The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Posts tagged “Testing

Cooperation, Collaboration, and Assessment

For many years now, schools have been making a concerted effort to increase the levels of cooperation and collaboration, both within the classroom among students and within the schools themselves among students. It seems strange to me, then, that we still assess students individually.

Think about it. Students spend most of the day working in groups, talking to one another, helping one another, supporting one another. They are taught to share knowledge and resources to find solutions to complex problems, to find creative paths to those solutions. The school day is literally filled with co-laboring, which is the root of the word collaborate.

Then, after they have spent all this time learning and designing and producing together, we sit them at individual desks with individual copies of an assessment and we tell them to show us what they know on their own. Is it any wonder that so many of our students who flourish working in groups (and I mean actually working together, not just copying the work of someone else) struggle when we give them an assessment and tell them it has be completed without any help from others?

There are so many other ways we could assess our students. Portfolio reviews, group assignments with individual contributions recorded, and whole-class discussions are some that I have used after seeing the research that goes into them. There are surely a multitude of other tools that we could use to determine whether or not our students know the material they have been taught and understand how to use the tools they have been given.

And yet we still default to the independent assessment. It is built into our DNA as educators, it has been enshrined in our practice, and it has been encoded in our laws.

A few nights ago I rewatched a favourite film of mine: Australia. There is a line shared a few times that I often come back to when I reflect on what we do in our classrooms and in our schools: It is this simple but profound statement: “Just because it is, doesn’t mean it should be.”

I often think about what schools would look like, sound like, feel like, be like if I could start from scratch with a team of highly-skilled teachers, staff, and leaders and recreate the education system from the ground up. We did it in our nation over a hundred years ago, back in 1893 when the Committee of Ten designed the system as we know it today. What would happen if a new Committee of Ten were commissioned and charged with redesigning the system with 21st century learning as the focus? What would we change? What would I change? Why?

These are some of the things that I think about. I don’t really have any answers yet. What do you think?


Adventures in Annual State Testing

Comprehensive summative assessment. End of year testing. High stakes testing. Annual state testing. ITBS. ISAT. ACT. SAT. PSAE. PARCC. The combination of alphabet soup names and education policy jargon all point to the same thing: it is that time of year when I put several things on hold so that my students can sit through hours of assessments meant to show, theoretically, how well I am teaching and how well they are learning.

Of course, the reality is that one test could not possibly demonstrate that. One test is not enough to tell anyone anything meaningful about a single individual or even a single class. However, that one test can give a picture of trends over time when looking at large data pools, such as every 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade student in over a dozen states.

All that being said, I actually find annual assessment of students valuable for what it does, but I definitely agree with many researchers that there are better ways to do it. This post, however, is not about the value or merits of annual high-stakes testing. At present, it is a part of my job as a fourth grade teacher and it is something I will do my best to help my students do their best by teaching them all I can to help them be successful.

Once we get in the testing environment, though, I am not allowed to do much more than say, “Just do your best!” That doesn’t mean that they don’t try getting help. Which is why the following scenarios have taken place over the past couple of days:

Teacher (in classroom): Remember, you will have 60 minutes to complete the unit, so take your time, check your work, and do your best! Once we go into the computer lab, I’ll have a script to read and then you will get started.
*class goes into computer lab*
Teacher (before test starts): You will have 60 minutes. I will tell you when you have 10 minutes remaining. You may begin.
*ten minutes later*
Student: Done!
Teacher: …

Student: I don’t know how to do this.
Teacher: I can’t help you; just do your best!
Student: But I need help!
Teacher: I can’t help you; just do your best!
Student: But I really don’t know what to do!
Teacher: I can’t help you; just do your best!
Student: Okay.
*five seconds later*
Student: I need help!
Teacher: …

Teacher: Do not hit “Exit Test” until I tell you to do so.
*three seconds later*
Student: Oops…
Teacher: …

Student: It won’t let me write my answer here!
Teacher: Read the directions again.
Student: Oh. I didn’t do that.
Teacher: …

What adventures await us tomorrow? Only time will tell!

Tests, Drills, and Alarms

Over the years, I have found myself reflecting on the nature of tests and what they are for. A common theme is that tests are a way to prepare for when the information, the skill, or the procedure is actually needed, when it is relevant. We have tests of the Emergency Alert System on the radio and television so that we will know what to do in the case of a real emergency. We have tests that we take before receiving certification or licensure so that we can demonstrate that we actually know what to do in the job or position. We test the severe weather sirens in this area on the first Tuesday of every month so that we are conditioned to know what to do when we hear the sound. We have fire drills in schools to get us ready for what to do in the case of an actual fire.

I have also found that my students often ask, when they hear an alarm go off, “Is this for real?” My response is always the same: “Yes, the alarm is really going off. It does not matter if there is an actual fire or not. What matters is that something has triggered the alarm and that means we need to immediately exit the building and wait for further instructions.”

Today we had a chance to put the practice into action. In the early afternoon, shortly after lunch and just as we were about to start our math lesson, I heard a buzzing coming from the hallway. I immediately recognised this as the fire alarm, as did all of my students. With little prompting, they quickly stood up, walked out the door, down the hall, exited the building, and walked down to the sidewalk. I grabbed my emergency attendance folder and made sure that all of my students were accounted for.

Then we waited.

It was cold and started to drizzle. But the alarms were still going off, and so we waited. The students were, for the most part, doing exactly what they should have been doing: they stayed closed, they huddled together to keep warm, and they waited.

We were finally given directions to go to one of the churches on the corner that serve as gathering places during emergencies. The students again knew exactly what to do and even made sure the three student teachers with us knew what to do, too. After getting to the church, they sat down and waited, grateful for the warmth. Once we were given the all clear, we returned to the building and took a couple of minutes to process what had happened.

I made sure that all of the students knew that they did exactly what they were supposed to do and understood that this is why we practice the way we do. The tests prepare them for when it is “for real,” but they only knew what to do because they took the tests seriously.

Next week we start PARCC testing in our building. It is just a test. It is not life or death. It won’t determine if they advance to the next grade, if they get into college, or what jobs they get. What it does do is help them think about what they know, what they don’t know, and what they need to know as they progress through school and become more active participants in our society.

Lofty ideas, for sure, but isn’t that what tests are all about, anyway?

So Much Going On

Wow. I know I have decreased my blogging frequency this year, but I just realised that it has been over two weeks since I last updated and that is pretty bad, even for me.


It has been a really busy two weeks. In addition to everything we have had going on in my classroom, I am in the final weeks of my master’s degree program (graduation is on May 14!) and I have been spending a lot of time after school working on collecting artifacts from my internship, writing reflections, and doing a massive online training module that is required for my principal’s endorsement. (Speaking of which, I am 99% certain I’ve mentioned this at least once in the past two years, but my master’s degree is going to be in educational administration and I will be receiving my principal’s endorsement so that I can one day move from the self-contained classroom to the principal’s office. I am not sure when that is actually going to happen, though.)

So, what has been keeping us so busy over the past two weeks? Here are a few highlights: (more…)

Reflections on Testing

Way back in my first year of teaching here at Wiley, I found myself reflecting on the curious wording the Emergency Alert Broadcast System that used to conduct regular tests. I remember hearing the distinctive tone sound over the radio or see the test pattern and tone on the television as I was growing up, always followed by this message:

“This has been a test. This has only been a test of the Emergency Alert System. In the case of an actual emergency, you would be directed to tune in to your local news agency. Again, this has been a test.”


My students are in the midst of their annual state-mandated standardised testing cycle. Illinois, along with 17 other states, has partnered with the the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College or Careers (PARCC) to develop an end-of-the-year standardised test that sees how well students have mastered the rigorous content standards known as the Common Core State Standards.

Now, right away I know that there were two terms in that previous paragraph that set off alarm bells for my some of readers: PARCC and Common Core. It should not be a surprise to any of my regular readers (all 22 of you according to the WordPress statistics) that I am not opposed to either. I understand and see the value in broad-scope standardised assessment that can be used at a macro level (district, state, nation) to give a snapshot of student achievement. I don’t support the high-stakes component of such testing that requires every student in every class in every designated grade to take the test or see the school subjected to penalties or fines. And I don’t particularly think that the standardised assessments as we give them are the best way to assess students. (In fact, I am much more in favour of dynamic measures that get increasingly complex as students demonstrate mastery so that I know where my students are actually at instead of, as is often the case, where they are not.)

And you will never find me speaking ill of rigourous standards for learning, such as the Common Core State Standards, even if I believe that they have some flaws. Finally, let me remind you that standards do not dictate curricula and curricula do not dictate how I teach; standards tell me where my students should be, curricula provide a roadmap for getting there, but, ultimately, I am the one who makes the instructional decisions in my classroom.

So, with all of that said, I’ve noticed three typical approaches from my students as we have started this testing cycle: some students want to rush through and just be done with it. Some take every second possible to respond then check and re-check their work. Most students are somewhere in the middle. Some students want to do well because they care deeply about always doing everything well. Some honestly don’t care. Most want to do well because they know it is what their parents and teachers want.

Here’s the thing, though: it is only a test. Or, more specifically, it is only test. One of the most common themes about testing I have heard in my school district since I started working here in 2011 is that we never define any of our students by one metric, one rubric, one test, one datum. We look at all of the data. We look at all of the students’ work. We look at students as a group and we look at their individual work. The Urbana School District #116 mission statement says, in part, that we will “ensure that all learners acquire knowledge, develop skills, and build character to achieve personal greatness.” I have been told that the last two words were coined by an Urbana High School student.

“Personal greatness.”

I don’t compare my students to each other. I don’t compare them to their siblings, older or younger. I don’t compare them to other students. I don’t compare them to their parents or other family members. I only compare them to themselves. I want to see each of my students achieve personal greatness by doing better tomorrow than they did yesterday. Each day a chance for learning, for improvement, for growth.

And the tests?

They are just tests. They just let me know where they are in that one small moment. The test scores help me plan instruction, they help me know how to help my students learn. They guide and inform, but they never define.

“This has been a test. This has only been a test of the Emergency Alert System. In the case of an actual emergency, you would be directed to tune in to your local news agency. Again, this has been a test.”

Kahooting Our Way Through the Revolution

For the past few weeks, my students have been learning all about the American Revolutionary War or the American War for Independence. Each day has featured a focus on a major player, major event, or major battle. The students have read articles, compared books, watched videos, and view multimedia presentations.

After laying the groundwork for why the Revolutionary War happened, I had hoped to cover the major battles in just one week, or five days. I know there are far more than just five “major” battles from the war, but I had hoped to get to a fun science unit this week, so I wanted to wrap up the war last week. (As it turned out, things took longer than expected and so the science unit will have to wait until after Spring Break.)

The five battles we looked at were: the Battles of Lexington & Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill (that actually took place on Breed’s Hill), the Battles of Trenton & Princeton,the Battle of Saratoga, and the Battle of Yorktown. In order to assess how well the students remembered the key facts, I chose to do quick reviews using Kahoot!. I’ve written about this online quizzing site a few times in the past (check here, here, and here), but this has been the first time I have consistently used the quizzes as part of my formal assessment of students’ learning. It has been a pretty cool experience!

I have borrowed from other teachers’ quizzes to have the foundation for mine in place but then edited them to match the information that was shared with students. I have found that the majority of my class retains their new knowledge but the quizzes have also helped me identify problem areas that need further review. Yesterday we looked at the Articles of Confederation and I thought the class had a firm understanding of the key points. But after taking the quiz, I quickly realised that we needed to spend more time on it. I found an interactive presentation on the Articles from the Colonial Williamsburg website and then we played the Kahoot! quiz again and this time the students did much, much better!

For those who may be interested, here are the links to the Revolutionary War quizzes I have used:

Lexington & Concord

Bunker Hill

Trenton & Princeton



Articles of Confederation

Tomorrow we are going to wrap up this unit by watching a movie about the Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia and then we will have a week off for Spring Break!

How have you used interactive technologies to reinforce or assess understanding?


It Is Just One Test

As the instructional technology specialist in my building, I have taken it upon myself to try out a lot of different online learning tools over the past few years. One of the tools that I have used most frequently has been Front Row. (And no, I have not told them I am writing this post nor have I asked them for any kind of compensation for it.) I have written about Front Row a handful of times in the past, discussing some of the different features that are available.

One feature that was not available on the free teacher edition has been the assessment tool. This allows teachers to select specific standards or all of the standards and administer an online test of student knowledge. Due to a special promotion, I was able to gain access to this special feature between now and the end of the school year, so I decided to try it out. Because we are approaching the end of the third quarter, I wanted to get a wide-angle view of where my students are at in their progress toward our end of the year math goals, so I created an assessment that covered every single math standard.

I knew that the assessment was designed so that the students would be given one problem per standard, which meant that a lot of them would be scored on a pass/fail. I also knew that there were many standards I have not explicitly taught in my classroom yet, but I wanted to see what my students have picked up since they have been working on all five of the foundational domains in math all year long.

What I found was that many of them did not perform very well. In fact, the class average was 46%.

But this was also just one test. Just one assessment. Just one quick snapshot of what they were doing at that time. One test does not tell the whole story. It never has and it never will.

When I looked at the results, some of them were incorrect because the students did not mark every correct answer on problems that had more one. Sometimes it was a simple computational error. (I took the assessment myself and scored a 95% because I misread a few of the problems and had at least one computational error). Do such poor results mean that my students have not been learning? Do the results indicate that I have been failing to do my job as a teacher? Do they mean that my school is underperforming? To all three of these questions, I respond with a resounding no, of course not!

What it means is that this was just one test taken the day after an unexpected day off that came as the result of a severe snowstorm that itself had come on the heels of a weekend in February during which the temperature reached close to 70° F! It also means that I now have a better sense of where I need to focus my energies over the next several weeks.

I use a lot of different tools to assess my students’ knowledge of our fourth grade math standards. I appreciate being able to try out this tool that Front Row has available and am looking forward to using it in different ways in the coming weeks and months. (For example, I am going to be creating new math groups soon and I will be able to have differentiated assessments for each group to monitor their progress.) I just hope that my students remember that, when it comes to testing, it is just one test. One test never tells the whole story.

What online assessment tools have you found to be useful?