This week has been dominated by assessment. If I haven’t been giving assessments, I have marking assessments and then spending time moderating assessment. What I am not looking forward to is the ranking that students inevitably do to each other once the assessment is returned.
Half way through last year, I got so fed up with the kids ranking each other after every test that I grouped my students by height for the first two weeks of the third term. I was so brazen that I even called the groups giants, tallies, shorties and dwarves. During that time the most amazing thing happened. Kids who often pulled back from class conversations were suddenly talking. Kid who usually dominated pulled back. ‘Ohh I never get anything right’ a tall child who was always in the ‘bottom’ literacy groups muttered incredulously.
I started playing games. I let the shortest child in the class choose a game to play against the giants and vice versa. The students quickly developed a group identity based on their height. They liked the feelings of power that came when their team got to decide on the system which tended to favour their own physical characteristics.
It took a few days for the kids to twig to my system. Some were outraged at the suggestion that I was grouping kids by physical features. After all, kids can’t control their height but they can control their learning through hard work. An excellent point. They also pointed out that some kids might find the work too hard or too easy. Another excellent point. However I asked my class this, why is me grouping kids by height any different from what students do to each other when tests come back?
This provocation led to an interesting discussion about learning. Why it was that knowing someone else scored lower on a test make you feel better? What does it feel like to be at the bottom of the group? What about the top? How come the middle felt left out? Most importantly why we feel the need to rank ourselves at all?
Do levels actually matter?
As my students found out letters and numbers don’t really mean anything at all until there are privileges associated with them. Scoring Stage 6 on NuMPA doesn’t really mean anything (and is certainly gibberish to many educators outside New Zealand) until a Stage 7 comes along and passes judgement on your inferior number. If you are lucky you won’t be the one with the lowest number in the class in which case you get a boost from knowing you’ve done better than someone else.
How often does this academic ranking by students go unchallenged by teachers?
Is this helping students succeed?
My problem isn’t so much with the labels themselves, but when the labels become the defacto feedback. I have deliberately not written the levels, nor have I fixed errors on the students writing samples I am about to return. I want the students to do the heavy lifting on their work before we sit down and talk about what level I think they are and where they need to go next.
In fact as I was sitting in a moderation meeting I silently wondered if the people that needed to learn how to moderate writing are the kids themselves.
What is it about this piece of work that makes it outstanding?
What does the writer of this story need to do go to the next level?
Those questions lead to more interesting outcomes than the more popular refrain heard in classes, ‘is it good?’
I’m recent arrival both to teaching and to the city of Wellington. Over the summer I made the move from Auckland to the capital to take up my first teaching position. With my wordly possessions making their way by road, I decided to fly to my new home.
Despite my love of travelling around the world I don’t do well with flying. And by don’t do well I mean absolutely petrified. Of the dozens of airports I’ve flown into around the world Wellington definitely rates as one the scariest.
Wellingtonians are curious breed. At best they seem to a best tolerate white knuckle landings into their airport. At worst they consider it a business opportunity. I spend most of my time during final approach having panic attacks.
My last flight into Wellington was a nervous flyer’s nightmare. The stormy night resulted in 3 missed approaches, 20 minutes bouncing around tory channel a trip back to Auckland to refuel and re-crew before I made it to my destination nearly 4 hours after we departed.
Suffice to say my airsick bag got used that night. Yet in between minutes of abject terror, I realized that the actions of the people in charge of the jet and the well-being of the passengers could readily be applied to my new life as teacher.
The first lesson is the importance of effective communication. After each unexpected turn in the journey, the crew in the cabin and the flight deck always told us where we were going and why.
This clear and confident communication helped bring my anxiety down notch as I looked out the window wondering if this flight was EVER going to end. So my teachable moment is that when the going gets tough, the tough get talking.
The next lesson I learned is to always have enough gas in the tank to get you home. Obviously not having enough actual fuel has some rather dire consequences in aviation. But airlines know that tired pilots put lives in danger too. Is the same true for teachers?
I’m sure that I’m not the only teacher who has at some point commiserated with a colleague about skipping lunch because of inter-class sport, coming in on the weekend or spending 11-12 hour days at school.
Shouldn’t teachers be calling each other out more often on this kind self-congratulation disguised as self-deprecation? Or would we rather our students see us as the frantic, overwrought, resentful teachers that not taking time out to refuel can make us?
Is that why so many teachers crash and burn?
The third lesson is the importance of having a sense of humour. At all the times the crew on that flight were friendly, approachable and did their best to keep the passengers laughing during our multiple attempts to land.
My next lesson from the crew is doing the best with what you have. Even though I was grumpy and tired, somehow getting both jet planes and cookies instead of choosing between one option made up for spending those extra hours up in the air.
The final lesson is perhaps not so funny, the importance of managing human error. In aviation, accidents are usually highly visible, and as a result aviation has developed standardised methods of investigating, documenting, and disseminating errors and most importantly heeding lessons from crashes.
Yet when we look at education we aren’t so good with managing errors. In the past our education system failed half of our learners each year before the students had opened the exam book in order to preserve the bell curve. My dad was one of those learners.
Today we’ve gone to the other extreme where failure must be eradicated. Missed approaches, bad weather be damned. Our students need to arrive at the end of year at standard OR ELSE. Failure is no longer an option.
The night I travelled to wellington other planes managed to land or at least didn’t get turned back. Should the crew have been held accountable for aborted landings? Did the pilots make an error in deciding to turn back to Auckland due to a lack of fuel and foul weather?
From a bottom-line perspective the pilot’s decision cost the airline time and money. Moreover as a passenger I paid to arrive at 7. But I’m sure everyone would rather have a late safe landing to the alternative.
Aviation learned the hard way that focusing too much on narrow targets can lead disaster. Human errors need to be managed through monitoring and cross checking, as well as reviewing and modification of plans to improve safety.
Which sounds a lot like the idea of teaching as inquiry. Because rather than being a dirty word, if you look closely at closely, a FAIL is actually a First Attempt In Learning.
Or should that be landing?
Time of year where we are sending home statements about what our students learning goals for the year are. As these are reports going home, they must include a statement about National Standards and be in plain English. Personally I prefer my English in pink and purple polka dots but I digress.
I’ve had a number of problems National Standards in the past but now I’m having to make an overall teacher judgement about whether I think my kids will be at standard by the end of the year I’ve run into a huge set of ethical dilemmas.
There are a few kids in my classroom who without any real input from me are already at standard right now. If National Standards measure success, then what is our system telling the kids who are already there? You’re deemed to be at where you should for your age now put your feet up and watch the year go by. At the other end of the spectrum there are a few kids who even with a herculean effort are unlikely to be at standard by the end of the year. I can’t think of anything more demoralizing for a kid, or anyone really, then being told at the start of the year that even if pull out all the stops and work harder than they ever imagined, you’ll still be below standard at the end of the year.
Yes I realize that standards are supposed to be aspirational and I should have high expectations of all my students, but this needs to balanced by principles of honesty and fairness. Yet even the principle of honesty must be couched. When I hear of stories of children in tears about being labelled below standard and how distressing this must be for some kids and some parents I know I need to be careful when giving those cold hard facts. And it this judgement without context which is the reason why a lot of teachers loathe national standards.
Yet I realize that these feelings aren’t the same for parents.
Last school reporting season I watched my facebook feed light up with friends proudly mentioning that their kids are above National Standards to know that the standards do mean something to parents. A safeguard that yes my kid is doing ok, or no my kid needs help.
But the parents aren’t the only people who read school reports.
As I’m writing my comments and making my judgements on these statements I’m very aware of my student audience. That audience is the reason why I’ve spent more time this weekend worrying about whether or not the kids in my classroom will meet National Standard at the end of the year than I have on identifying their next learning steps or even planning for next week’s classes. In short I’ve spent more time worrying about where the kids are according National Standards than I have working out where they need to go and how we are going to get them there.
I know I shouldn’t over think these judgements but it is such a big call to stick a label on kid.
People outside of the education sector seem to assume that there is a definite line in the sand between the kids that are achieving or not. However even with the wealth of assessment information my school has on each child I still feel like I am performing nano surgery with a sledge hammer when it comes to making a judgement on national standards for some children.
For a number of children the weight of the previous teacher judgements weights heavily on my mind especially if the evidence I have supports an entirely different conclusion from a child’s previous report. The previous teacher might well have made a mistake. I know despite asking for the advice of others, there will be kids I have made an error of judgement on. This doesn’t make them or me a bad teacher. In fact it doesn’t make us any different from any primary teacher in New Zealand.
Because the bigger mistake that has been made is thinking of learning as a product rather than a process. And it worries me greatly that these labels are detracting us from the conversations we need to be having over a child’s next learning step. Despite arguments to the contrary, assessment isn’t a science and should not be treated as such. A guide to be sure, but ultimately like all measures of the human mind entirely fallible by our innate individuality.
I have students.
29 of them to be exact.
When people talk about raising class sizes as if just a couple of kids won’t make much more of a difference I wonder if they have ever actually experienced what is like to mark and analyse the results of 29 students. Don’t get me wrong I’m the sort of geek who loves playing around in e-asstle generating reports and find spending an evening entering the data oddly soothing after a busy day in the classroom.
However when it came to assessing my students’ writing samples I’ve spent hours reading and re-reading their work trying to get a fix on where the kids are at and trying to group them into ability groups.
Because I do so much writing I thought that would make the process easier. In fact I found it so much harder. I write mostly for pleasure and when faced with having to write something within a certain space of time ie. an exam or a work deadline any enjoyment I derive from writing goes straight out the window. And I know that for some students when they are faced with having a directive from me, their teacher, asking them to write there will be a few that will struggle to say anything let alone anything profound in the time allowed to. It worries me that there may very well be a couple of kids who are brilliant writers but I’m missing them because of the pressure to produce something in the time allowed.
However what ultimately helped the most with making a call on the students writing wasn’t the rubrics but spending time on a field trip with the students. That might sound counter-intuitive but spending time with the kids enabled me to see that little snippets of themselves that came through in their writing. The turns of phrases, how they talk. Some of those details I completely missed when I first read their work. Had I not had those interactions I might of missed those details of their writing and saw the students’ work only as writing levels rather than the product of emerging writers.
The further people get away from the classroom, the easier it is to reduce not only teaching and learning but the lives of children down to nothing more than a number on score. The kids are so much more than that. Yet how often do we hear people talk about raising academic achievement levels as if assessment is the master of our education system rather than the servant of teaching and learning.
Our understanding of what it is to be educated should not be based simply on what is present, but also on how the spaces between what is given are seen, named, unnamed, ignored. Because ultimately the kids are so much than the sum of their academic parts.
And when we see only the parts we miss the spaces in between.
New Zealand Graduating Teacher Standard 5.c
“Graduating teachers know how to communicate assessment information appropriately to learners, their parents/caregivers and staff.”
This week was my first week of real teaching. The week flew by and I have a lot to post on and not much time to write so I thought I would that I would use this week’s topic to reflect on student assessment.
In general most people think of student assessment as the traditional pencil and paper tests, and these do have their place. In order to plan for my current teaching unit I relied on the data from the students’ asTTLe tests to group students for instruction and work out what it is that I would be teaching them. Having met the students only a few times, I would have been lost without this data. Pencil and paper tests can also be useful for gauging student progress over the long-term because they are replicable and generally seen as being reliable.
But data is only a snapshot. When doing the grouping, my associate teacher jiggled a few of the group assignments students showing that the overall teacher judgement is still important. Human judgement obviously has a subjective aspect to it, but it does control for some variables that a test doesn’t have: knowledge of the learners.
The aspect of assessment I found useful was videoing learning as it was happening. During one of the lessons last week I wandered around with my video camera filming students and asking questions about the material. This data was just as interesting as the seeing them work through grasping the maths in the task to grasping the concept that I wanted to teach. It was a teaching moment eureka moment. But as I was making up my video, I noticed several students still had a misconception that needed to be addressed in a future teaching step. This type of authentic assessment was a gold mine of information. Obviously using video isn’t replicable and takes a huge amount of time to produce when editing down the footage (in comparison to making and grading tests) however I’m hoping the students will get a kick out of seeing their video and gain some insights into their learning.
If I was to make it better, I’d assign a student as a roving reporter and use their data to make up the video.
But my point was that student assessment has different purposes and can take many different forms, a teacher uses a variety of these assessments to inform their practice.
The theme for this week’s reflection is assessed.
I choose this theme because my assignment from Week 2 was returned and also because I sat my final exam for this course (1 unit of learning down 7 to go :)). While I did well in the assignment, the exam was a bit of a nightmare.
So what happened?
Well firstly I didn’t finish. During my undergraduate degree I’d grown accustomed to writing 3-4 longer essays over the space of three hours rather than 6 smaller ones in the same amount of time. Consequently I spent way too much time on first answer and felt rushed to get the other 5 answers finished.
I also hadn’t made proper accommodations for my non-sequential writing style. Normally this isn’t a problem, but sitting an exam pretty much forces you to write sequentially as you are under the pressure of time and writing on paper.
My current writing style relies on being able to go back to ideas at a later time and being able to move text around to accommodate new ideas, which is easy to do when using a word processor, but not so simple when you are writing on a booklet.
Also the supervisor wouldn’t let me have extra booklets until I had already used up my first booklet (he seemed rather incredulous that I would need the extra paper). Because my writing is big and I double space my work, I ended up needing four extra booklets. I also realized there is another thing I hate about exams: being forced to stop mid-thought and wait for someone to bring more paper because my writing doesn’t fit the ‘norm.’
The lack of extra paper put me into a spin. The question sheet wasn’t big enough to accommodate mind maps. Consequently I was without one of the strategies I use to manage my learning disability.
And ouch, ouch, ouch my writing hand was in excruciating pain for hours after the event. I do feel sorry for whoever has the job of grading my exam because the drunken chicken my handwriting had once been compared to was definitely on the booze by the end of the test.
So what are some lessons I learned from the week?
Old learning habits die hard
If I were to dig out my old school reports right now, there would be ample mention made of my penchant for letting careless errors turn excellent work into merely good work. I know I need to spend more time polishing up my finished product, yet I still didn’t do it. But I had another stark reminder that the ideas to put me into the excellent category were all there, but a lack of concentrated effort at the end of the writing process ended up costing me marks.
Manage my time better
Time management was probably my biggest problem in the exam. While I understood, that there were six questions to do and had allotted myself a certain amount of time to do each question. It took me far too long to get the ideas of the first essay onto paper. In retrospect I should have read through the entire paper to identify easier questions to answer first to get my confidence up rather than starting with the first question just because it was first question (Any surprise that I am a low-need achiever?).
Find ways to manage inconveniences
I could have used the back of the readings we were permitted to bring into the exam, rather than trying to fit my mind maps into the margins of the question sheet. But I still don’t understand why I couldn’t just have an extra booklet at the start of the exam.
Practice writing ideas in sequence
I hadn’t sat a written exam in nearly 10 years. As a consequence, I am completely out of practice at writing essays in any kind of logical sequence (in fact I just wrote a sentence in the third paragraph before jumping down here to write this learning point and am now about to jump down two paragraphs because I have an idea I want to expand on). However I will need master this style of writing in order to improve my performance in exams.
But perhaps the most useful outcome of sitting the exam is that is has forced me to reflect on how I would assess student learning in the classroom. So often we become reliant on doing things a certain way because that is the way things have always been done.
Formal exams and tests are popular methods of assessment because they are seen as reliable, ie. we would expect similar results on re-sit across a similar cohort of students. They are also perceived as being fair because markers aren’t swayed by extraneous considerations, such as teacher favouritism.
However there is also a question of validity, ie does the test to measure what it seeks to measure. If the purpose of the exam was to see how fast and neatly I can write, then I probably failed. However if the purpose was to gauge my understanding of educational theory, then I am not sure how valid that assessment was because the medium used gives a fuzzy picture of my knowledge.
Which brings up two implications for using an evidence-based approach to teaching. Firstly how many students in our school system are seen to be under-achieving because the assessment used does not accurately gauge their learning? While there are other students like me that struggle with writing, some children struggle with reading instructions. Moreover an EAL learner may have a brilliant maths capabilities but struggle to conceptualize a word problem.
Secondly what effect will this have on future teaching? If I were to use the results of my exam to inform future teaching in the classroom, then my teaching would likely not be particularly effective. I would probably be pitching my lessons at a level too low for the learner to find useful.
How do we accurately gauge student’s learning? Should all students be assessed the same way?
I don’t do well in exams. In fact during my first time at university I tried to take papers that had large components of internal assessment in them. Unfortunately I am not able to my practice my usual exam strategy of avoidance for this course. So I looked through a leaflet on exam tips to find someone had opened the cupboard to release a boggart in the form of the following quote:
Simple expression and layout +readable handwriting +short sentences =HIGHER MARKS
My handwriting has been described as many things during the course of my schooling life but readable is definitely not one of them. “Messy” and “illegible” were the most common terms my teachers used to describe my script, though my all-time favourite is “a drunken chicken making its way across the page” (that’s an actual quote from one my school reports). Suffice to say I’ve had an unhappy relationship with written communication.
I’m sure some of you are wondering if I hate writing so much, then why do I voluntarily write this blog? But I don’t write this blog, I type it. Typing requires far less concentration for me than holding a pen and trying to manipulate my hand to accurately form words. Word processors also have handy things like a spell-check, thesaurus and enable me to go back to ideas I get stuck at a later time. Through the magic of the word processor I can write in a way I feel most comfortable: flinging, dripping, pouring, spattering ideas and sentences around a document until I can read what it is I want it say. Not the most logical of writing processes but it is what works for me.
Putting pen to paper is when things come unstuck for me. I will often get the letters b, d, p and q mixed up as well as e and 3. Punctuation disappears and words meld into each other. If I concentrate really hard, I can keep my writing readable but that comes at the expense of my ideas getting lost. Did I mention how physically painful the process is? I’m sure there’s now a name for why my brain couldn’t – and still can’t – combine my thinking process with the physical process of writing.
Eventually the educational system caught on that there was an underlying problem and in Year 13 I was referred to the Specialist Education Service for help. I was able to utilize a writer for my bursary examinations, however having ‘THIS EXAM WAS CONDUCTED UNDER SPECIAL CONDITIONS’ emblazoned at the bottom of my certificate bothered me so much I never used a writer again. But I still use the strategies I learned from the educational psychologist when I’m in a situation where I need to handwrite.
Typical bic pens exacerbate my legibility issues because they are too thin, not to mention I’ve managed to break a few with my vice-like grip. A thicker pen with a soft place to grip takes away some of the pain and is a lot easier for my hand to maneuverer.
Mind maps/note sheets
I like to have a place to spatter my ideas around before I attempt to answer a question. Mind maps also are useful because I can refer back to them when I get stuck. Having ideas out there on the paper gives me a skeleton to base my work on.
Writing double or triple spaced
In general I find space for writing in exam booklets too small to easily accommodate my writing. Rather than fight against the tide, I simply double space my work. Double spacing also means that I have plenty of space for revision.
Whisper my work (back to) myself
If I get stuck, I will often will talk to myself when I am writing as way to release ideas. Mistakes are a lot easier to find when I read my work out loud.
When my hand starts to hurt I will often shake my hands fast, rub them together or my legs to generate heat, or mime piano scales as ways to manage the pain.
One of the most off-putting aspects of entering teaching for me is not only will I need to handwrite, but I will also be teaching others to do so. How can I teach something that I don’t consider myself proficient in? But perhaps what might at first seem to be a disadvantage may actually be of benefit in the future.
Graduating Teacher Standard 2.b
“Graduating teachers have knowledge of a range of relevant theories, principles and purposes of assessment and evaluation.”
In the last week or so newsmedia sites were awash with stories that a prominent Auckland boys’ secondary school has directed its year 11 students to sit for the University of Cambridge’s international exams instead of the local national qualification the National Certificate in Educational Achievement(NCEA).
According to the school’s principal, the rational for the school’s decision is that boys learning styles are better suited to the end-of-year exam offered by the Cambridge qualification, rather than the internal-assessment-focused NCEA. In the same article the principal has said that the school would still be offering the NCEA to the academically ‘weaker’ students at his school, a comment which made me reflexively flinch. Surely he is not inferring that girls are academically weaker because they excel in the NCEA?
Certainly recent data backs up the Principal’s contention that girls perform better than boys in the NCEA. Interestingly the NCEA has seen an increase in students from poorer schools gaining formal qualifications.
Proponents of the NCEA argue that due to its reliance on internal assessment, the qualification gives a more accurate picture of student achievement because their work is assessed throughout the year rather than a 3 hour high-stakes exam. Moreover more students are leaving school with qualifications which is a vast improvement from the days when half the students sitting School Certificate (level 1 of the NCEA) were destined to fail before they had even cracked the spine of their examination booklets.
Detractors argue that the NCEA is not challenging enough for academically able students and that credits are too easy to gain in non-academic subjects. They also argue that the lack of external exams means that qualification is unreliable, as results are determined by classroom teachers which make school-on-school comparisons meaningless. Finally they argue that internal assessment is more open to academic plagiarism, as students are able source ready-made assignments from the internet.
Who is right?
To answer that question brings up a whole bunch of other questions. Why do we assess students at the end of their formal schooling? What is it we are supposed to be assessing? And most importantly who gets to decide who passes?
So why do we formally assess students at the end of their schooling career? On the face of it qualifications are a way for our society to document what skills and knowledge an individual has gained during their schooling career. For instance at the end of this year (all going well), I will get a piece of paper saying from my university saying they think I have enough knowledge and skills to be let loose in a classroom of kids. Because my university is recognized by the government and schools as being an authority on such matters, someone should hopefully employ me to do such work.
Likewise when the education system deems a student to have reached a certain level of literacy and numeracy at the end of school, it gives the student a qualification. The system might also recognize students’ knowledge in specialist subject areas like art, technology and music.
What is not being talked about in the newspaper articles but is implicit in our education system is the idea of rationing. School qualifications aren’t just about telling the world in paper form who can read, write and do multiplication. They are also used as a way to ration access to other parts of the education system and also to the employment market.
To move from secondary school onto tertiary study, the government and the institutions themselves say that you need to have reached a certain level of competency to be able to study there. However some courses and institutions find themselves with far more applicants than they have places for. In the absence of a sorting hat, institutions need a way of picking students to admit. This is when the purpose of the end of secondary school assessment changes. While some institutions might decide to draw names out of a hat or admit students who live within a qualified students within a certain geographic area, in general administrators want to admit the best students of the group. How do they find them? Often by school qualifications which are now being used to not see what skills and knowledge a student has, but how well students do in comparison to others.
Which is what makes answering the second two questions, what is valid knowledge and who gets to decide who possesses knowledge, a lot more difficult. Everyone seems to agree that they believe in excellence in education, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the education system who advocates average schooling or mediocre tertiary institutions. Harvard, Princeton, Yale and other members of Ivy League leagues are held up as world leaders in the field of tertiary education, the best and brightest students in the world are studying there. Yet in the not so recent past they engineered their admissions policies to deny access to Jewish students. More recently some Asian-American students have claimed that they are denied admission to elite American universities due to racial preferences in the admissions process. Across the Atlantic Ocean one black student was admitted to Oxford during the last academic year. One student, not one percent, that’s one as in a single student. Closer to home there has been ongoing concern that Maori and Pasifika students are underrepresented in New Zealand universities.
Clearly the context of what constitutes academic excellence matters.
This post is already far longer that I initially intended so I’ll get back to the NCEA conundrum.
Although there were subjects that were either partially or fully internally assessed under the old system, the NCEA represented a major shift in who has the power to assess knowledge. Broadly speaking we’ve moved from a system of external markers and scaling being the final arbitrators in determining who passes and who fails to classroom teachers having far more clout to determine student achievement irregardless of what effects their decision might have on the national bell curve. Moreover one of the key reasons for the introduction of the NCEA to increase the types of knowledge and skills that were formally recognized by the system with no segregation between academic and vocational subjects. The introduction of the NCEA has resulted in more people determining more types of knowledge valid which in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in the context of rationing resources it is what makes education such a politically charged topic.
What constitutes knowledge and who gets decide who has it?