Put Your Tests to the Test

It's assessment season and I just can't seem to get them out of my mind. Of course, that could be the 8 hours I spent this weekend watching scoring DVDs and the countless hours that still lie ahead....

One of the things that many of our districts have been talking about and trying to create are formative assessments. We've looked at vendors that have test banks already made and ones that will load the test questions we make. Bottom line - formative assessments are only as good as the questions.

I learned how to write test questions from NYSED. Each year in Social Studies, they put out a call for expertise inviting teachers to come and receive training in developing test items for the NYS assessments and Regents examinations. (The dates for this year can be found here.)It was a pretty rich experience for me and for the first time, I learned about test constructs and proper writing of item distractors. I was hooked!!

A recent article in T.H.E. Journal by Nora V. Odendahl helped summarize some of what I learned nicely. She begins with a fault question and takes the leader through the many things that make multiple choice questions (and frankly many other types) poor items. Here are some questions to ask when assessing test items:

1. Do the items assess students' relevant skills and knowledge?
2. What requirements for ensuring the quality and integrity of the items are found in the documented procedures? (Nice list included here)
3. Do the items represent the desired levels of difficulty and cognitive skill?
4. Is statistical data being used to improve the quality of the items and the formative assessments?

This is a nice two-page article that I'll be sure to share at upcoming assessment workshops! How do your tests measure up?

Assessing Technology Literacy

Found an interesting article via my NCTE inbox. It seems that the California State University system is finalizing a test, developed in conjunction with ETS, that they feel will gauge a student's technological literacy. Even more - they are looking to have the test become a gatekeeper for higher level courses, similar to what many colleges and universities do with writing proficiency.

I like this idea! First - it addresses the problem that Kim Moritz and many, many others have raised about Internet blocking in school. If higher ed is going to require these critical thinking skills in technology, we better teach it, right?

Second - it begins to define what technology and information literacy is. I am a firm believer that there are many types of literacy out there, not just what we expect or assume English Language Arts folks are teaching. I believe that every content area has a specialized literacy: it takes a special skill to read a political cartoon in Social Studies class, which is very different from the skill that is required in reading a technical drawing or even a sewing pattern. Each and every teacher has an obligation to teach their students the finer points of literacy in their content area.

Third - from what I've seen of the demo online, it's a performance assessment!! There are two levels to the assessment (core and advanced) which take the test taker through tasks that ask them to manage, access, integrate, and create pieces usually within an email context. Aren't performance tasks, and authentic performance tasks, what we would like to see kids be assessed with? Imagine - no multiple choice!!

Even more interesting are the score reports. With all due respect to nyStart, these are readable and meaningful. They state what the test taker was asked to do - and then spells out how they did. Using language that simple!!

Hmmmmm............I wonder how we could make our ELA Assessments look like this?

Teaching with Fire!!

NOTE: Cross-posted from my Writing Frameworks blog.

As we all slowly ease back into our routines after the holidays, I thought I would share a book that not only inspires other writers but involves teachers writing about their inspiration from poetry.

I was first introduced to Teaching with Fire (edited by Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner) at a Step Up to Writing trainers conference in Fort Collins, Colorado about three years ago. Two wonderful teachers from California befriended me in that brief time and shared things with me that I have never been able to repay. One, Linda Toren, is featured in this book (page 204). She and a colleague email each other haiku and tanka once a week "to keep each other inspired and hopeful - to celebrate and commiserate."

They continue to inspire me (we have long since gone our separate ways) through this book they shared with me as it sits on my coffee table full of post-it notes and dog-eared. It is a poetry book - but each poem is accompanied by a brief story from a teacher explaining the significance of that poem in their life's work. You will hear throughout the book talk of writer's notebooks and poetry reads, of students and families, of joy and heartache. I promise you it will be a fresh read every time!!

I could go on and on about how this book could be used in the classroom, instead, I'll just share this:

You Reading This, Be Ready

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever your go right now? Are you waiting
for time you show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life--

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

- William Stafford

Reference: Teaching with Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach. Intrator, Sam and Scribner, Megan (editors). Jossey-Bass, Inc, 2003.