Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Assessment in Perspective: Stenhouse Blog Tour

With a new curriculum in language arts for reading and writing, as well as a new math, science and social studies, I've been doing a lot of rethinking about assessment.  I was excited to be invited to join the Stenhouse blog tour for Assessment in Perspective:  Focusing on the Reader Behind the Number, a new book by Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan (find more from Clare and Tammy at Choice Literacy).  As I started to read I realized I was beyond excited as the book gave me so much to think about.  I honestly wish it wasn't May as my time is too limited to try all the new things I am thinking about in my classroom.

Today Tammy and Clare are stopping by Reflect and Refine to answer a few questions about assessment.  Take time to enjoy our conversation, and then click over to take a look at their new work (leave a comment here - and at any of the other tour stops - to have a chance to win a copy of Assessment in Perspective).  You can preview Clare and Tammy's book at the Stenhouse website.  You'll want to add it to your summer reading pile.

Cathy:  I noticed throughout the book you both talked more about the questions you formulated with assessment data than the answers you found in assessment data.  Can you talk a little more about this?  

Clare and Tammy:  When we ask a question we are propelled to act.  We want assessment to be about how we use the information to target our instruction by continually analyzing, questioning, and assessing as we instruct.  No “answer” in education is the final answer; any answer should always propel us to ask the next question about how to help our learners take the next step.  We don’t think the cycle ever ends and it is the questions that keep us in the cycle.  When we have an inquiry stance around data then we begin to notice more as teachers.  We question, notice, and assess throughout our instruction.  It is our questions and observations that allow us to use the information we have about our students to triangulate and piece it together to understand what our readers need instructionally.

Cathy:  You talk a lot in your book about the importance of combining formal data collected with observations of students in our classrooms.  What is essential in collecting strong observational data to consider in discovering the stories of our readers? 

Clare and Tammy:  First, it is essential to view assessment as a part of instruction.  We need to take the time to notice and observe our students in the process of learning.  Assessment should not be about proving that students know everything.  Assessment needs to be the vehicle to help us find opportunities to instruct our readers in what they need to learn next.  When our students are constructing new knowledge there should be some confusions.  These confusions are not failures but stepping-stones to their next level of understanding.  This can only happen if we notice what students are doing and use that information.  

Once we begin observing and noticing we need systems to collect this data.  These systems need to be easy, useful and embedded in our instruction.  These observations need to happen in the moments of our teaching.  We spent many years creating beautiful conferring binders and never used them.  We wrote notes, but never used the notes to find patterns to help us inform instruction.  We have learned over the years that we need to make our notes useful to us through the use of displays and note taking strategies.  We can’t fall into the trap of only collecting formative data – we must use it if we are going to discover the stories of our readers.

Lastly, we find that having a focus for our observations – an instructional goal or a student goal – helps us collect stronger observational data.  When we observe with a purpose in mind we tend to take notes in a more meaningful way and use the notes more effectively.

Cathy:  One of my favorite parts of chapter 4, "Triangulating Assessments," was your discussion about visual displays that help us to understand the information we've collected.  In chapter 6, "The Student's Role in Assessment," you come back to this conversation.  What are some ways you've seen students create and use displays to help them to understand their learning?  

Clare and Tammy:  We have seen as many ways as we have students.  Using displays to monitor progress works best when students are in control of creating the displays.  While we may not always agree at first with the goals they set or how they design the displays, this is not as important as getting them engaged in the process.  Once they are setting goals and monitoring goals it is easy to shift the goals towards the expectations we want to see for each reader.  We often model a few displays so our students have an idea of what we are looking for them to create.  We use book logs as one common type of display.  So many students are “collecting” data in their logs but not using the data or collecting the data in a way that helps them achieve a goal.  We talk with our students about setting goals for themselves as readers and then creating a log that will help them track their goals.  This is often our first step.  Once they see this then we meet with each student during our conferences and help him or her set additional goals.  Here are some common student displays we have seen work well:
  • Tracking the use of a strategy they are trying to use more effectively through a strategy inventory
  • Using a display to track when they tended to write in their notebooks and how it helped them as a reader
  • Tracking the number of minutes engaged in reading
  • Tracking how many minutes a book group engages in meaningful conversation
  • Noticing how often they self correct
  • Noticing when they are metacognitively thinking while they are reading
  • Being prepared for weekly assignments in their notebooks
  • Being prepared for weekly assignments for their book club

Cathy:  In classrooms today it seems we spend more and more time assessing.  What is important to consider in time assessing vs. time instructing?  

Clare and Tammy:  We first need to consider the type of assessment. Formal assessments often take away time from instruction so we try to limit how often we administer them.  We limit them by really thinking about how often we need this type of data on our students.  We only want to assess the students for whom we need to gather additional formal data.  Fair is not equal when it comes to assessment.  Our at-risk readers need more diagnostic assessments that help us pinpoint what they need and monitor their progress.  Other readers do not need the myriad of assessments we are giving.  In the ideal world we should use assessments that provide us insight into how our readers authentically use strategies to decode and comprehend texts.  When this happens then it is time well spent since we need the information we are gathering.  If we are talking about informal assessments then we think assessment and instruction are inseparable and we should not be losing any time.  When we assess as we teach we gather data so we can adjust our teaching in the moment as well as plan to adjust future lessons.  

If we have to give more formal assessments than we would ideally like due to district or state requirements, then we make the most of what we are required to work with.  We are sure to explain why we are giving the formal assessment to our students and remain clear with ourselves about what type of information we are going to look for in each round of assessments.  

Cathy:  Often what we assess becomes what we teach.  How do we advocate for assessments that match what we value in educating children?  

Clare and Tammy:  When we authentically assess every day we think it is the opposite – what we teach is what we assess which informs what we need to teach next.  We recognize that districts are mandating the use of some common assessments, but that does take away from how we assess every day.  We have the power to assess as part of our instruction and to notice how our students are learning.  When we use these assessments and show how they help us target our instruction we are advocating for assessments that match what we value.  If we lose sight of what we do have the power to impact in assessment because we are frustrated with what we do not have the power to control in assessment we end up giving up the best tools we have to inform our instruction – on-going, informal, formative assessment.

In terms of advocating for common assessments that are more useful to us we suggest working as a school to determine why each assessment is being used.  We find it helpful to determine the purpose of each assessment and the area of reading it targets.  We also suggest looking at the common assessment plan to make sure there is a range of types of assessments: diagnostic, formative, and summative; quantitative and qualitative; and formal and informal.  When we find areas for which we have too many assessments – we weed the garden!  If we find areas for which we do not have any assessments – we add one. Knowing why we are giving an assessment helps us know how we can use it and how we cannot use it.  Screeners are a great example of the importance of understanding the purpose of an assessment. Screeners are not meant to inform our instruction, they are just meant to raise a flag of concern.  If there are students who are flagged then we know that we need to gather more data to truly understand or diagnose the needs of the student. A one minute assessment cannot help us inform instruction it just tells us to look  more closely at why a reader may have not met benchmark.

Thanks to Tammy and Clare for stopping by Reflect and Refine.  I look forward to future conversations about this professional book.  

Other Tour Stops:
A Year of Reading:  May 20
Our Camp Read-a-Lot:  May 21st
Stenhouse Blog:  May 24th

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Assessment Transformations: Going Digital

How do you document the learning happening in your classroom each day?  How do you capture the stories of the readers, writers, scientists, mathematicians, you sit beside as you confer in your workshops?  Finding workable systems for capturing, reflecting, and utilizing information to plan instruction is essential in classrooms with a variety of types of learners.  As Donalyn Miller recently reminded us in her Columbus visit to the Literacy Connection, "The best record keeping systems we can put in place are those we can maintain."  Can I get a big AMEN?

Assessment in Perspective:  Using Displays 
I just finished reading Assessment in Perspective:  Focusing on the Reader Behind the Numbers (stop by the final Stenhouse blog tour site:  Reflect and Refine on Wednesday, May 22nd for a conversation with the authors, Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan).  The book provided a smart discussion of types of assessments, purpose for assessment, and practical ways to capture the stories of readers within the busy days of learning in our classrooms.  The authors shared ways to balance summative assessments required by districts, states, and federal mandates, with the formative assessments we value in our daily work with children.

I found the book to be very applicable to classroom practice, but I must admit when I first saw the title for chapter 4, Triangulating Assessment, I felt my heart race and tension begin to rise within me.  However, when I went to read this chapter I found it not to be about looking at three types of formal assessments and averaging the numbers to make an instructional decision.  Instead, the authors talked about formulating our questions about readers, determining the ways to find out more (making assessment decisions), and then gathering a variety of information to begin to shape the stories of learners.  In this conversation they shared ways to display the information in order to think more deeply about it.

For the authors, triangulating assessment is about "analyzing, questioning, and assessing."  It's about asking big questions and finding what's next for learners.  In talking about using displays, Tammy and Clare shared bar graphs, stem-and-leaf graphs, data walls, line graphs, conferring notes, "messy sheets," picture graphs and other ways we can display information to begin to make instructional decisions.  I loved the way they showed examples that easily work within our day to day classroom practices and the conversations we have about the learners in our classrooms with our instructional teams.  Putting a name to many of the assessment techniques we use helped me to think about them more deeply.

Capturing the Stories of Learners 
This conversation also caused me to pause to consider the way collecting assessment information in my classroom as transformed since I have moved from a notebook to my iPad.  It's been a little more than a year since I packed my paper notebook away and went digital.  The transformation has been freeing and helped me to be so much more effective.  Here are a few "must haves" for finding the stories of learners in my classroom:

Evernote!:  Evernote has set me free.  It is the number one application I want to use for assessment as it allows me to flexibly gather information about learners.  I can take pictures of student work, record conversations, write notes, link to student digital writing, and tag it all in ways to easily group and locate it for reflection and planning.  It has really helped organize all the little pieces of information I collect to tell the stories of the children in my classroom.  It's easy to get started and use.  Here's a page I created to collect resources for Evernote.

Google Forms:  Evernote is perfect for collecting individual information.  Google forms is perfect for collecting group information.  With Google Forms I can create forms to collect, sort, and reflect on information collected in more formal assessments (in our district the Fountas and Pinnell Reading Assessments, Developmental Spelling Assessments, and Developmental Math Assessments are among some of the formal assessments I like to be able to work flexibly with information collected) and in informal conversations across our day (by determining key understandings  students need to have about a particular topic of study and turning them into a form to use as I work alongside students).  Google Forms allows me to create checklists, multiple choice response, short text information, paragraph information and much more.  I can then view as a form to quickly record or as a spreadsheet to use the information to plan whole class, small group, and individual instruction.  Linking the form to Evernote allows me to quickly access within Evernote and snapping a screenshot of completed spreadsheets allows me to add these documents within Evernote for greater organization.

Ghostwriter:  Ghostwriter, part of the Evernote trunk, is one of the newer applications I've added to my list (thanks, Marie!).  I like Ghostwriter because it allows me to collect information about individuals (perfect for intervention plans), small groups, or the entire class.  I can create a form or table to collect information, snap a picture of it, and make it the "paper" for a notebook.  Then I am able to type or write directly on the document.  Every day I can turn the page to get a new piece of paper already dated and can easily send this information to Evernote, parents, or team members.  Ghostwriter has its glitches, but they are well worth it.  I'm sure it will continue to improve.

These are a few of my "must haves" for going digital in capturing the stories of learners within my classroom.  What are your favorites?  I'd love to hear more.