The blogosphere’s been buzzin’ about assessment. (Not the NCLB kind.)
First, Marie, Rich, and Jackie have been asking some sharp questions on math assessment over in an earlier post.
Second, the Teacher Leaders Network blog is picking through the question, “How do you handle a student with an A on tests and an F on homework?”
My answer there, without even a little equivocation, is to pass her and then figure out why your homework is so totally inessential to class success. If you’re gutsy, you give her an A, but regardless you evaluate what it means to pass a student. Does it mean she did her homework, attended, participated in class discussion, raised her hand x times, wasn’t a discipline issue, brought baked goods on her assigned day, etc. etc., getting increasingly petty here. Basically, which of those behaviors is worth sandbagging a kid for a semester who knows the material, knows how to compute fractions, write persuasive essays, identify continents?
Third, Todd wrote an extraordinary post awhile back called “The Shrinking Educational Middle Class” which I’ve been meaning to pick up.
Todd sez, back in the day, you’d have histograms like this, with a bell-shaped distribution of grades (the graphics are his):
But that nowadays, the middle class is shrinking: the good grades get better, the bad grades get worse.
He’s right on; it’s a phenomenon that seems particularly exaggerated in low-performing populations. I’m going to proceed totally anecdotally here.
The teachers I worked with for my first two years of Title I were convinced you should do everything in your power to pass a kid’s first semester. One teacher went so far as to give an incomplete grade to every student who failed and then remediate with them after-school until he felt they had earned a C-.
They were positively rabid on the matter because, from their experience, a kid who failed first semester no longer bought into her future success in the class. In any case, the correlation of first semester failure to second semester failure seems extremely high, though administrators, superintendents, anyone with a more global perspective on this are welcome to set me straight.
However, good times ahead. See, I’ve been running this scheme for a few years that disrupts that system, that throws up just enough flak to pull some students out. It’s far from a guarantee but check out what it does to this combined histogram of my lowest-performing, most-math-unfriendly Algebra classes.
By Todd’s recognition, the middle typically tends to flab towards the extremes, depending on a given student’s resistance to the cycle of failure. The middle here tends towards greater achievement. This is par for all my math classes.
It requires of me a particular understanding that when a student who knows very little takes some creaky, tentative steps towards knowing something — whether that’s by studying more, attending class more often, or coming in for tutoring — I have to reward as many of those steps as possible as soon as possible.
I can’t say, “Great. It was good you came in. You’re gonna do really well on next week’s test.”
I can’t say, “Great. I’m glad you’re doing more homework. Keep that up and your grade’s really gonna climb.”
I can’t say, “Great. You’re doing the right thing coming to class more often. Your grade’s only going to go up because of it.”
Rather, I can say those things, but it won’t conjure up the positive risk-reward ratio my student needs to maintain her momentum, to keep from falling back into the cycle of failure.
So I disaggregate my assignments and tests. I break up these chunky gradebook entries, stuff labeled “Unit 6 Test,” into individual concepts and skills and then I let my students remediate those. I allow re-takes on these tiny concepts and I re-grade them immediately, dropping new scores into my gradebook immediately and reporting the grade increase immediately. My students’ gratification needs to be immediate.
Micromanaging my assessments and assignments is hard. It’s certainly more work than pulling a test out of the teacher’s edition every few weeks. But I get kids coming into my class every day before school, at lunch, kids who know what they need to learn and who are willing to learn it because they know their efforts will make a material difference. I’m doing my best to keep the middle class in the game around here and it only happens because I’ve made the cycle of risk-reward more appealing than that of failure-failure.
[Update: check out the comprehensive resource.]