“It sounds like a nice version of ‘test,’ which I hate.”

Or, what my students told me about assessments.

DSC_0117 flickr photo by glen.dahlman shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I’ve come to think of each school year as a horse. We start out all gangly, stumbling around and crashing into things. Later, we’ll grow stronger and more confident, trotting around the yard. By May, we’ll be champions, running alongside the best. At the moment, though, it’s hard to see past all that stumbling. Significant late August flooding in Wisconsin led to the unprecedented decision to delay the start of our school year by a full week. Thus, as I write this, we are still getting to know our new students, administering baseline assessments, and just generally trying to find our footing.

All of this to say, I don’t have much data yet from my students. So, I asked them to share their thoughts about assessment with me instead. During the second week of school, I sent them an anonymous survey with four simple questions:

Plus, a space for any other comments about assessment that they might have. Because I hoped their responses would be as honest as possible, I provided no other context beyond the explanation that it would help improve our assessment practices. It was no surprise that they had plenty to say. (I’ve sprinkled their thoughts and feelings about assessment as pull-quotes throughout this piece.)

“I get nervous or scared.”

Ex-scientist that I am, the first thing I did with my results was code students’ responses to questions 3. and 4. as broadly negative (0), neutral (1), or positive (2). Averaged across 30 submissions, the rubric rated 0.73, while the reflection rated 1.23. In plain English, the rubric elicits broadly negative opinions while the reflection elicits broadly positive ones. These back-of-the-envelope calculations support my assumption that our reflection is more meaningful and relevant to students than the rubric.

“I feel sort of annoyed and I prepare myself to be bored.”

Things got more interesting when I focused on individual responses about the rubric, where students shared (mostly) constructive criticism on the two forms of project assessment. Some were very similar to my own critiques: “I would make it shorter because its [sic] scary long.” and “I feel like it is a little too long if we do this for every project because we talk about a lot of these in our final reflections.” Others brought interesting alternatives to the table: “I would allow room for students to add there [sic] own questions on it.” And one student hit on exactly the idea I expressed in my action research brainstorming this summer: “I might even completely get rid of it since we already have to do reflections, so why don’t we just combine the two so it is less work and more organized.”

“The first word that comes to mind is ‘stress’.”

My students have a knack for forthrightness that is both illuminating and (occasionally) embarrassing. In this survey, that tendency manifested in a string of responses from students who clearly thought that there had been changes to these assessments from last year. Despite that not being the case, and despite both document titles starting with “2017–18”. My veteran students, who used these assessments throughout the last school year, could not recognize the same documents just a few months later. Perhaps most damningly, one student wrote this about the rubric: “I wonder why we have to do this (I forgot why)”. Ouch.

“It has been ingrained into my brain that I should dread assessment.”

Well, then. It sure doesn’t seem like our current forms of project assessment are relevant or functional to students, does it? Even worse, one student referred to an aspect of the reflection guide that even I didn’t remember being there. I truly had no idea what this student was referring to until I went back and reviewed the document, and I wrote it! This exercise isn’t exactly painting a portrait of mindful assessment at my school.

“I believe assessment is important because it identifies specific areas that you need more work in or are up to standard.”

So, what’s next? My suspicions about how well our standard rubric-based assessments are working — or, more accurately, are not working — in our classroom have been confirmed. I know that they need to be replaced, but I don’t yet know how. This calls for some research. I’d like to get a better idea for what the research on rubrics shows, what radical ideas are out there, and what might be most relevant for students. It’s time to get this horse to water and have ourselves a drink.

GMWP: Greater Madison Writing Project

Teacher as Artist, Teacher as Researcher, Teacher as…

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