Due to time constraints in my corner of the world (school started a week ago) I’m gonna have to shelve my typically softspoken online persona and get straight to it. If you’d like to see assessment amount to more than a meaningless exercise in classroom control, if you’d like to see cheating drop and confidence rise, if you’d like to see a higher correlation between the grade you feel a student deserves and the grade on that student’s transcript …
… take something from this page.
How Things Used To Be
- Textbook manufacturers directed assessment, issuing lengthy tests at the end of their chapters, tests long enough to both intimidate students and make their percent grade totally indescriptive of what they know and don’t know. (i.e. two months down the line, what does a 67% on “Chapter 6 Test” really mean?)
- Assessment was the same for every student with every student receiving the same test no matter how many times they’d demonstrated competence on an assessment.
- Students hated tests. They complained about them. They scheduled absences around them. They cheated on them. And who could blame them? The tests covered broad chunks of texts, with trick questions seeded every few pages. If you did poorly on a test there was little ability or incentive to improve. The class moved on.
How Things Are In My Classes
- Learning directs assessment. Learning breaks across skills not chapter units. Instead of assessing at the end of chapters, we assess at the completion of a significant skill. Instead of lumping all the skills together under one grade (making that grade useless beyond a “did good” or “did bad” level) we track each skill separately in our grade book.
- Assessment is different for each student. Once a student demonstrates competence in a skill, once on a basic problem and then on a hard problem, she achieves “mastery” and can skip that skill on every test thereon.
- Students like assessment. Most do, anyway, and I’m not even playing with you here. Students like the process. They know which skills they need to improve (because we track them separately — me and them, both), they know how they can improve them (by studying or coming in for tutoring), and they know they’ll be rewarded for their efforts (I’ll increase their skill grade in my gradebook if they demonstrate improvement).
- You teach.
- As you teach, you try to sense when you’ve hit the end of a self-terminating skill. This skill shouldn’t be so small (e.g. “Adding Numbers”) that you’ll be tracking ten such concepts on a week but not so big (e.g. “Factoring”) that you can’t tell how to remediate a low grade. In Algebra 1, “Integer Operations” is my first self-terminating skill.
- You write a test (here’s the template) of either three questions or six, depending on how much you want to grade that week. Handwrite them or pull the template into your editor of choice. You’ll number the first test of the semester 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, but you’ll number the last test of the semester 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, depending on how many skills you pull out of your semester. This is to say, the test numbering is continuous throughout the year. The test numbering is very significant.
- You grade the test on a four-point scale. 4 is perfect. 0 is blank. The rest is at your discretion.
- You enter the tests into your grading program. The possible points for every concept on this first test is 4.
- You pass the tests back.
- The students record the new concepts and their scores on their Concept Checklist. (Template here.) They have now started a self-monitoring process which will continue throughout the year. This is one of the most beautiful parts about this system, that every student knows exactly what she does and doesn’t know. [2011 Aug 26: here are my most recent thoughts on the concept checklist.]
- You teach some more.
- You give another test. Perhaps here it’s concepts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. The pace is such a specific thing between you and your class. Any question they’re seeing for a second time, though, give ’em a harder one. Add terms. Use negatives. Make the problem about trinomials rather than binomials.
- You grade but this time you add only one new entry to your gradebook. That’s #7. You keep the rest. You keep the rest and you change their possible points to 5. Now, as you go through, you overwrite low scores with higher ones. Grades that drop (and there will be some — the problem was harder, after all) stay the same. If a student pulls a second 4, you enter in a 5.
- You pass the tests back. The students write down the name of #7 and start penciling in new scores next to old ones. If a student has a 5 on a concept, they call you over and you put a stamp or a signature next to that concept, telling them they’re done.
- You keep going.
- Blank Test
- Blank Concept Checklist
- Algebra 1 Concept List (suggested)
- Algebra 1 Sample Tests
- Geometry Concept List (suggested)
- Geometry Sample Tests
- Precalculus Concept List (suggested)
- Precalculus Sample Tests
Frequently Asked Questions
- Don’t students try to game the signature/stamp process?
Nothing that happens when I’m out stamping changes the grade in the district’s computer. A kid could claim two 4’s and I could stamp her paper in error, and nothing would happen to her grade. The stamping process is entirely for the students, so they can take ownership in the process and have a document in their hands that describes their learning. (Still I ask to see both 4’s before I stamp.)
- How do your class grades break down?
70% – Tests (strictly limited to these concept quizzes — no other assessment)
10% – Final Exam (assigned exactly once per term)
20% – Classwork/Homework (everything else)
- Once a kid has mastered a concept or skill, don’t they just forget it?
Do kids forget? Yeah. But that’s the nature of the thing. Everyone forgets everything given enough time. But with a system of objectives this clearly defined, can I pull them back quickly? Absolutely.
- How do you break the curriculum down into concepts? There’s gotta be hundreds.
I’ve found it to be the hardest part of this system. My list has flexed every year so far.
I could write a post describing the slashing & burning process but the hardest work is done internally. You’ve gotta convince yourself that you don’t need to test absolutely everything.
Some concepts are great for classwork, for exercises, good for in-class formative assessment, but don’t need to show up on a summative test.
You then merge topics where appropriate (being careful not to make ‘em too large, unmanageable, or ungradeable) and write the rest off.
- How often can a student re-take a concept/skill test?
As often as she wants. She can come in at lunch or before school or after school. I don’t let her re-take the same concept twice in a day, though. Gotta draw a line somewhere on the issue of rote, temporary memorization. [2011 Aug 26: Someone — I forget who — said they allow students to either retake a concept or get tutoring in the concept but not both in the same day. That seems really, really wise to me.]
- How Math Must Assess, the PDF treatise that got things going on my campus.
- How To Assess, the practical implementation.
- The Presentation, a talk I gave to the faculty about all this.
- Assessment Part Deux Redux, some notes on the risk-reward cycle.
I started this at the beginning of this school year and I have to say that this is the most profound change my classroom has ever undertaken and I am very impressed with how it is going. The concept checklist has been a very important tool in terms of communication between school and home. I made a big deal of it at back to school night and told the parents to check their students’ orange folders (that’s where I have them keep all their sbg stuff) often. The parents love it and I can tell they are keeping an eye on that folder from the types of emails I am getting. It is better information on their kids’ progress than they have ever gotten before.
2011 Oct 19: Christopher Danielson wrote up some provocative thoughts on students with ongoing mechanical errors receiving 60%.