Tuesday, October 7, 2014

No High Stakes Test, No Problem...

For the first time in my young teaching career, I get to teach a curriculum in which there is no high stakes test at the end of the term. For the last several years, I have had to give the U.S. History I SOL, but Virginia politicians decided to eliminate this test in an effort to reduce the overall number of standardized tests. While there are certainly some negative effects of this new law, overall, I'm excited about the change. Specifically, I rejoice in having the freedom to try to create assessments that work for all students.

In order to prepare kids for the 50-question multiple choice end-of-course assessment that my students had to take in recent years, we gave students seven 50-question multiple choice tests to matched the style of the "real deal".  Now that we don't have that pressure, we have changed our strategy. We actually are giving kids choice in their assessment. And, we've reduced the number of tests in our semester course from 7 to 3.

Our team has decided to create three different versions of each test that cover the same content. We are offering our kids a short answer/essay test, a project-based test, and a multiple choice test.

The Format:

1. Multiple Choice: A 50-question test with four or five answer choices. Several of the tests have multiple correct answers and students have to "select all that apply." The test includes high level questions, skills-based questions, and some basic recall questions. Students are asked to analyze pictures, maps, and excerpts from historical documents in order to answer some of the questions.

2. Short-Answer/Essay: This test version allows students to write what they know. I give students 8 open-ended questions, varying their difficulty level, content, and question words (evaluate, compare and contrast, explain, etc.). Students must answer any 5 of the questions they want. Responses must completely answer the question, but I put no limits on the length of the writing. Some questions require merely 3-4 sentences, while others may require 2-3 paragraphs (or more).

3. Project-Based: For this version of the test, students are able to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding in creative ways. Students are given two different projects, and must choose to complete one if they do the project-based test. Students could be asked to write/draw on maps, create brochures, write songs, make license plates, create invitations, write skits, and much more. In some cases, they are asked to take multiple perspectives, solve issues, or place events in chronological order.

We've done this once. The process was smooth.  I think students appreciated the choice. In fact, I know they did. Who doesn't like to choose their own path? Freedom is always preferred to control. I think they worked harder as they took ownership of their work and responsibility for their learning. I saw less frustration during the test. I saw students take risks and show creativity. I saw students determined to highlight what they know.  Typically anxious students showed greater confidence than they previously had. And, while some students underperformed, many excelled.

One student, who took advantage of the project, was so thrilled with the grade he earned that he couldn't contain his excitement--after an initial uncontrollable, yet joyous squeal, he danced.

That student never got above a C last year in history and ended the year with a D. I wish you could have seen his celebration after earning a 96% on a very challenging, yet rewarding, assessment.