generally pick myself up and dust off.

I think it was more a matter of exhaustion.  Not the actual physical feeling of exhaustion (although I have been known to fall asleep on the computer!) but rather the exhaustion that Chip & Dan Heath talk about in Switch:  
"When people try to change things, they're usually tinkering with behaviors that have become automatic, and changing those behaviors requires careful supervision by the Rider [rational side].  The bigger the change you are suggesting, the more it will sap people's self-control.  
And when people exhaust their self-control, what they're exhausting are the mental muscles needed to think creatively, to focus, to inhibit their impulses, and to persist in the face of frustration or failure.  In other words, they're exhausting precisely the mental muscles needed to make a big change."
It's exhausting to try and lead change, real change,  and manage self-control when it seems like everyone else is critical.  And it's hard to not respond emotionally when it feels like the only feedback coming your way is criticism and not formative.  So to preserve that sense of self-control, it is a bit easier to just not engage.

But it isn't really fair (or being a good leader) when you push others to engage and clarify their standpoint and you are just coaching from the sidelines.  I used to justify it by saying "Hey - at least I am at the pool" (Bambrick-Santoyo reference to Man on Fire) but I now realize that I need to actually be practicing the strokes as well.

So prompted by a summer blogging challenge from @gcouros and a recent Twitter exchange with @doctordea where I once again preached what I am not practicing - I landed here again.  But it was the final push from @leah_whit sharing her first blog post (also in response to the challenge!) and then @Rogers_Suzanne asking for feedback on her blog that made me pick up the computer and write.  If these brave people can do it - so can I!!

This time - no pressure, no worries.  I'll post about what I am reading or learning.  I won't be disappointed if no one comments (although I am committing to commenting on at least one other blog a day).  And I will try to practice self-control! :-)

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Teaching FOR the Test

I've been slowly surfacing from the immense work that Race to the Top has created for me to breathe some digital air once again.  Jumping back into Twitter and catching up with Google Reader - it's been interesting to note that my larger digital network is closely mirroring my smaller personal network in terms of questions and anxiety.

Watching the TweetDeck announcements pop up as I work this afternoon, one article in particular caught my eye: March Madness Begins in Our Schools: It's Test Prep Time.  Those who know me well know that this is one of my biggest pet peeves!  And I am hoping by posting here that it will prompt my partner in crime (Jenn - that's you!) to post about the wonderful webinars she has been hosting lately.  But what really struck me was the experience of an upstate NY teacher (who I really hope wasn't one of mine!)

"We had a whole day inservice on Data Driven Instruction in which we were told the great benefits of using data to frame our instruction. This training was provided by our BOCES Center (a cooperative group that each school pays money to in order to get services a lower rate) and the presenter said "The TEST is where you start. When you know what's on the test, then you can frame your instruction based on the test." So, in NY - we should apparently be using the 3 - 8 ELA and Math tests to frame our instruction. Here's the problem - the test 'data' isn't in a teacher's hands until the beginning of the following school year. So, first how do you use data on last year's students to frame the instruction for the new batch of students?"

Now - I'd like to clarify a few things from just this paragraph alone (I might feel the need to clarify the other paragraphs as well so be prepared!)

1. Data can greatly inform your instruction.  But not the "autopsy" data of the NYSED assessments. First of all, those assessments are now secure so any real information we could get from them is no longer possible.  Real time data of interim and formative assessments can be extremely valuable to give us information about what our students know and can do and how we as teachers need to change up our instruction.   If we ignore the use of that data it is the equivalent of ignoring the student who can't read who sits in front of us.

2. Starting with the test is not a bad place to start.  If you subscribe to the notion (and I do!) of starting with the end in mind, then we should start with the summative assessment for the end of the course.  What are the priorities of the state/creator of the assessment? Do they match the instructional priorities that we have? What is the design of the test? Do we ask similar types of questions?  Are our students prepared for the vocabulary of the assessment?

All too often after understanding the demands of the assessment, I sit with teachers to review the assessments they typically use during the course of the year.  They do not always match!  The questions asked are not similar - the types of text are not similar - little is similar!!  It isn't so much about what is on the test, but how that test is designed that we should be using to help guide us.

3. Know what your students know! Each year, my students would tell me what they "knew" about U.S. History at the beginning of the year.  No test, no essay - just a brain dump of what they remembered since in theory they had been exposed to it multiple times before I had them in middle school.  Prior to each unit, I had some sort of pre-assessment to learn what they knew about the content of the unit.  This helped me to know where I needed to spend more time or less time than planned.  And it helped to pinpoint some common misconceptions (once again, the Emancipation Proclamation freed NO slaves people!)  But when working with teachers on assessment and having them reflect on their assessment moments, a pre-assessment rarely comes up. 

You don't need timely data from the state to know what your students know - you need a pre-assessment! Oh and guess what - it should also align to the summative assessment.

When I tell teachers to not teach to the test - I mean it!  Having the 3 month unit titled "Test Prep" does not benefit anyone.  Neither do multiple administrations of "practice tests" without real conversations about the results between teachers and with students.  But teaching FOR the test - that is another story. 

It is our professional responsibility to understand the summative assessment demands on our students - both State and district assessments.  We need to understand the types of questions that will be asked, the vocabulary that will be used and how the assessment should be scored.  We should be exposing students to similar assessments throughout the course of the year so that they are prepared when they sit down on the day of the test.  We should know the length of the assessment and work on the perseverance of our students - particularly as they encounter unfamiliar questions and as they have to write by hand! 

This means we need to change how we assess during the school year and most importantly, what we do with our own assessment results.  The power of using this data to guide our instruction will not only increase student achievement as we are more responsive to the students sitting before us, it will make use more effective teachers!  And regardless of the state of the accountability system for teachers - isn't this why we entered the profession in the first place?