Wednesday, January 6, 2016

It's exam you know where your students are?

Over the past month we have met with many teachers to talk about midterm/final assessments. With the move to standards-based learning, the purpose and design of these assessments often shifts, and teachers are working to develop experiences that reflect that shift. In a standards-based class, exams and other final assessments are designed to confirm or determine where our students are on our course targets. Determining student location not only allows us to communicate learning to students and parents, but helps us reflect on our own teaching.

So what are teachers at CVU doing? Here are some examples from this year and last:

Target-based exams: Some teachers want to confirm what their students know and understand through a test. By organizing each page (or section) of the test beneath the actual target scale, teachers are able to look at the evidence of learning in a way that is efficient and “targeted.” By organizing and formatting the test in this way, the expectations are more clear to students and more efficient for teachers to assess. Re-organizing tests by target also force us as teachers to be precise and intentional in our questioning. We need to think about the types of questions that will provide evidence of learning at all levels.

Target-based exams with individual targeted reassessment options:  Along with the above option, many teachers are adding an individual reassessment option to this exam.  Teachers have made the choice that ALL students will be assessed on certain targets during the exam, but once done with those, students can choose 2-3 more targets to reassess. Prior to this exam, teachers have made sure that students are aware of where they stand with each target so that individuals can make informed choices on what they want to reassess during this time.  This has been a very effective way for teachers to make sure to get evidence on a select number of targets, while allowing students to show improvement in areas of need and choice. Figuring out how to manage and organize is the biggest challenge here, but teachers have come up with some great options including color coding and personalized packets.

Target-based Reflection: Some teachers are using the time to have students reflect on their achievement from the first semester. One team has students going through summative portfolios (kept on a blog) that are organized by learning target. Students are thinking about strengths, areas of growth, challenges, and ultimately, setting targeted goals for the second semester. This allows students to be more aware of their learning, and ultimately to be more in control, while at the same time allowing teachers to gather important information about students’ differences and needs. Another teacher has students write letters to their parents about targets of greatest strength and need, as well as habits of learning; this letter serves as a reflection, a form of parent communication, and a writing assessment.

Target-based Conferences: In an effort to have a one on one discussion with students, many teachers are holding target-based conferences with individuals during the two hour block. During these conferences, the students/teachers are looking at evidence of achievement of the course learning targets, and collectively setting learning goals for the upcoming semester. While similar to Reflection (above), these conferences allow dialogue about the learning. Teachers have a variety of ways to use the time for the other students, including starting work for semester two, reflecting on work from semester one, or completing an independent project or exam.

Because of the unique exam week schedule, many teachers are also looking at alternative ways to use the two hour blocks. While we are required to have our students, we are not required to hold cumulative exams or assessments, and often there are activities or experiences or formative assessments that would benefit from the longer period of time, such as guest speakers, simulations, performances, galleries, or discussions.

One of the things we keep hearing from teachers who have transitioned to standards-based learning and grading in their classrooms is that student anxiety around midterm assessments has gone way down. And this is not because assessments have gotten easier. It’s because students and teachers know prior to the assessments where they are on the targets, so the assessments become a confirmation of learning rather than something to get stressed about. There shouldn’t be any surprises on midterms/finals. We, the teachers, have evidence of learning; we know what our students know, understand, and can do prior to the assessment. They, the students, have evidence of learning; they know what they know, understand, and can do prior to the assessment. That clarity of understanding makes exams feel less intimidating, and more inviting.

One teacher told us last week that her class asked her to give her exam early because they were ready for it--they knew where they were because their learning had been so transparent leading up to this point. How cool is that? And it came as no surprise to the teacher that her students were right: they nailed the exam.

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