ChildsWork News, Jan. 31, 2012: Assessing Everyone

January 31, 2012

ChildsWork News, Jan. 31, 2012: Assessing Everyone

I have two great articles for you all this morning with a common theme: assessment. As we all know, assessment is a loaded term in education whether you teach pre-k, high school or beyond, but it applies to more than just students and test scores. The first article, from Julie Rasicot, questions the methods traditionally used in teacher observation and evaluation. With more and more emphasis being placed on teacher quality, looking at more than just test scores is essential. However, can a principal or other administrator really tell how effective a teacher is being by sitting in a handful of classes each year? And, as teachers become veterans, is the principal always in the best place to suggest improvement? Rasicot believes that a more systematic approach towards teacher evaluation modeled after a coach-athlete relationship would be more beneficial. How do you feel? The next article comes from Coach G, also known as David Ginsburg. He decided to tackle student evaluation and assessment in the classroom in this column. His suggestion is that teachers routinely assess student learning throughout the school year, every day even, rather than rely on tests to tell them what students already know. Ginsburg’s focus on formative assessment (daily observation) in addition to summative assessment (test scores) reminds us all that the important element of teaching is in the day-to-day. This pairs nicely with Rasicot’s suggestion: the true value of a teacher is in his or her daily tasks and their interactions with students. Effective Teacher Observation Requires More than a Drop-In Julie Rasicot, writing for Education Week’s The Early Years Consider this scenario: A principal pops into a classroom a couple of times a year and uses a checklist to evaluate a teacher's performance, gaining little understanding of her style or effectiveness. Or this one: A coach regularly observes a teacher throughout the year and follows up by offering advice on how to improve his engagement with students. Which scenario is likely to lead to better teaching? As a national conversation heats up about how best to evaluate teachers, education experts are examining that question by taking another look at classroom observation to determine if it can be a more-effective tool for professional development. And they're looking to early-childhood education, which has traditionally focused on the whole development of a child, rather than just academic outcomes. "The right kind of professional development for those working with our youngest children is the cornerstone of quality improvement," said Susan Ochshorn, founder of ECE PolicyWorks and one of the authors of "Watching Teachers Work: Using Data from Classroom Observations to Improve Teaching." "It's here that the earliest relationships form a sort of laboratory in which cognitive and social development are kind of joined at the hip." Observation can be effective for professional development because understanding the interactions between adults and kids are "paramount" to building a foundation for learning, she said during a panel discussion on the ideas behind the policy paper Thursday at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C . Ochshorn and co-author Lisa Guernsey, director of the foundation's Early Education Initiative, joined two teachers and Education Sector senior policy analyst Elena Silva to discuss how improved observation tools could lead to better teaching. "Imagine how education might change if policies were based on actually watching teachers at work, rewarding good practice and fostering improvements," the two experts wrote in the report's executive summary. "Valuable and reliable observation tools can allow for measurements that are far less subjective than many of the checklists and rubrics currently used by supervisors as they pop in and out of classrooms." The report noted that initiatives underway throughout the country are using "observation-based assessments to jump-start comprehensive changes across prekindergarten and the early grades." Consider this from a North Carolina 1st-grade teacher who has participated in an assessment program developed by the FirstSchool Program at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina. With FirstSchool Snapshot, observers map out a teacher's entire day and record how teachers interact with theirstudents. Coaches and facilitators meet regularly with teachers and principals to provide feedback and ideas for more effective teaching. "They took that data and let you look at it from a different window," said teacher Andi Green in a video shown during Thursday's session. Green said she discovered that even though she knows children learn better in small groups, she was spending a "huge" part of her day focusing lessons on the whole class. The observation data provided "a true picture of what I do" and helped her change her teaching style. "I found out that I was a bit of a control freak," and needed to let go so that the students could blossom, Green said. The assessment process identified areas for growth, something that had never occurred in her previous evaluations, she added. Noreen Thompson, who teaches at AppleTree Early Learning public charter school in Washington, D.C., said she has learned how to improve her teaching from an ongoing dialogue that she has with a coach who's observed what's working and what isn't in her classroom. "I really feel confident about that continuous discussion," she said during Thursday's panel discussion. While better observation tools can provide a more complete picture of a teacher's effectiveness, they aren't "a silver bullet," Guernsey noted. But, she said, they can provide a common language and standards of professionalism for teachers that can lead to greater alignment and continuity from early education through the early grades. Formative Assessment Efficiency, Summative Assessment Proficiency By David Ginsburg, writing for Coach G’s Teaching Tips I'm often surprised when teachers are surprised when their students perform poorly on tests. Sure there are kids whose scores belie their skills, such as those who have test anxiety or had a bad day or took the test on an empty stomach. For the most part, though, students' performance on tests is predictable based on their day to day performance in class. And that's the problem: teachers who are surprised by students' performance on tests often aren't assessing students' understanding in class as routinely or effectively as they need to be. Routine, effective assessment means knowing what students know or don't know now. No waiting for the chapter test, much less a year-end standardized test. In fact, no waiting until you grade students' papers after class, since the time for timely formative assessment is during class when you can identify ASAP what students don't get and why they don't get it, and clear up their confusion right away. One key to such in-the-moment assessment is circulating to see how students are doing as they're working on something in class--whether it's a five-minute "Do Now" or a 45-minute discovery activity. Just be sure when you do this to assess all students before you assist any students. Another key to immediate, reliable assessment is effective questioning techniques. I've written before about one such technique, cold calling, and here are a few more:
  • Ask, Don't Tell. Ask questions through which you can pull information from students rather than provide it to them. Examples: give students diagrams of insects and arachnids (or, better yet, have them create their own), and ask them to identify similarities and differences rather than doing so for them; draw a few figures with lines of symmetry inserted and ask students what they think a line of symmetry is rather than define it for them up front. Same goes for discussing readings or interpreting graphs, where you'll get a better sense for students' understanding if you solicit their opinions and analysis before sharing yours.
  • Avoid Yes-No Questions. Ask questions that require students to say or show what they do or don't understand rather than if they understand. In other words, lots of what, why, and how questions rather than knee-jerk yes-no questions like "Does everyone understand?" or "Is everyone ready to move on?" or "Does this make sense?" I've noticed even when facilitating workshops that participants are more responsive when I ask, "What questions do you have?" than when I ask, "Any questions?" Similarly, it's better to ask, "What do you remember about...? " rather than "Do you remember...?"
  • Target Conceptual Understanding. Ask questions that assess and facilitate conceptual understanding before asking those aimed at procedural understanding. (Example: "What is perimeter?" rather than "What is the formula for perimeter?")
In my experience, teachers who assess students' understanding using these practices are rarely if ever surprised by their students' performance on tests. And more important, they're pleased with their students' performance on tests, since formative assessment efficiency on the part of teachers is a key to summative assessment proficiency on the part of students. What questions do you have?



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