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Teacher's Lounge Virtual Instruction Advice - Testing My Patience!

Dear Teacher’s Lounge,

            This is probably opening the biggest can of worms, but...assessments. My school is requiring us to give standardized tests in the first few weeks to figure out where kids are, but I have to say, it’s kind of crazy. First of all, we’re giving these tests virtually, and I cannot really ensure any kind of test security. Some kids have cameras turned off, or parents helping them offscreen. And then, the tests themselves aren’t really super helpful. They only show me a little bit of what a kid can do in a specific moment in time, and I really believe that it’s going to take more for me to figure out what learning loss looks like in a pandemic. I guess my question is: how seriously do I take the assessments, and what do I do with the results?

                                                                                                            ~Testing My Patience

Dear Testing,

It’s not really a can of worms so much as a bucket of hornets, but yep, I hear you. Let’s open it up and think about what we do with testing in a virtual learning world!

One big struggle here is the natural desire we have to control what occurs in our classrooms, from student learning to testing integrity. Part of virtual learning is giving up the control we cannot possibly exert, and being at peace with that. There is no possible way to monitor students taking assessments the same way when they’re not in our physical classroom spaces, so we have to let go of that concern. Otherwise, we are spending way too much time worrying about what we cannot change, and not enough time focusing on the primary goal of an assessment: to figure out where students are.

When it comes to the validity of the test itself, we have to look at it as one of a series of data points, and that is all. The assessment gives us a piece of information that captures a snapshot in time, which is limited but not useless. For example, if we see from a reading comprehension test that a student struggles to capture the main idea of a passage, we can see if that same challenge bears out in classroom work, which is captured over a longer stretch of time. Suppose the student reads a series of passages and cannot explain the central idea; then, assessment results are supported in student work as well. Conversely, if the student is able to identify main themes in a lower pressure space, then assessment results do not hold as much significance.

When it comes to your question about what to do with the results of assessments, the answer is really to be intentional about tracking measurable outcomes from a variety of places. Any early or pre-assessment is great baseline data, and then the teacher (or better, a teaching team) can determine what classroom measures would be best to identify areas for growth as students move through a unit of study. Going back to the reading comprehension example, a test might highlight areas of potential need, such as teaching skills around contextual vocabulary. Teaching teams can use that information to tailor instruction and classroom assignments toward that potential barrier to success. Student work is typically far more revealing than just one assessment, but having that external measure is helpful.

To make a long story short, thinking of assessments as one data point rather than a huge source of information is probably the best approach, especially when we do not have a lot of control over what happens outside our computer screens. Whether it is wise to assess students in this climate is definitely a bucket of hornets for another day, so right now, keeping the focus on what we can do to help kids make progress is the most important consideration.


Dear Teacher’s Lounge,

            I’m really torn when it comes to how to determine student progress in a virtual space. Should I be giving them tests and quizzes as per usual, or should I be measuring their growth in some other way? Everyone is super opinionated on this, and I seem to be the only one on the fence. So can you add another opinion, just to give me one more?

                                                                                                                        ~On the Fence

Dear On the Fence,

While I’m more than happy to share my opinions freely (and in print), I’m not sure if one more opinion is what you need right now to determine how to proceed. If you have enough leeway to make decisions about the kinds of assessments you give and their frequency, then your approach this year to testing is probably already learning in a particular direction.

But since we’re here, I will share my own thoughts about grading and assessment in this time of virtual learning. In my ideal teaching world, we wouldn’t grade students because that extrinsic motivator would not be necessary to move kids forward. In fact, I wrote about that very issue in this article, and I stand by the conceptual idea that grades don’t work when it comes to increasing progress. Since writing the article, my viewpoint has become stronger in a time when grading students from a distance becomes even more rife with equity barriers. In essence, the very students who struggle to log on virtually and to move forward in this climate are the same students who typically get the short end of the stick, grading-wise, and all because of systemic issues of racism.

The issue with going gradeless is that it is not really supported in our current educational structure. If we were to suddenly remove tests and quizzes from a classroom, what would we do instead to mark student progress? Some teachers would proceed with effective methods, while others would struggle. It is for that very reason that everyone’s opinion on this issue is only confusing you further: because a select few have been trained to do this well. The rest of us were indoctrinated into determining progress through testing, and we have far fewer resources at our disposal to remove those measures from the equation.

Rather than do something drastic, you might want to explore the world of standards-based teaching, a philosophy that looks at skills over scores. There are also a number of groups and organizations dedicated to gradeless teaching, and getting your feet wet by reading about ideas or participating in Twitter chats is a great way to start. I recently co-moderated this Twitter chat on providing feedback over grades in a virtual space, and the archives of the chat hold some amazing ideas. Essentially, once you have a stronger sense of how a philosophy translates to less testing in practice, it might be easier to think about how to move forward.

There are so many ways that we can figure out if students are growing, and testing is one of those ways. So is grading, so is an exit ticket that has no grade attached, and so is a conversation with an individual student in the precious minutes before class begins. As always, giving ourselves some grace and the time to learn is a key component of our professional development.

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Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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