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A Question: Why Don’t We Brag About Assessments?

March 11, 2013

I made it a goal of mine this year to become better at assessments. I’m in the process of writing about it, but it’s turning into a big deal – as I discovered this year, there’s a lot wrapped up in the business of assessment. If I want to focus on assessment (how I measure what I teach), then those decisions have some collateral damage that impacts my curriculum (the order that I teach) and my lessons and activities/projects (the depth at which I teach). I’ve done a lot of things this year and am getting ready to write it all down, but I want to take a minute to throw out an idea to see if it’s reasonable or not.

Some Background: I found myself less involved with blogs than I did last year and I’ve been trying to figure out why. At first, I thought it was because I was in my second year of teaching and wasn’t as desperate for ideas – and this may be true, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. I think it’s related to my focus this year: assessment. In particular, how to create meaningful assessments that are aligned to my content and ask questions at the depth that I want them to. I realize now that I had trouble finding resources for this, so it took me a whole to create an assessment that I was really happy with. But recently, I finally made one (it’s at the bottom of this post) and I’m really happy with. And once I had this, I went back to the blogotwittersphere to look around, and started to notice something…

Thesis Statement: We, as teachers, have lots of lessons and activities we are proud of and blog about. We have lots of procedures and classroom organization that we are proud of and blog about. We have lots of projects we are proud of and blog about. But we don’t have assessments that we are proud of and blog about. And my question is: Why is that?

Reference: Sam Shah’s Favorite Test Question of All Time. This post has always stuck out in my memory, even though it’s from quite a while ago. I can relate to his excitement: “Aha! I’ve found this question which really digs at the conceptual foundation of this topic. It’s a question I can give meaningful feedback to!” (note: that quote isn’t from Sam, but rather how I would think if I had come up with that question). But the issue is: this is the only post like it that I’ve been able to find. Where one of us is bragging about an item on one of our tests – saying “Look at how good this is! And look at how my students responded!” (again: my words, not his).

I’m still trying to formulate my thoughts on this, but I’ve started to ask: Why don’t we brag about our tests? Our quizzes? Our assessments? Aren’t they just as important as our lessons and projects? Shouldn’t high-level mathematical tasks be tied to high-level questions on an assessment? Or when I read about interesting projects and tasks – are those being used instead of a typical pen-and-paper test? Have I just missed the posts where teachers talk about what goes on their assessments rather than how they assess?

I have some ideas about why this is and it’s based on some observations about cumulative tests I’ve seen and ones I’ve written myself. For the most part, they look like a checklist of things students should be able to do by the end of the unit. And I guess I’ve spent this whole year trying to make my assessments something more than that. Which has been an adventure on its own – and there’s more to come – but the purpose of this post is twofold:

Here’s Where You Come In: Maybe I’m wrong about my thesis above – that we don’t brag about assessments. Maybe these good questions are embedded in our projects or homework or exit tickets and so they don’t end up on our tests. And maybe this is why think-tanks like the Shell Centre exist – purely to think up these good questions – because, as I’ve discovered, it’s hard to write a deep question. So I’m asking – am I missing something? Are there more posts like Sam’s out there that I didn’t find? Does this idea – sharing good assessments – does that even make sense?

I’m still reflecting on the work I’ve done this year regarding assessment, but this is something I think I’d like some input on as I think about it.

Walking to Walk: Here’s my assessment that I’m proud of. I’m still formulating the why I’m proud of it for later posts, but when I finished creating it and looked at it, I ran to the other geometry teacher and annoyingly said “Look! Look how good this is!”. I’ve done this with lessons, worksheets, and projects – but this was the first time for an assessment.

Edit 3/15: The comments are getting really really good!! Thanks to everyone who’s contributed – I feel like I’m processing my thoughts a little better through reading and responding to what you post. I think I came up with another question based on the comments below:

If assessments follow from our curriculum and the depth of our lessons, and these are things we all think about and want to improve and make better, then why aren’t we carrying this idea of self-improvement into the realm of assessment as well?

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From → Curriculum, Math

16 Comments
  1. I’m going to be very interested to hear more about your quest for better assessment. I know I’ve rarely been proud of the tests I’ve written. This is a really interesting task you’ve written, and I especially wanted to comment about your rules of Math at the bottom. They are awesome. Just what students need to see at a time like that.

  2. I think in the back of my mind fears of test security are preventing me from posting. I tend to reuse tests from year to year with only a bit of editing and the culture at my school is “don’t let the kids keep their tests! Next years kids might cheat!” I only oblige them with midterm and final exams, otherwise my tests float freely. But I do think posting a test on the Internet flies in the face of this concern. I hope that you make sharing tests more popular so the voice in the back of my head quiets down.

    • Tina,

      I’m think test security is a reasonable issue regarding posting tests, but I somehow feel like it’s separate from what I’m looking for out in the blogotwittersphere. Even if someone doesn’t post their entire lesson, a description of the thought and motivation that went into it is sometimes enough for me to see its merit and application. The same with decisions behind classroom procedure and routines. I guess I see the issue of posting the actual test and posting about the motivation behind the test as two separate issues. I don’t know. I guess what I really have are questions:

      the tests that you use – did you create them? Or are they from your department? or district? or the state standardized test? Do you use standards based grading? Does it feel like your assessments are something that is forced upon you rather than created by you?

      Hmm hmm hmm… asking you those questions makes me think about my own answers…

  3. Excellent points on here. I would say that the only time I discuss assessment is within the context of a new, innovative project or tool. However, even then it’s because I feel I *must* address the element of grades. I think many educators are hesitant to discuss grades or “how we grade” because we know that grades don’t tell the whole story. Additionally, the drive for grades often kills the drive for learning. So instead of embracing assessment, we still view it as suspicious… something to be tolerated rather than embraced. At, least, I know I am guilty of this…

  4. I have two outs on this. One is that often those lessons and activities ARE assessments. They may not be tests, but that doesn’t make them not assessments, the type we are proud of. Those things I do share.

    My other thought is that, when it comes to tests, I’m constrained by the state test, I assess using all sorts of this but my quizzes are Regents questions (often paired with a question asking for an explanation) because they need to pass that at the end of the year.

    • James,

      Both of your points – lessons/tasks as assessment and pen-and-paper being modeled after the state exam – are ones I can relate to. Thinking about how to respond to your comment, I think I figured out part of my issue:

      I don’t want to believe these two things are mutually exclusive. I don’t want to believe that the demanding tasks or activities that I give in-class can’t also exist on an assessment. Part of this comes from my belief (that I’m in the process of turning into a whole other blog post) that students care about the things that I care about. And in terms of mathematics and retention, the way I communicate those things to my students is through my assessments. So if my in-class work is at a higher level of rigor than my assessments, then I’m communicating to them that I don’t care about the problem-solving aspect of my class or the coherency of my curriculum.

      I guess I want a way for my ‘tests’/’quizzes’/’assessments’ to match the level of rigor that I imagine the rest of my class to has. And that means more than my tests being a checklist of ‘stuff to do’, and more than them being a reference for what the state assessment will look like.

      Halfway through this comment, I stopped talking about your post and started talking to myself. So… yah.

      • I love what you’re saying here about how we communicate what is really important to us. I’ve been having this conversation with my department about how we have to walk it like we talk it. The fear that many of my colleagues have is that novel problems – the kind that really allow kids to show off their creative sides and their problem-solving chops are intimidating for many kids in a timed setting. How do we strike a balance between rewarding the kids who put in the effort and learn the procedures while also conveying the real value of being able to make connections and deal with something that is not merely a repeat of their HW exercises? I love the assessment you included here. There are places here where I can earn some credit and show what I know AND there are places where I really have to think.
        On a related note – your blog post here raises some interesting questions and I have a theory about one of them. It is easier for us to discuss lesson plans and activities because there is not quite as much background information necessary in sharing that. Most of the background gets wrapped up in explaining our lessons. Presenting an assessment to someone for their comments – without any background knowledge of the text or other practice problems, without any background on the kind of discussions that have occurred, etc – makes it hard for the world at large to make meaningful comments on your assessment. Does that make some sense?

  5. Mr Dardy,

    I with you 100% on that issue of balancing problem-solving skills _and_ the timed nature of tests – and it’s one of the reasons I like the test that I posted, because I think it’s the first time where I was able to find that balance with one of my assessments. Before this, I was trying to strike that balance by having a project incorporated with every one of my units. This way, students had the more concrete assessments paired with the more exploratory and in-depth projects – at least, that was my thinking and how I ‘solved’ that problem for myself. The issue for me became: I couldn’t balance the dual emphasis on assessments _and_ projects, so I found both of them becoming less meaningful and mediocre. I also think that if I’m going to make this an emphasis in my class, I need to communicate to students just how important these projects are – they’re _just as important_ as the assessment. Since my kids aren’t used to doing projects at all, I found this to be a much tougher battle than I thought it would be.

    Also – your comments about ‘background knowledge’ – I’m also with you 100%, but maybe in a different way. The thing I’m realizing as I try to write about my assessments is that they are tied to EVERYTHING I do in my class – my currirulum, my lessons, my state standards – everything I do culminates in an assessment. So you’re right – my assessments are incredibly specific to _me_ because they follow from _my_ curriculum and _my_ lessons. Which means if I’m going to write about assessments, the background I need to give includes information about my curriculum and the choices I made there.

    And maybe this is why I have this question: If assessments follow from our curriculum and the depth of our lessons, and these are things we all think about and want to improve and make better, then why aren’t we carrying this idea of self-improvement into the realm of assessment as well?

  6. Kate :) permalink

    I agree with the previous commenter who pointed out that lessons/project/etc. are types of assessment. I think if you look at a lot of what’s hot in math pedagogy these days, it does not lend itself to a traditional timed, multiple choice/short response test. If the best way to know students are learning in your class is by getting them involved in real discussions, arguments, and “doing mathematics”, then those are also the best assessments–participation grades, group quizzes, projects, activities, etc.–all of which I see a ton of blogging about.

    This is not to say that more people shouldn’t blog about great traditional format assessments they give, just that it is not an area of particular interest for many math teachers these days.

    • Kate – I cannot speak for others but I have some concerns with notable portions of a grade being based on participation or group work. This is skewed by my personal experience as a student and by the kinds of schools where I have taught. We all know that any grading decisions are incredibly objective but kids and parents feel more comfortable with individual grades and with some record of how their grade is computed. Participation troubles me. I have my room intentionally set so that kids will interact (i have a Harkness style set up) but I also have a high proportion of quiet kids who see their job as one of listening not talking during class. Some of this is from cultural expectations, some is due to personal preference, and some is due to intellectual laziness. But I am troubled by having a notable portion of the grade based on participation when that is hard to show evidence of and when some kids genuinely work better in a more passive mode when grappling with new ideas.

      Any advice out there about dealing with these concerns I have?

  7. I posted a lot about my assessments in my circuits course http://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/circuits-course-table-of-contents/
    particularly
    http://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/quiz-too-long-and-too-hard/
    http://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2013/03/02/quiz-2-better-than-quiz-1/
    with some mention in
    http://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2013/03/20/bar-exam-for-circuits-class/

    Of course, most of the assessment for that course was on the weekly design reports, not in-class tests, and I talked about them in many posts.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Creating Assessments: Three Types of Standards | Mathy McMatherson
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