This is a long post, and rambles a bit. My Mom said the other day that I'm wordy, and she's right. But it's my blog and I'll be verbose if I want to, verbose if I want to . . . Also, keep in mind that I would prefer to radically change what we do each day in school (school should be "different", not "better"), but this post is written from the perspective of how we can do what we are currently doing better.
While it's clear I'm not a fan of standardized tests such as PARCC, there is one advertised feature of PARCC that I think is an improvement over previous state-mandated testing we've done. It's the idea that we would get the results back faster, in which case - whatever their value - we at least would perhaps be able to use them to help students. Now, so far, I don't see any indication that we actually will get those results back faster (end of the school year is better than next fall, but still not very helpful), but perhaps as they iron out the wrinkles that will happen.
Research indicates that timely and effective feedback is key for student learning growth so, if the point of assessment is to help students learn more effectively, then both "end-of-the-year" and "next fall" don't do us much good. While we don't have much (any?) control over state assessments like PARCC, we do have control over teacher generated and given assessments in our classrooms. So what frustrates me is the timeliness and effectiveness of the feedback we often give, because this is something we do have some control over.
The genesis of this post was when a student I know well took three major tests on the Friday before Spring Break. Which means that, in the best-case scenario, this student won't receive any feedback for at least ten days. How "timely" and "effective" do you think that feedback is going to be? Now, let me be clear, as a teacher I've done this before as well. You want to finish a "unit" before a scheduled break in school and you want to assess before that break while it's still fresh in their minds. But that doesn't make it right and, as I've gotten older (and hopefully wiser), I've done my best to resist that urge. While not a perfect solution, I at least tried to give any assessments the day before the last day before a scheduled break so that they could receive feedback before going on break.
Which brings up the next issue, which is how quickly we get these assessments back to our students. Now, in this case, it's going to be at least ten days due to Spring Break, but what about assessments that aren't given right before Spring Break? Here's my thinking. If something is important enough that we are going to assess (and grade) all of our students at one point in time, and we are expecting all of our students to be ready and to take that assessment, then we should be willing to commit to return that assessment to them, with feedback, the very next day that class meets.
This, obviously, is an opinion that some folks will take issue with. They'll point to a limited amount of time for teachers, and many competing obligations, and the sheer amount of time it takes to grade assessments of multiple sections in only one to three days (depending on your schedule and weekends). I readily acknowledge those issues, I just don't think they are a worthy excuse. Again, if this assessment is important enough to give to all your students at one time, and if the goal of the assessment is to determine how well they know this essential material and then to help them learn anything they are still confused about, then as teachers we need to get this back to our students with meaningful feedback as soon as possible. While immediate feedback is often best, slightly delayed (the next day that class meets) feedback can be useful as well. Greatly delayed feedback? Not so much.
So that addresses "timely," but what about "effective?" What does effective feedback look like? I am in no way an expert on this, and there are many books you can read to help you with this, but I do think I can identify a few practices that aren't effective. Let me focus on two of them. First, feedback that is just a grade, or perhaps a grade with a few things circled, is usually not going to be effective feedback. Second, an assessment that you don't give back to the students and allow them to keep is usually not going to be effective.
Letting students keep assessments is a controversial topic for some teachers, so let's explore that a bit. In my experience, every reason given for this basically boils down to the same reason: cheating (with a side helping of time). Some teachers don't like to let students keep the assessments because they are worried other students will use them to cheat, either because they were absent when the assessment was given and need to make it up, or that students will pass the assessment along to future students. There's a fairly easy way to solve that problem, of course, which is to have several versions of that assessment made, which is where the side helping of time comes in - teachers will say they simply don't have time to create multiple versions of their assessments. I disagree.
Creating quality assessments is obviously a complicated issue that can't be addressed in this post, but the majority of assessments I see in schools fall into three categories: textbook-generated assessments, teacher-created assessments, and essay-type assessments (either textbook or teacher generated). (There are obviously other types, but I think these three do a fairly good job of putting them into categories.) For those teachers that use textbook-generated assessments, the software will easily create multiple versions of the assessment for you. For those that decide to go a little further and create their own assessments, it will take a bit more time, but it's not that hard to create multiple versions of the same assessment. (And, if you're really good, which I'm not, great assessment questions are really hard to cheat on anyway, so you don't need multiple versions.) Essays are both easier and tougher. Easier because they are harder to cheat on, tougher because they do take a fair amount of time to evaluate and provide feedback on. In my perfect world, though, that feedback is being provided throughout the writing process, so there's really not one "due date" where the essays have to be turned in and evaluated en masse.
There are some other strategies that I think are helpful. In math and science classes especially, for example, I still see most teachers giving unit assessments, that take a long time for students to take and a long time for teachers to evaluate. Why not give shorter assessments more frequently? This not only makes it easier to provide more timely feedback, but it gives students more frequent feedback as well. I also see many teachers trying to assess everything, instead of just what we've identified as being essential. Which is better, assessing everything and providing delayed and incomplete feedback? Or assessing only a few really important things, and giving our students thorough feedback in a timely fashion? I would suggest the latter.
Finally, let's talk about final exams. Many high schools, including mine, give final exams during the last week of the semester. At the end of first semester we have winter break, and then students may or may not have the same course and teacher when the next semester starts two weeks later. At the end of the second semester, students go to summer break. The vast majority of students don't get any feedback (other than the grade on the online portal) on these final exams. Some folks will suggest that since these are "summative" assessments, it's not that important to give feedback. I think that argument only works if you view each course as its own isolated world with a goal of finishing the course and getting a grade. If we truly value what we are teaching in that course and think that it's important for students to learn, then it doesn't "end" when the course ends. From this viewpoint, all assessment is formative.
If we're going to continue to have final exams, then I have a simple suggestion: don't give them on the last days of school each semester. Give them a few days before and then allow each class to meet at least one more time after the final exam in order to give the assessments back to the students and provide feedback to them. With my school's schedule, for example, that would require two class days after final exams, one running a MWF schedule and one running a TR schedule. Some folks will argue that students won't use that time well, or might not even show up, and that may be true. But if that's the case, then what does that say about what we're doing in the first place? If what we are doing is truly valuable, then students will want to show up.
For me, it boils down to what is the purpose of assessment. Whose test is it? If it's designed for the adults, then the prevailing practices are probably just fine. But if it's designed for the students, to help them learn and grow and be successful, then we need to do some rethinking about how we assess and provide feedback to - and for - our students.