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Matching Assessments to Student Readiness

EducationWorld is pleased to feature a variety of book excerpts in collaboration with Stenhouse Publishers. The following excerpt comes from Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom, by Rick Wormeli (2006). The book retails for $25 ($22.50 for e-book) and is available on the Stenhouse Web site.

For more great tips from this book, check out: Let Students Revise and Re-Do Work and Dual Grading: Performance and Progress.

Tiering is a way to differentiate your teaching to students’ readiness levels. Read below for tips and examples on how to become a successful “tierer.”


Some differentiated instruction experts give tiering a broader definition than I use here. They define tiering as how teachers adjust assignments and assessments according to students’ readiness levels, interests, and learner profiles.

The last two, interests and learner profiles, suggest lateral adjustments, however, not the vertical adjustments expressed by the definition of tier, such as in terracing or varying levels of something. For purposes of this book, then, tiering will be described as similar to what differentiation expert, Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson, calls “ratcheting” up or down the challenge level. This means we are primarily emphasizing the adjustments we make in assessments according to students’ readiness levels, not interests or learner profiles, though these last two are critical elements of successful differentiation and not to be discarded.

There are several pieces of advice that will serve first-time assessment “tierers” well: First, we usually start tiering by expecting every student to demonstrate full proficiency with the standard, not something less. The minimum expectation, then, is the standard or benchmark performance. It’s wiser to start here, designing the on-grade-level task, and raise the challenge level, than it is to start lower than the standard and move up to designing the standard performance and beyond. If we start lower or higher than the standard performance, we tend to distort our expectations for the on-grade-level performance, losing sight of the learning outcomes or benchmarks. If we start by designing the tasks for early readiness students first, we sometimes settle for less when designing for the on-grade-level standard performance.

About Stenhouse Publishers

Stenhouse publishes professional development books and videos by teachers and for teachers. Their titles cover a range of content areas -- from literacy and mathematics to science, social studies, the arts, and environmental education -- as well as a variety of topics, including classroom management, assessment, and differentiation.

Second, realize that most of the material we teach has subsets of skills and content that we can break down for students and explore at length. It’s helpful to literally list every skill or bit of information a student must use in order to meet the needs of the task or assignment successfully.

It is in this analysis that we see plenty of opportunities to tier an assignment. In addition, there won’t always be high, medium, and low tiers. Respond to the unique characteristics of the students in front of you instead of imposing a predetermined leveling. There are times when we have four high achieving groups and only one struggling group, and other times when this is reversed. As they say, we don’t always have kids in groups like “Blue birds,” “Red birds,” and “Buzzards.” Also remember that we don’t tier every aspect of every lesson. It’s often okay for students to do what everyone else is doing. We might extend the time period for some of them, but there’s no need to adjust the level of complexity.

To avoid a potential pitfall with tiering, be sure to stay focused on one concept or task. For example, you can choose a topic like teaching the moon’s phases, but there are so many factors in teaching this topic that it can become cumbersome, especially as you first learn to tier. In your first attempts, isolate one facet of moon phases, such as the ideas of waxing and waning, and tier that facet alone. When first tiering students’ analysis of bias in newspaper articles, design tiered tasks that focus just on one of the following, then add more: fact versus opinion, conjecture, use of persuasive techniques, use of logical fallacies, slant, motivation for writing the piece, analyzing what authors don’t include in their pieces, identifying who’s paying for the piece to be written.

Remember that we are successively tiering, which means that we change the complexity or challenge of tasks more and more subtly each day. We might start out with dramatic tiering, then slowly pull back until we don’t tier at all.

For example, we may provide a group of students with specific instructions to use a very structured format with strict parameters to perform a task. The next day, however, we ask them to do the same task but this time they set their own parameters based on agreed-on evaluative criteria. On a third day, they do the task but they are given a choice of formats instead of working with a mandated one. While there’s no general rule of thumb dictating the number of gradations needed for successful tiering, it’s enough for teachers to keep in mind our students’ gradual movement toward autonomy. Here are two examples.

Example A

Grade Level Task:

  • Draw and correctly label the plot profile of a novel.

Advanced Level Tasks:

  • Draw and correctly label the general plot profile for a particular genre of books.
  • Draw and correctly label the plot profile of a novel and explain how the insertion or deletion of a particular character or conflict will impact the profile’s line, then judge whether this change would improve or worsen the quality of the story.

Early Readiness Level Tasks:

  • Draw and correctly label the plot profile of a short story.
  • Draw and correctly label the plot profile of a single scene.
  • Given a plot profile of a novel, correctly label its parts.
  • Given a plot profile with mistakes in its labeling, correct the labels.

Example B

Grade Level Task:

  • Correctly identify five different types of clouds from given pictures. In writing, explain how they are different from each other.

Advanced Level Task:

  • Correctly label the five basic cloud types in given pictures, then using your understanding of those types, identify clouds in given pictures that seem to be made up of more than one type. Explain your thinking in writing.

Early Readiness Level Tasks:

  • Match the type of cloud in the picture with its name; explain your thinking in writing or orally.

 

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