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Assessment FOR Learning - Don't confuse it for a specific strategy

This was originally posted on Assessment FOR Learning.

When faced with a new concept it is natural and necessary to attach meaning to that concept. Sometimes when we find an understandable example of that concept we begin to confuse that idea for the concept itself. As Salem High School and the City of Salem Schools strive to master the concepts of Assessment FOR Learning, it is understandable that this will happen to some degree.

For example, earlier in the year we at SHS discussed a strategy of having a final test grade or portions of a final test grade replace the quiz grades that led up to that test. (Read about that here.) This method made the quizzes into practice assignments that prepared the student for the test. I began to receive some feedback from people saying that AFL wouldn't apply to their classes because this strategy for whatever reason did not fit into their classroom or teaching style. While this was a good example of AFL, it was just an example. AFL is bigger than any one practice, which led to this post on that topic.

Similar questions have arisen over time in regard to various other procedures that have been held up as examples of AFL. My post on philosophy v. procedures attempted to deal with the fact that AFL is much bigger than any one procedure.

Recently I have received feedback that shows that the practice of allowing students to retake tests and quizzes is being seen as the crux of AFL. While I have heard from many teachers who have used retakes as a way to allow students to learn from feedback, as was the case with tests replacing quizzes, AFL is bigger than retakes.

To help illustrate this I thought it might be useful to describe how AFL might have impacted my own classroom - if I hadn't left the classroom 6 years ago for the dark side of the force (administration)! :)

In my 9th Grade World History classroom my assessments and my grading were very closely related. While many of my graded assessments were AFL-ish (although I had never heard of AFL back then) I realize that I did not do enough assessing solely for the purpose of learning rather than grading. Here's how I assessed/graded:

1. Almost Daily Homework Assignments - 10 pts/assignment
Each assignment directly prepared students for the quiz the next day.

2. Almost Daily Quizzes - 30 pts/quiz
Often the same quiz was given several days in a row so that students could master the content.

3. Almost Weekly Tests - Range of 100 pts/test to 500 pts/test
Tests would build on themselves. A 100 pt test might cover Topic A. A 200 pt test might cover Topics A and B. A 300 pt test might cover Topics A, B, and C, and so on... By the time we got to the larger tests the students tended to have mastered the content because they had been quizzed and tested on it over and over - not to mention what we had done in class with notes, activities, videos, debates, etc.

So what would I do differently now that I have spent so much time grappling with AFL? Here are the changes:

1. Change in point values:
  • Homework would still be given but would either not count for points or all homework assignments would add up to one homework grade of approximately 30 points. Another idea I have contemplated would be that at the end of the grading period students with all homework completed would get a reward, perhaps a pizza party, while students with missing assignments would spend that time completing their work.
  • Quizzes would still be given almost daily but would now only count 10 or 15 points each. In addition, if a student's test grade was higher than the quizzes that led up to it I would excuse the quiz grades for that student.
  • Tests would count more. In the class I taught the tests were used as the ultimate gauge of mastery learning. The tests would continue to build on themselves but would probably start somewhere around 300 points and build up to around 800 points.
2. Change to How Quizzes are Viewed:
  • To build on the point I made above, the quizzes would be excused if the student's test grade was higher. The quizzes would be considered practice grades. Students would be trained to not fret about quizzes but to instead use them as ways to gauge their learning. I might even borrow Beth Moody's GPS idea occasionally and allow students to retake an occasional quiz; however, this would probably not be the case for most quizzes since whenever possible I would be repeating quizzes anyway.
  • The goal of quizzes would be to practice for the test. In the past I viewed the quizzes more as grades unto themselves. The problem with this, though, was that if I had four 30 pt quizzes before a 100 pt test, then the quizzes added up to more than the test. Adding in the four or five 10 point homework assignments further got in the way. Yes, they were assessments that helped the students learn, but they also had an inappropriate impact on the grade. They could help the student master the content as evidenced by the high test score while simultaneously lowering the student's grade.
3. Students Assessing Their Own Progress:
  • If I was in the classroom today I would add an entire new element of students assessing themselves. I would want students to take control of their own learning. and to know what they do and don't know. I would then want them to use that knowledge to guide their own studies.
  • One thing I would do would be to make sure that everyday (if possible) the students and I would both receive feedback. As I prepared my lessons I would ask myself the questions posed in this earlier post.
  • When I reviewed with students for tests I would change my method and adopt a strategy similar to this one used by Paola Brinkley and many other teachers in our building. (I would probably find a way to turn it into a game since I love playing games in class.)
  • At the beginning of each unit/topic I would give students a rubric like the one in this post. At some point during most class periods I would have the students use the rubric to assess themselves and see how well they are mastering content. They would then use the rubric as a study guide as described in the post.
  • I would also have students analyze their grades regularly so that they would know how well they needed to do on a test to reach their grade goal. (Implied in this is the fact that I first would have students regularly set goals.) I would use a strategy similar to this one used by Lewis Armistead.

Notice that my new plan for my classroom doesn't look incredibly different from my old one. I am assessing daily - which I was already doing - but I have changed my view on grading - it's no longer primary as it once was. Assessing is now different from and more important than grading. I have added more opportunities for students to assess themselves.

Notice that retaking tests was not a part of my AFL plan. Students are already taking multiple tests on the same content. Those tests are building in point value so that if you master it by the end that is outweighing your performance at the beginning. You are also being quizzed regularly and regularly assessing yourself. There really isn't a need for retaking the test. (Please realize that this does not mean that retaking tests should be frowned upon. It simply isn't the only way to use AFL.)

So does this mean that the plan I have outlined is how AFL should be done? NO NO NO NO NO! It's how AFL could be done. It is guided by AFL philosophies and ideas, but those same ideas could lead to very different procedures in other classrooms and with other content. AFL is big enough to go beyond certain practices and instead guide all good instructional practices.

Any thoughts?

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Comment by Scott Habeeb on March 24, 2010 at 8:47am
Thanks for the feedback Sandra. I understand what you mean. If you're interested in more about AFL you might want to check out Assessment FOR Learning.
Comment by Sandra Duncan on March 23, 2010 at 11:12pm
Scott, this post is SO spot on! I don't know about the rest of you, but I have found that there are certain ideas that get perpetuated around our school district, and they get so ingrained into the culture that they are almost impossible to dislodge. One of those ideas goes like this: "The Central Office keeps loading teachers down with required strategies, and they never take anything away! How do we implement everything?" The comment that a certain practice "won't work in my classroom" really hit home! I have tried so hard to communicate to teachers that planning, from pre-assessment to post-assessment is a process in which you use strategies as appropriate. I am often asked for exemplars, but when they are provided, many well-meaning teachers simply copy the exemplar, and feel that they have "done their duty" by the strategy. Your post does a good job of explaining AFL as a framework through which many strategies may be applied.

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