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“…but that’s not what I teach.”
That phrase was the conversation stopper of a recent discussion I was having with a teacher about assessing student learning. Somewhere along the way, because of new state rules about teacher evaluation and accountability, this teacher had changed the way she assesses her students so that she could get a clean, quantitative measure of what students were expected to learn in her class. And the conversation was difficult to have.
Her High School Art students, her excited and engaged High School Art students, had to take a reductive assessment that amounted to little more than definition regurgitation to prove that they had grown in knowledge over the course of their time with this teacher. The students’ pretest was an unknown list of vocabulary words and art terms that they did not know. The posttest was set to determine if they learned those words and terms. If they performed well on this written assessment, then the teacher would be found to be effective or highly effective in her teaching performance.
“…but that’s not what I teach.”
There’s a scene in the 5th Harry Potter film, The Order of the Phoenix, where the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge (who works for the Ministry of Magic–insert your own State or National Education Reform Commission metaphor here) refuses to teach practical magic. The students remind her that in each of their previous four years at the school there has been an authentic reason to know how to defend themselves with magic.
As long as you have studied the theory hard enough, there is no reason why any of you should not be able to perform the spells under a controlled examination.
Without ever practicing them?
I repeat, as long as you’ve studied the theory!
How does that help us in the real world?
This is school, not the real world.
The conversation with the HS Art teacher was heading in this same direction. She was describing a system that was trying to measure what was, perhaps, not worth learning; at least not worth learning in isolation. Surely the art terms had some worth contextually but were they the primary target of instruction? No.
During our conversation, I looked over at the window sill and saw this:
I walked over to the variety of mugs, in their final stages of drying, before being put into the kiln. The students had been working for weeks (keeping their mugs in plastic to prevent drying) on perfecting techniques to shape the mugs, the handles, the top lip, and the design of the outside. The teacher explained and demonstrated different techniques and students tried them out, creating their own works of art. Over several weeks and with feedback from the teacher, they came to a point where their work was “Kiln-Ready.” Once it goes into the kiln, it cannot be modified.
The conversation shifted.
“Here’s what you teach,” I said. “Here’s your assessment.”
“Oh, I know,” the teacher said, “this is my destination; this is what I’m driving the kids toward. But I also have to make sure I attack that vocabulary for the test. The actual product is too difficult to quantify how effective I may be.”
We talked more about using rubrics. We talked about elements of art critique and collaborative cycles of feedback. We talked about how the students and the teacher could collaboratively navigate degrees of quality so that a rubric could help students determine when their work was “Kiln-Ready.”
Is all of this reform we’re dealing with that great in theory? Is what we quantify in the classroom more important than what we qualify? Is doing what is easy more important than doing what is right? Because the reality is, at least in this classroom (and classrooms like it across our country), it isn’t practical. We don’t need more REform. We need more TRANSform. We need more NEW form.
We need more Kiln-Ready moments and less Umbridge-style interpretations of assessment. Also, we need to celebrate those teachers, like this one, who understand how important Kiln-Readiness is, in spite of a misguided and ill-informed accountability system.
So, it came down to one day, one test, at the Acropolis as the young men of Athens took out their #2 chisels to answer 30 questions on stone tablets. It is the annual timed test to prove the students’ knowledge and competence as they seek to become philosopher-kings. This valued test is the ultimate prize demonstrating not only the achievement of students, but also serves as the one key evaluation of the teacher.
Credit should be given to the test making company for developing multiple choice items with one correct answer given the challenging subject matter: philosophy and governance. Short answer constructed responses are a bit easier in those fields.
The results were been posted in the Agora for all to see the quality and performance of their teacher. Socrates failed. He simply spent too much time asking them to think. A walk- through evaluation by his supervisor (undisclosed), determined that “ sometimes Socrates’s students meander through endless dialogues examining challenging questions that do not have one right answer.” Hopefully, he will be replaced or perhaps go through an intensive summer professional development program in Sparta.
Heidi Hayes Jacobs
Cross posted to ASCD Edge
Are your students time-traveling on testing day? Back to the 1980’s- let’s go.
If your tests are overwhelmingly multiple choice, fill in the blank, short constructed essay, longer extended essay whether open book or open note, then welcome back to the old days. I did some archival research online and found tests and items that went back to the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and found that they are identical TYPES of assessment to present day assessments. In many instances, they are identical in content as well.
Not only are the types of tests the same, too often so are the tools. We continue to venerate the #2 pencil. I wonder, when the pencil was invented, did kids have to go to PENCIL-LAB?… Did they march down the hall to the lab, return to the classroom, pick up their quills, dip them in an inkwell and proceed back to “work”?
Is there hope? Yes, I am reminded of the state of Rhode Island’s policy of graduation by proficiency with a student developed digitalized portfolio beginning with the primary grades through to graduation. I would direct readers to the CCSSO EdSteps project with a remarkable new way to collect a national pool of student work. Authentic dynamic assessments are emerging in pockets and in classrooms around the country. Let’s surface them prominently and especially those that are geared toward 2020. Curriculum 21 calls for upgrading on all levels- one replacement at a time. Are our student assessments reflecting moderns forms of media and contemporary issues? Some argue that new forms diminish the traditional skills, I disagree. If our students are engaged then we will see better quality basics. We can and must show reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills- whether in a web 2.0 application or creating a documentary. If a student cannot read, he or she cannot read a computer screen. The great fundamentals of the past need to be lifted into 2011.
On our C-21 Clearinghouse at the Curriculum 21 website we have posted open access tagged interactive tools for educators to try new approaches to engage their learners. We see this also as opportunity to update assessment practice as well. (For example, Take a look at gapminder and see how you might use it to engage your students in meeting an array of standards.) We are beginning a new project with ASCD on collecting upgraded projects from teachers around the world to share and to inspire us all moving forward. We will keep you posted on this one!
We need to choose our century. The students have chosen theirs.