For one of my other LLED block classes this semester I am conducting an inquiry project about assessment in the high school English classroom. My initial interest in this topic was sparked when I was a sophomore in high school and my Honors English teacher evaluated us solely on multiple-choice and true/false exams. This frustrated me and I felt like I was never once asked to demonstrate my knowledge about complex concepts or my writing progress. The class overall seemed very trivial and focused on insignificant details about the books that we read. I still to this day remember that class as a waste of time and a missed opportunity to learn.
Now that I am a future English teacher, I have begun to take a greater interest in assessment in English classes. I want to ensure that I send my students the message that I care about deeper, more complex concepts, the process of writing, and the love of reading. I don’t want them to leave my class only feeling like we talked about character names, dates, and plots. Yet, I do want to ensure that I hold them accountable, offer them regular feedback, and effectively assess their learning. For the reasons I have discussed, I am not a fan of multiple-choice or true/false tests, or really tests in general. I am interested in finding alternative forms of assessment, like portfolios, journals, conferences, class participation, and group work.
With all of this in mind, I set out on my inquiry project with the hopes of discovery the best ways to assess high school English students.
I posted a question on one of my favorite sites, the English Companion Ning: “I’m an English Ed major working on a project about assessment in the high school English classroom, and trying to determine how I want to assess my future students. I don’t like multiple choice or true/false tests, and I’m not a big fan of tests in general. What are some other forms of assessment that you have found effective? I’m thinking about portfolios and journals, but am looking for more ideas.”
So far I have received 15 replies to this question, which was very helpful. Check out the discussion here: http://englishcompanion.ning.com/forum/topics/assessment-3
Here’s a summary of what people had to say:
The responses I received from this question were many and varied. Two teachers replied that they do use multiple choice/fill-in-the-blank/true/false tests because they are quicker and easier to grade. Yet, several other teachers argued that these types of tests are just about recall and we should not use them just because they are easier for us. Instead, we should do what is best for our students. One woman wrote that she always asks herself: “How will the student grow from this assessment?” She advises centering assessment on benefitting the students. Another teacher wrote about some problems of the typical English exam: “These types of questions assess knowledge and comprehension. And they reduce higher level thinking to simple choices (which of these sentences is punctuated correctly?) when in reality no one actually thinks this way. We don’t write a sentence three different ways and then select the correctly punctuated one; we just write. We examine the punctuation later, in the editing stage.” While there were advocates both for and against multiple choice and true/false exams, the majority sided against them.
Many teachers offered alternative forms of assessment. One woman suggested using student-teacher conferences to discuss papers and overall class progress. Many recommended in-class writing journals, although they warned that they take a long time to read and grade. To combat this problem, several people suggested grading journals on completion, which will not only take less time, but will emphasize what some see as the objective of journals: engaging students in frequent writing. It was suggested that journals should be used to get students writing often and not be graded on mechanics. You can then assign students one or two larger pieces of writing to submit for grades, after revising, editing, and peer-reviewing.
Several teachers suggested using class participation and projects as a means of assessment. Students can present group projects to the class, such as skits, posters, and power-points. Students can recite monologues and engage in dramatic re-enactments. Points can be awarded for participation in group and whole-class discussions. Students can compile portfolios for each unit. One person gave the example of a poetry portfolio after a poetry unit, in which students could include poems that they have written, reflections and interpretations of poetry, and visual representations of poems. As one woman put it, the possibilities with projects and class participation are endless.
While there were many different ideas, one thing that most people shared was the need for rubrics. They agreed that it is essential to create solid rubrics for every assignment so that your students are completely clear of the objectives and requirements.
My question on the English Companion Ning raised many ideas and suggestions for assessment in the classroom. After reading each response, I realized that there may not be one right way to assess, but that there can be many approaches.
In addition to posting the question on the Ning, I conducted some research and found several articles that discuss assessment. Here’s a summary of what I found:
In the article “Teaching English: Portfolio Evaluation” Stephen A. Bernhardt, author of the piece, writes: “Writing is a skill or a practice that is evidenced over a range of situations involving various purposes, audiences, and genres. We simply cannot gauge a student’s ability with a single sit-down test” (Bernhardt). He argues that assessment solely through tests contradicts what we try to teach in English classes. If we teach them the importance of writing as a process, revising, editing, and peer-reviewing, why would we ever then evaluate them on a timed, in-class test essay? As an alternative to this, he recommends using portfolios, which include different types of writing that students have worked on throughout the year. Portfolios can be compiled in many different ways; they can include all of the student’s work throughout the year or only a few select pieces; they can include only final papers or notes, outlines, and rough drafts as well. Portfolios can be adapted to fit any classroom and subject as needed and as is appropriate (Bernhardt).
This article also discusses the benefits of portfolios: students develop as part of a community, the importance of the process and revision is emphasized, and students gain more control over their writing and learning. There are drawbacks to portfolios too, however. They generate large amounts of writing for teachers to read and grade, and can cause stress and a lack of feedback for students if the portfolio is not submitted until the end of the year (Bernhardt). To combat this problem, teachers can have students submit portfolios for each unit and then compile each of those into one final portfolio at the end of the year.
Link to “Teaching English: Portfolio Evaluation”: http://proquest.umi.com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/pqdweb?index=4&did=5219601&SrchMode=2&sid=2&Fmt=6&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1269560965&clientId=9874
According to the article “Assessment Models Worth Sharing” by Kathleen Blake Yancey, the government recently allowed several Elementary schools to use portfolios as assessment instead of standardized tests. Teachers have to compile completed assignments that demonstrate how well students meet grade-level standards and work with struggling students to help them reach proficiency. On average, student literacy scores increased in schools using portfolio assessment (Yancey).
Link to “Assessment Models Worth Sharing”: http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/CC/0182-nov08/CC0182PresComm.pdf
Portfolios assess students on their long-term work and progress, rather than their ability to recall information or write on the spot. They allow students to demonstrate their revision abilities, which emphasizes the importance of writing as a process. They evaluate student learning and growth more accurately and effectively than tests. While they are effective assessment tools, there are other forms of evaluation that teachers can use in addition to portfolios.
The NCTE article “Formative Assessment: Helping Students Grow” by Deb Aronson discusses the benefits of formative assessment opposed to summative. Formative assessment is low-stakes evaluation during a unit in order to daily check for student understanding. Summative assessment is high-stakes test at the end of a unit or year. Aronson writes: “NCTE supports formative assessment as the most valuable classroom tool for evaluating student learning in time to adjust teaching to meet student needs” (Aronson). Yet, Aronson acknowledges that summative assessments still have their place and are not altogether bad. She cites an example of a language arts teacher who assigns his students a five-minute speech as a summative assessment, but works with them on their brainstorming, outlines, research, and preparation along the way as formative assessment. Through formative assessment, teachers can ensure that students understand the material before they fail the exam and it’s too late.
Formative assessment also enables students to demonstrate their understanding of more complex concepts. It emphasizes the importance of more over-arching themes and evaluates their understanding on a deeper level than multiple-choice tests (Aronson). Examples of formative assessment include student-teacher conferences, reading logs, class discussions, free-writes, journals, and quizzes. Diane Mulligan gives examples of alternative assessments in her article “Beyond Reading Check Quizzes.” She suggests using one-paragraph reader responses to check for reading rather than quizzes, keeping reading response journals, and award points for class participation (Mulligan). Teachers can assess student learning along the way and offer feedback through these and other similar methods. Aronson summarize the benefits of formative assessment when she writes, “Formative assessments are particularly valuable for measuring how students are progressing toward learning goals because the results of the assessment give both the teacher and the student immediate feedback on what to do next” (Aronson). These practices can be implemented into the classroom in addition to or as alternatives to exams.
Link to “Beyond Reading Check Quizzes”: http://highschool.suite101.com/article.cfm/dont_make_them_prove_it
Link to “Formative Assessment: Helping Students Grow”: http://www.ncte.org/magazine/archives/126802
When discussing assessment, the question arises: what is the ultimate purpose of assessment? If your goal is merely to make sure students learn characters and details of a novel, then fill in the blank tests are suitable. If you want to ensure they can choose the proper use of an apostrophe out of a list, go ahead and use multiple-choice. But if you really want your students to understand complex concepts, to grow as writers, and to learn to love reading, alternate forms of assessment are more successful in reaching those goals. Diane Mulligan addresses when she writes: “The teacher must assess students and make sure they do their work, but the nature of her assessments sends the message to the students that they aren’t smart enough to read and understand literature, so they should either give up or seek answers outside the texts” (Mulligan).
Alternatives to traditional tests:
*Multiple-choice, true/false, and fill-in-the-blank tests are not completely evil. If used thoughtfully and appropriately, it is possible to make them effective. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how to do that.
After conducting this inquiry project, I feel much more equipped with assessment options for my future classes. I know that I still have a lot of learning to do, but I know that I have many ideas and alternatives to incorporate into my plans.
Any feedback or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!