Despite what you might have heard, May is the longest month of the year. In public education we often referred to ‘The Ninety Days of May’ right around the second week of this month. Why? Spring Break is but a memory, Open House looms, but summer remains just a little too far away to be believed. May is also the month many schools are administering their state testing. (“I love testing!” said no educator ever.)
After two decades in public education, I can tell you exactly what happens when you say “assessment” in a room full of educators. Noses crinkle. Eyes roll up at the ceiling. Body language shifts and people look at you like you drank the last of the milk and returned the empty carton to the refrigerator.
Assessments, especially the big statewide ones, have gotten a bad rap over the last... hundred years or so. And while I will be the first to admit they are fraught with issues, let’s not forget assessment is a critical and crucial component of quality instruction. Assessments are an important part of the cycle that lets us know how our students are doing and what we need to do to support them.
There are two types of assessment. The first is Summative (think: summary, after the fact). Summative assessments include unit tests, chapter tests, finals and midterms in high school and beyond, end of year state testing. These are primarily used to determine what a student has learned after instruction concludes. Summative assessment is evaluative.
The other type of assessment is formative. To illustrate, think of it as forming an opinion, like whether I should eat that maple donut or not, despite what my jeans tried to tell me this morning. In the classroom, these take the form of polls, question of the day, anecdotal conversations with students, even a simple thumbs up or thumbs down, and one of my favorites, exit tickets.
Formative assessment is the bread and butter of teaching, if used as it was intended: to take in actionable information and adjust course. Unfortunately, often formative assessment is used in classrooms summatively. Teachers learn what a child knows or doesn’t know, but the most important piece (the adjustment!) is sadly missing.
But how do you meaningfully fit a response to the data you’ve collected into your day? Some (like me) might argue that making certain every student in your charge has the understanding needed to move to the next level is one of the most important things you do. But I also know the reality of teaching - so much to cover in such little time, with an ever increasing span of needs and an ever decreasing pool of resources.
Don’t despair. There are many ways to quickly and efficiently act upon that data.
Try this tomorrow:
After collecting your exit tickets, separate them into two piles - Got It and Didn’t Get It. If everyone got it, pat yourself on the back and move on. Have a chocolate. In fact, have the whole box, since you’re probably dreaming.
So now you have a pile of Doesn’t Get It tickets. Split these into two more piles: Errors and Mistakes.
Literacy Guru Doug Fisher likes to delineate the very crucial difference between errors and mistakes. A mistake is often made through lack of attention, like when we make a typo or calculate the tip incorrectly on the dinner bill. We know how to calculate the tip; we just made a mistake. Mistakes are easily corrected. However, errors occur when the student doesn’t know how to fix the problem, because they don’t have enough knowledge. This is an important distinction to make because as Fisher says, “Correcting mistakes while failing to address errors can be a costly waste of instructional time.”
The following day, return your mistake tickets to students and see if they can spot and correct mistakes on their own. If they really are mistakes, I’ll bet they can.
Now review the Error pile. Look for patterns. What kind of errors are your kids making? Group the cards in ways that make sense to you, and decide what information is needed to correct these errors. Doug Fisher identifies error types, and if you want to geek out on those types like I did, read his article.
Finally, pick one error that is representative of the class. First thing in the morning, show off this error to your students. Remember that we are building resilient humans who persevere in their learning. So love those errors to death, praise the student who made this teaching moment happen for everyone, and provide the appropriate instruction to correct the error. This strategy is sometimes called My Favorite No, and you can learn more about it on the National Education Association's website.
After this becomes routine for your students, you may want to praise and celebrate the correct answers once in a while too, just to keep things interesting.