Tag: assessment (page 2 of 2)

A brand-new campaign for Purpos/ed: #purposedassess

Assessment

After a brief lull (as I’ve mentioned before it’s all about the ‘cadence of engagement’) we’re back with a new campaign for Purpos/ed!

For those who haven’t been paying attention:

We’re a non-partisan, location-independent organization aiming to kickstart a debate around the question: What’s the purpose of education? With a 3-year plan, a series of campaigns, and a weekly newsletter we aim to empower people to get involved and make a difference in their neighbourhood, area and country.

This time we’re discussing and debating the question:

What’s the purpose of assessment?

Details on the Purpos/ed website, but you can jump straight in by following +Purpos/ed Team on Google+ (which is the platform we’re using for this particular campaign!)

Image BY-NC-SA KTVee 

What would a post-test era look like for our schools?

Multiple-choice

“[I]s anyone surprised that a huge swath of our population can’t speak intelligently about the larger issues that face us? No doubt, the financial mess we’re in and climate change and the Middle East and the rest are complex, fast changing issues that can be difficult for anyone to keep up with. (I’m no exception.) But again, have our schools really been cultivating the learning dispositions needed to grapple with those topics as they evolve? We give a lot of lip service to problem solving and critical thinking and the like, but I’m not convinced that those and other really important skills and literacies are showing up meaningfully in more than 10% of classrooms in this country because in large measure, they’re not on the test. It’s about content and knowledge, not learning.” (Will Richardson)

Introduction

My son, Ben, is four years old. He’s just finished his first year in school nursery and will move up to Reception class in September. For international readers, it’s important to bear in mind that in England children do not have to go to school until they are five years old – we could have chosen to enrol him in January 2012. He’s very much enjoyed wearing his school uniform, meeting new people and learning new things. Ben loves going to school.

But.

There’s two classes next year into which Ben and his friends are to be divided. Both are Reception/Year 1 mixed. To cut a long story short, the rumour went around the parents at the school gate that one was a ‘more able’ class and one a ‘lower ability’ class (which, from a teacher’s perspective is ridiculous: you’d just split them into Reception and Year 1). In addition, my neice who has just finished Reception (in a different school) has just been scored at 104 out of 117. For what, you may ask? Exactly. But we’re all proud of her anyway.

The Perils of Testing

The amount of testing that children in my family will undertake during their educational career is even more than my wife and I had to undertake when we were at school. And that was more than enough. Testing is a form of competition which seems to be the dominant discourse in society. This saddens me. In the quotation from Will Richardson above he’s concerned that teachers focus unduly on the test. As a former teacher who attempted to rebel against such a system I can confirm that, at the end of the day, it’s a choice between selling-out (and teaching to the test) or quitting. My wife, a Primary school teacher, and I have both been asked several times in our careers to change teacher assessments because they didn’t demonstrate linear progress when plotted on a graph. That’s just not acceptable; if children’s progress is to be charted it should be done properly.

A data-driven culture in schools would be fine if the numbers in a spreadsheet mattered less than the individual child, but I’m not sure that they do. As I explained in Assessment in UK schools: a convenient hypocrisy? these numbers stay with, and label children, throughout their educational career. It’s performativity at its worst: to be successful children have to learn how to ‘do school’ rather than learn those things which will help them function in society.

The Solution?

When my son Ben stops enjoying doing something he moves onto something else. And that’s fine by me – although I’m fairly hot on discipline, I work with his interests and attention span. Whilst I’m confident that this has been the case this year whilst he’s been in school nursery, I’m not so sure it will continue throughout his educational career. Unless our family manage to instil in him a growth mindset he’s likely to equate test results with some kind of ‘inate ability’. That’s dangerous territory.

What happens when children start demonstrating what Carol Dweck calls ‘fixed’ mindsets? If they’re successful they choose the easy option to prove their ‘intelligence’. If they’re not so successful they’re liable to disengage with schooling. For some, this involves staring out the window, for others poor behaviour, and for yet others voting with their feet. According to The Guardian truancy is on the rise – and it’s increasing even in Primary schools.

I think we need to step back and take stock. As with Purpos/ed (asking what is the purpose of education?) we need to ask what is the purpose of assessment? Once we understand that perhaps we’ll be able to decide whether we care about PISA, whether high-stakes testing does more harm to our society than good, and whether what we’re currently doing is conducive to developing growth mindsets in young people.

Perhaps a good place to start would be investing in meaningful continuing professional development for teachers and trusting their judgements? Now there’s an idea.

A Post-test school

What would an education system look like that had moved beyond testing? Perhaps we should look at Finland. According to this article, the Fins manage to do very well without high-stakes testing:

There is no domestic testing except a very quiet auditing program to test demographic samples of kids; not for accountability, not for public consumption, and not for comparison across schools. The fascinating thing is that because they have created such a high level of professionalism, they can trust their teachers. Their motto is “Trust Through Professionalism.” The difference between the highest performing school in Finland and the lowest performing school in Finland is less than four percent, and that’s without any testing at all.

I believe a post-test school would be collaborative instead of competitive. It would be project-driven. The staff would be happy and the children relaxed. Truancy would be minimal.

But how, I hear you ask, would universities and employers decide who to employ? How would we identify talent?

Again, I think we need to step back and look at the wider picture and challenge the paucity of our collective imagination. It baffles me why we abstract away from personality and interests to represent ourselves on paper in black and white, sending an application to persons unknown at an educational institution or organization we barely know. Far better would be to change the whole system, to predicate it upon relationships and much richer, informative and – yes – passionate representations of ourselves. Why not have such institutions and businesses approaching young people and job hunters rather than the other way around?

Conclusion

I don’t know of anyone who knows about education in the UK who thinks that the status quo is desirable or tenable. Everyone is dissatisfied and the elephant in the room is our assessment regime. Let’s do something about it. Let’s kick up a fuss. Let’s tell the world that whilst we’ve got qualifications of which we may be proud, they’re not necessarily relevant or desirable for our children. And while we’re at it, let’s get back to human relationships rather than children-as-spreadsheets.

Who’s with me?

Image CC BY-NC-SA COCOEN daily photos

How I mark students’ books.

Marking books

I’d love to mark blogs (or even Google Wave) rather than exercise books. In my previous school I used Posterous-powered blogs with my Year 10 History class. However, in some situations it’s just not practical for various reasons. This isn’t the post to go into the ins and outs of why this is the case. This is the post that explains how I mark books with some justification behind my actions. One reason for putting my system online is to get feedback as to how I can improve it.

Let me just say right from the outset that I don’t mark as often as other teachers. Or as often as they claim to, anyway. In fact, during these half-term holidays is the first time I’ve marked my classes’ books this year. I would have ordinarily have liked to look at them before now (after 2-3 lessons) but setting up a new Academy kind eats into any free time you’ve got…

One more thing by way of context. It’s usual, but not universal, in England for Key Stage 3 students – whom I’m talking about here – to get one lesson of History (my subject) per week. Marking their books at the end of the half-term means they’ve got a maximum of 6 lessons work in there.

With that out of the way, let me explain how I go about marking. I do it in two ‘waves’:

First wave

Crap at History?

In the first wave I’m concentrating on the following:

  • Encouraging students
  • Completion of work
  • Understanding of key concepts
  • Spelling of key words
  • Factual errors (to correct)

If I notice a pattern across books (either all or a subset of them) then this informs my teaching and/or direction of Learning Support Assistants.

I used to mark in green, after hearing that some students find red a ‘confrontational’ colour. However, after having students in two separate schools complain about this, I’m back on the red. That’s handy, as green pens are more expensive and harder to get hold of!

Sometimes I fall into the trap of ‘ticking’ work. There’s really no point in this, but I do it to reassure students that I’ve seen a piece of work that doesn’t really require any comment. I focus my time and effort on things that are likely to make a difference to their learning. Sometimes this is reinforcing/correcting understanding of a key concept; sometime it’s encouraging a student; sometimes it’s drawing attention to spelling of key words. It depends on what you’re teaching and who the student is.

Second wave

Marking: the Second Wave

Once I’ve been through exercise books with a red pen, I revisit them (the ‘second wave’). The purpose of this is to:

  • Make a summative comment on how each individual student is doing.
  • Inform the student on work that’s missing from their book.
  • Highlight 3 ways they can improve.
  • Enter data into a grid showing homework completion.
  • Add notes, comments and indicative levels to my (online, Google Docs-powered) gradebook

Before I started to do this (or an iteration of it) I noticed that students wouldn’t read the comments I made on books. Having an obvious bookmark (such as that provided by the full-page feedback) gets them reading what I’ve said. By observing a colleague at my previous school I’ve also realised the importance of building time into a subsequent lesson to let them read what you’ve said. :-p

Conclusion

This marking system takes time. The thing that actually takes the most time is the chasing up of books that haven’t been handed in for marking, students who haven’t completed homework, and monitoring the catch-up work of absentees. Once students get used to the system, however, they seem to like it. After all, they know that I’ve been through their books carefully and given personalised feedback. They appreciate that. 🙂

Comments? Suggestions? Use the comments section below!

Assessment in UK schools: a convenient hypocrisy?

Dilbert on graphs

There’s a couple of lines in the otherwise-average film In The Loop that not only made me laugh but made me think. At one point in the film, a British civil servant is remonstrating with his US counterpart. They end up in a very modern-looking chapel within a government building. The British civil servant starts shouting and swearing at which point the American reminds him that they’re in a sacred place, adding:

Neither of us believes that, but it’s a convenient hypocrisy.

I’ve realised that convenient hypocrisies happen often. Unfortunately, I believe it happens with assessment in UK schools every day. 🙁

Now I’m no expert on assessment, but even I know that research has established the following:

  1. Students regress as well as progress due to emotional, psychological, sociological (and other) factors.
  2. National curriculum levels and sub-levels are intended as summative, end of Key Stage assessments.
  3. Not all students progress at the same rate.

Yet, in all of the schools I’ve worked in during my teaching career, we’ve done the following:

  • Used National Curriculum level descriptors on a half-termly (or even a weekly) basis.
  • Set students targets based on the number of National Curriculum sub-levels an ‘average student’ will get through during a Key Stage.
  • Make few allowances as to the reasons why students’ attainment might fluctuate.
  • ‘Level’ as much work as possible when we know that doing so destroys any impact formative comments may have.

Using data systems based on numbers for assessment purposes looks impressive, gives control to senior leaders and produces pretty graphs and reports for parents. But is it useful to students? I’d argue that it’s not. Students become hung up on progressing through National Curriculum levels that aren’t always coherent and meaningful. It’s also very easy for Heads of Department to artificially inflate the National Curriculum levels of students whom they’d like to take their subject at GCSE. After all, if you’re a Year 9 student and you’re on a Level 6b in Geography and a 5c in History, which one are you going to take?

The reason for my inclusion of that particular Dilbert cartoon at the top of this post is that I reckon most UK teachers couldn’t differentiate between a Level 4b and 4a in their subject. In fact, the distinction’s pretty meaningless. I’ve seen some schools use the sub-levels as following:

  • Level 4c – some work at Level 4 standard
  • Level 4b – most work at Level 4 standard
  • Level 4a – all work at Level 4 standard

In that case, why use the sub-levels in the first place? :-s

It’s my belief that Assessment for Learning, that buzz-phrase from a couple of years ago, has been hijacked and contorted into something it’s not. I’m certainly not arguing against students knowing where they’re at in a subject and how to improve. It’s just that using National Curriculum levels as a means for doing this smacks of laziness to me. Instead, professional teachers should be able to convey the key skills, processes and subject knowledge students need to be able to progress. That’s just good teaching.

If the above has left you feeling the need to brush up on your knowledge of assessment, you might want to read Beyond the Black Box and/or view the TeachersTV videos on the subject.

What are YOUR views on assessment? :-p

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My way or the highway.

As I posted recently, although I’ve just begun my fifth year of teaching, last year’s GCSE results were my first set. They were rather disappointing and it made me question my methods somewhat. Back in the classroom with pupils today for the first time this academic year, however, has made me stick to my guns.

As Limp Bizkit famously sang (rapped/said/roared?):

I’m ‘a do things my way
It’s my way
My way, or the highway

That is to say that whilst I’m obviously going to try some of the modifications detailed in the aforementioned blog post, my fundamental teaching style and blended learning approach isn’t going to change; I’m still going to be introducing my students to educational technology new and old that I think will aid their learning. Thankfully, although there’s obviously analysis to do of my results and those of the department, my teaching methods haven’t been questioned at all.

It’s difficult. As the main earner for my family I have a responsibilty to my wife and son to make sure they can live in the manner to which they are accustomed. But I also have guiding principles. It’s easy to let the latter fall by the wayside in the face of adversity or pressure. Thankfully, the only pressure I’ve felt has been self-exerted. Reading the following passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s essay Self-Reliance helped greatly:

Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it. Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? Every great man is a unique. The Scipionism of Scipio is precisely that part he could not borrow. Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.

I’m not, of course, comparing myself to these luminaries, but I found this particular passage very inspiring in the last few days. It’s eased some of the self-imposed pressure to focus narrowly and exclusively on results. 🙂

(Image credit: Ruta 12 by *L*u*z*a* @ Flickr)

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Class spreadsheet for teachers

It’s a well-documented fact that I don’t like working with paper. Consequently, I track student attendance, homework and grades via spreadsheets. This year, instead of using Microsoft Excel, I’m using Numbers which comes with iWork ’08 for Mac OSX. Numbers has a pre-configured (US-centric) spreadsheet for educators. I’ve played about with it a bit to make it more relevant… 🙂

I’ve set up the spreadsheet in the following way:

Title

The name of the class/set you teach.

Attendance

This is like a standard gradebook – use /, O or L to indicate Present, Absent or Late.

Homework

Colour-coordinated using conditional formatting. Entering Y, N or L (i.e. Yes, No or Late) makes cells change colour to green, red or yellow respectively.

Assessment

This is entered as a percentage, with less than 60% highlighted in red. Graphs give at-a-glance indication of class performance.

You can download the spreadsheet here:

Class spreadsheet for teachers

(ZIP, 104kb – please note that this will not work in Microsoft Excel!)

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5 ways my teaching will change because of today’s GCSE results.

Despite having now completed my fourth year as a teacher, today’s GCSE results were my first batch. Unfortunately, they weren’t great. In fact, they were rather embarrassing. 😮

I could list many reasons why my two Year 11 History classes didn’t do as well as they were predicted – or as well in History as they did in other subjects. But I’m not a whinger. Instead, here’s the ways I’m going to prevent the same thing happening again:

1. Spend some time ‘off the bandwagon’ before implementation

I was guilty of using my GCSE class as guinea pigs; we tried a whole host of Web 2.0-related stuff. I should have focused on stuff I knew inside-out instead of being intent on being an early adopter. There needs to be a sound pedagogical reason for using a tool, rather than just finding it ‘cool’.

In every other sphere of my life I try not to be an early adopter. For example, I usually wait for the second revision of products, for others to work out the quirks and foibles. Perhaps I need to do that more when teaching, too.

2. Treat students as teenagers, not adults

I tend to have a fairly laid-back approach in the classroom. I’m interested in stories and tend to go off at tangents. I assume that students have an interest in doing well and so perhaps I wasn’t strict enough with those who didn’t hand in practice exam questions during the revision period. I’m fairly certain it was those students who just missed out on C grades…

3. Get parents more involved

In my first, less successful school, I phoned home often – and not just to ask parents to discipline their children. I’d phone home and let parents know how fantastically their child was doing in my lesson. Cue extra effort in my lessons. I haven’t done that nearly as much at my current school.

Parents obviously have a massive influence on the life of young people and help shape their values and beliefs. I need to call on the power they hold a lot more often than I do now.

4. Be more positive

I smile a lot. In fact, people comment on it. But there’s more to being positive than just appearing happy. I know that I’m overly sarcastic and can take the mick a bit too much. I just find it hard to big people up in a non-sarcastic way. Too much Monty Python and Eddie Izzard, perhaps.

I’m going to make a conscious effort to, as John Johnston commented on a previous post, adhere to a policy of ‘unconditional positive regard’ within my classroom.

5. Feel less guilty about detentions for not doing homework

I don’t like homework set for the sake of it. I’m fine with project work done at home and students doing extra research out of interest, but homework for the sake of just trying to get knowledge into heads seems to me a waste of time in this day and age.

But when students get to GCSE level unfortunately they have to fill their heads full of some knowledge that they’ll probably only ever use for the exam. In this scenario, then, I’m going to feel a lot less guilty about insisting they complete knowledge-based homework.

What lessons have YOU learned recently?

And finally, just to make me feel better: “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth learning can be taught.” (Oscar Wilde) – also read this. Thanks goes to @theokk for both. 🙂

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