Wednesday, April 3, 2013

I Know How You Feel

Last week I took a test and it was incredibly difficult. None of us [students] were surprised that it was tough because the class is very challenging. In fact, I would consider it to be one of the most difficult courses I have ever taken.The good folks at the University of Northern Iowa take great pride in the rigor of their classes and point out that 'these are doctorate level courses'-in other words, it is not supposed to be easy. They are the antithesis of easy! In fact, in one class I took last summer the professor began the course by reminding us that we were not in a remedial doctorate program, and that we were expected to do a lot of reading and writing--and do it well. Yesterday afternoon I met with the professor of the class I am taking right now to gather some feedback on a class project I am working on, and when I shared with him how difficult the course was he was giddy with excitement!

Anyway, back to that test. We were prepped for the exam by being told that it was in effect a 'stress test'. I didn't take that to mean that it was designed to stress us out (although it did), but rather a stress test to measure the strength of our understanding of the course content. Another way to look at it is a measure of the strength of the professor's instruction. Isn't that an interesting way to look at it?

Often times in education, the paradigm in which we view test taking is to measure knowledge gained by the students. While this provides useful information in regard to academic progress, it also provides data that can be useful to the instructor. If for example everyone gets the same question wrong, or pockets of students answer a question in a particular way it tells the instructor something, and not necessarily that students are cheating. Perhaps the teacher discovers that answers to questions surrounding a particular concept are weak across the spectrum of test takers. Imagine how valuable this information is to a teacher! A teacher may realize that the reason everyone got that item wrong was because the strategy they used in instruction didn't work. While the teacher may have surmised that all the students understood, the test provides clear proof that they did not. Then our teacher can look at that data realize they need to reteach the concept to that group or pocket of students this time using a different strategy or methodology.

When teachers use assessment data in this way, they are employing a technique called 'formative assessment'. This type of assessment is designed to form the instruction that is occurring in the classroom. If you recall our conversation from a few weeks ago, I talked about providing each student with a guaranteed and viable curriculum. In that discussion, we focused on ensuring that each and every student is exposed to the same curriculum (the term I used was essential learning concepts). That's great, but the next question has to be, how do we know the students have mastered the essential learning concepts?

Formative assessments help answer that question. If our formative assessments tell us that some students may not have learned the concepts, it forms (or shapes) what our teachers do next. Imagine going to the doctor because you have a bad cough or cold. The doctor is likely going to ask you some questions and perhaps run a few tests. If the cough is bad enough they may even do a chest X-ray. The data the doctor collects will be used to create a treatment plan. That is exactly the purpose of the formative assessment. It helps to form our instructional plan going forward!

This is very different from the other type of tests that we use in schools, namely assessments that are used as Summative instruments. These types of assessments are evaluative and occur at the conclusion of instruction or at the end of the unit. In essence, how much has the student learned? This is an opportunity for the student to prove what they have learned. Unfortunately we sometimes confuse ourselves by using Summative means of evaluation to form our instruction. 

Take for example the Iowa Assessments. That particular instrument (and most standardized instruments for that matter) are not designed to inform instruction. The instruction in this case is already over-it is too late to form instruction. Our standardized system of measurement is more valuable to use as longitudinal data and observe trends over time. We can form generalizations, but it would be inappropriate and untimely to try to use the assessment in this manner.

So, I loved the metaphor that my professor used for his assessment of us: It is a stress test to measure the strength of instruction, to see how the instruction that is being delivered in class is developing.

Finally I want to mention that in post-graduate studies there are not a whole lot of tests to begin with. Most assessments that we are exposed to are lengthy papers, deep reading, projects and presentations, and in class debate and discussion. So this was the first time in a lot of years that I had to sit down and study for a test, then go through and actually take the test. Students, it all came back to me and I feel your pain! 

Oh, and in case you are wondering, I did pass!

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