I wrote last about a High School graduation speech that outlined a lot of the problems with the current educational system in America. There were some very great comments and there is a whole lot more about the state of public schools that I want to say, since I have a few thoughts on the subject. One area that I want to focus on now is the idea of tests and assessments.
When people think about school, especially public schools, their first thought is usually of long, boring test that they had to pass, or be considered a failure. This is especially true in recent years with such a national push toward standardized testing as mandated by NCLB (No Child Left Behind). Tests are important, tests are even necessary in the classroom, but I feel like we have too much of an emphasis on tests. We care too much about the results of standardized tests and put too much pressure on students to perform well that we miss the point or the purpose of tests.
1. “Tests, uh, What are They Good For?”
Tests do serve a very necessary purpose. I am not advocating getting rid of tests completely, but we need to reevaluate our reasons for giving tests and what we want to accomplish with tests. Tests, or assessments, exist so that the teacher and the administration can see what exactly a student is learning. There needs to be some sort of follow up, or students could just sit in class staring out the window (like they don’t do that anyway) and get credit for being there. Teachers teach lessons, they have lesson plans and objectives, learning outcomes. There is a reason why teachers teach. They want students to learn certain stuff, the curriculum. If we don’t assess students, in some way, we have no way of knowing if they are learning what we are teaching, we don’t know if they are achieving the desired learning outcomes.
That needs to be our mentality when creating tests and assessments, though. We need to focus on what we really want students to be learning and test them on those aspects, not rote memorization skills, unless, perhaps, we are in a drama class where memorization is important. And our assessments need to focus on what we want students to know. We shouldn’t write massive multiple choice tests that ask what specific date this occurred. If I were a history teacher, I wouldn’t care if students knew the specific dates, but the relative dates. They need to know what events happened before other events, led to other events, but the exact time and day is not so necessary. As a German teacher, I don’t really care if students can repeat back to me all of the grammar rules, I care that they can use them to communicate. So, when I teach I want to focus on creating assessments that allow students to demonstrate their mastery of the German language. Some of that needs to be written, some of it needs to be oral, some of that also needs to be listening comprehension.
2. My Bright Idea
I have put a lot of thought into evaluation and tests and how I want to handle this in my own classroom someday. After talking to several teachers and reading a lot about it online and putting together my own thoughts, I think I have a solution. I mean, I have a plan, something I want to do, but having never actually implemented it in a classroom, I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to work.
I want to have quizzes every Thursday. Simple, 5-10 minute quizzes as a quick review of what we have learned in the past week. The format of these quizzes will vary as needed to properly assess what we have discussed. Sometimes it might be a fill-in-the-blank, short answer quiz, sometimes it might be listen to or watch this short clip and answer the question, it may be as simple as write five sentences about what you did yesterday. Something so that they can show me what they know about using the German language. And by having them every Thursday, students know they are coming, they will expect them and be prepared, and they won’t be as stressed out by the quizzes. Each individual quiz won’t be worth very many points of their overall grade, because there are so many, so students don’t need to worry about doing poorly on one of the quizzes.
Also, every fourth quiz will be replaced by a test: a longer assessment, a combination of several assessment techniques, covering material of the previous month. Again, with this regularity, students will be prepared and know what to expect.
Here’s the kicker. The purpose of a German classroom is to communicate in German. To learn how to understand and speak in German, to read and write, and to understand culture. That’s what I care about. I don’t care so much when a student has learned this, just that they learn it eventually. So, if a student does poorly on a quiz about a particular point of the language, but they demonstrate on the test that they have learned and mastered that point of the language, I will go back to their quiz score and give them half of the points back that they missed. This way students who take a little longer to learn things are not unduly penalized.
I found myself in a similar situation in a math class in high school. I failed almost every quiz. Mostly, it was because I was lazy and didn’t want to do my homework, so I didn’t learn the principles by the time we had quizzes, but I had studied and learned by the time the test came around. I got As on every test. I understand that sometimes people do not understand principles, but then learn them later. That is great! I want to be able to encourage and reward my students for eventually being conversant in German, regardless of when they actually learned the principles. Sometimes it just takes a little more practice, and that’s okay.
The bottom line is we need to rethink the way we give tests and the way we evaluate tests. Go back to basics, figure out what you really want to test on and develop a test that lets you, as the teacher, know what students have learned. And not every test should be a written, True/False or Multiple Choice. There are so many different, better ways of evaluating what students are learning. In my AP Physics class we built a trebuchet. And by building it we demonstrated a knowledge of the physics involved with catapults. In one of my theatre classes our ‘final’ was the play that we had written and produced and performed. The assessment allowed the teacher to see just what students had understood from the class.