Assessing learning without tests


. Courtesy of The Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth

In this era in which standardized tests are the be-all and end-all of accountability, it may seem impossible to imagine a teacher evaluating how well students are learning without giving them a test. Joanne Yatvin actually did it and she explains it in this post. Yatvin is a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English who now supervises student teachers for Portland State University. She also writes books for teachers.

 

By Joanne Yatvin

Throughout my years as a teacher I was never much of a test giver.  It wasn’t a matter of laziness, but of not wanting to play “gotcha” with my students.  What I wanted to know were the positives, the things that each student had grabbed onto and made his or her own. Which body of information had caught that boy’s attention and led him to dig further into a topic?   What skills had that girl mastered and then helped others to learn? Which book, poem, or story had powerfully affected that student who said he didn’t like to read?  Although the ways I used to find out these things don’t work for measuring student achievement or the value a teacher has added to the class’s learning, they helped me to know each students’ strengths, weaknesses, and personal interests and to shape my teaching accordingly.  Later, as a school principal I encouraged the teachers I worked with to collaborate and use similar methods of assessment.

As I write this, I can almost see the looks of distain on the faces of some readers. They don’t understand that my philosophy of education was–and still is–different from the dominant one today, which seeks to prepare all students for college and the workplace and ensure that America’s place in the global economy will always be near the top.

In my view, the purpose of education is to enable all students to become fully functioning adults in all the roles they have chosen or are given to play:  family member, community contributor, responsible citizen, humanitarian, etc.  If, in the process, students attain wealth or fame, and the American economy soars, so much the better.

Our assessments of student learning were what any good teacher can see in students’ projects, writing, artwork, talk, and behavior.   They were not scheduled events, but observations of everyday activities. Although my memories are far from complete, I can describe several types of student work my teacher colleagues and I used at different grade levels to get meaningful information about their learning.  Below are a few samples.

In the elementary grades, students often worked with partners or in small groups, assisting, persuading, compromising, leading, and following.  We encouraged them to build things from ordinary materials, using written instructions or just their own imaginations.  We asked them to turn the stories they read into puppet plays.  Another time each student chose an animal to study and then wrote about it for a class animal book.  Often, for homework, they were asked to identify math problems in own their lives and describe how they solved them.  Estimation was an important part of almost every math lesson.  Students often wrote notes to their teachers, commenting on what was happening in the classroom.  Older students read books aloud to younger students in their free time.

In middle school, students had a choice of books to read, often ones connected to the history or geography they were studying. Sometimes they created an imaginary country on paper with a map that had symbols for cities, highways, rivers, and other physical features.  With fiction they were asked to choose one character and write a diary for him or her, reacting to plot events and other characters’ actions. As often as possible, students were encouraged to make math a part of other studies by drawing objects to scale, comparing foreign money or weights to our own and computing distances or time.

In high school English classes, writing almost always accompanied reading.  After a short story unit, for example, students wrote their own short stories.  Sometimes they imitated poetic forms or wrote book reviews posted in the school library for others to read. They translated scenes from a Shakespearian play into modern colloquial English and acted it out for an audience.  Teachers often shared significant newspaper and magazine articles with students and encouraged them to write letters to the editor when they had something to say. We also pushed students to participate in community events and projects, and to speak up at public meetings.

As I listed the learning demonstrations above, many others jumped into my mind. But I didn’t want to be encyclopedic, only to give the flavor of the things that enabled us to evaluate student learning without giving tests. In addition, good student work was shared with families, other classes, the community, friends elsewhere, and school district leaders.   In that way, my readers, we tried to be accountable to all our stakeholders.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · June 11