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On Assessment – part 2

December 17, 2009 2 comments

The first post of this series has led to a response by Gregory Thompson (whom I also ‘met’ through Twitter on #edchat). I’ve read it and enjoyed all the points he made regarding what I wrote on the first post. I feel like replying to it. I believe the conversation will evolve if I continue with the series as I originally intended to, adding a couple of things his post made me think about.

I finished the post by mentioning rater-reliability. If you remember the scenario that I depicted, you’ll have to bear with me that it’s not possible for anyone to do what is expected of teachers in that condition. It’s not about giving up, or abandoning principles because it’s all a lost battle. Teachers are teachers because they believe they can make a difference. Teachers have been students and know students look up to their teachers. Good teachers know a lot is at stake when they walk into a classroom and this is why they do not give up.

Reliability is how we can assess whether a test is ‘consistent and dependable’ (Brown). Thus, a test is reliable when the results are similar if you give the test on two different occasions to the same student. However, there are some factors that come into play and may affect reliability of a test. In the scenario I mentioned, I believe the most influential factor are the mental and physical conditions of the teacher, i.e. rater-reliability. Ask anyone to read and analyse 50 texts on the same topic and provide feedback for each one of them. This is feasible, OK. However, tell this person that he or she will have 4 hours to do that. Even if the first texts are carefully corrected, some issues, such as fatigue, will heavily influence the results of the tests and the feedback given. When I mentioned I can’t blame teachers who have to assess 800 students for not doing it using an alternative to tests, this is what I meant. It’s not the teacher’s fault, it’s just not possible because of the way these schools, inserted in these educational systems, are organised.

Rater-reliability is not the only issue that may affect the results of a test. Student-related reliability also has to be taken into account, and so does test-administration reliability. However, I guess the second most important reliability issue is test-reliability. Tests which are too long, timed or with ambiguous items are likely to be unreliable. As we’ve discussed on #edchat, and as we can easily see daily, it’s not uncommon for students who know everything they should know to perform poorly on a test. This is why tests must be constantly revised and re-written. It is possible for teachers to design good tests (I’m not talking about assessment just yet) as long as they take enough time to prepare, grade, and then evaluate their own tests and each item individually. It’s hard work, but that is teaching.

Overall, standardised tests tend to score high on practicality and reliability, but they score low on authenticity (remember I’m an English Language teacher when you read the term “authenticity”) and washback. The point is not that we should make sure assessment is not reduced to testing. However, we’ve got to understand the context each one of us is inserted in order to come up with alternatives that truly work. Asking someone who teaches more than 500 students to analyse each student’s progress, provide effective and meaningful feedback and still be able to teach properly is just insane. It’s the same as saying to a CEO of a company that he should have teams as large as 500 people with only one supervisor per team. If you can keep track of 500 people and make sure you’re not lacking in rigour, please let me know how you do it.

Saying that we should change the way we assess our learners is a bit like preaching to the choir. The true challenge is to provide effective alternatives that can be implemented. This means we should understand the context in which we are inserted before we say something is right or wrong. We can’t simply point fingers at people because of their way of doing things until we’ve been in their shoes.

Assessment needs change? Yes. Assessment needs to be seen as not only testing. Assessment is broader than testing. However, teaching is more than assessing. Of all roles teachers play, the role of the assessor is just one of them. If we lose track of what our reality is, we might be tempted to see things from a simplistic point of view. What is true for A may not be true for B, and the only way we can help is by listening and understanding the seriousness of the situation, getting the big picture, prior to making suggestions.

The ultimate purpose of assessment is to enable for ongoing progress. This is the one thing we can’t forget when discussing assessment. And this can be accomplished through both formative and summative assessment. A reflective piece of writing which is marked only with “excellent” or “very good” will be just as useless as a end of unit test that just has an “A” or a “10” on it. It’s not exactly about changing it immediately, but learning how to make use of the tools we have at hand now more effectively. Once this is done, a change will take place smoothly.

Back to you!

On Assessment – part 1

December 16, 2009 3 comments

Yesterday evening the discussion on #edchat was about assessment. As usual, a stream of thought-provoking tweets and a lively discussion took place. I had been thinking about writing a post on assessment and my thoughts on the matter, so I feel now is a good time to do it.

As I see it, there are certain principles which should be taken into account when we discuss assessment, and I borrow these from Brown (Language Assessment – Principles and Classroom Practices) and some other readings.

To begin with, assessment is part of teaching, just as tests are part of assessment. This means that there is the group TEACHING, the subgroup assessment, and, inside assessment, the subgroup of testing. Teaching is more than assessing, just as assessing is more than simply testing. I guess the first problem lies there. Many teachers tend to merely equate assessing with testing. I’m going to start this series talking about testing.

Tests are usually standardised and tend to measure discrete points of what has been taught. They’re tools teachers have to gauge how much students have learned. Tests are summative instead of formative, i.e. they aim at measuring and summarise what has been taught through a period of time, and usually come at the end of a unit or a course. Tests, just as any kind of assessment, may be good or bad, they aren’t necessarily the bad guys of education. The way most teachers have been treating tests is the main problem, I guess.

If we think about the principles Brown mentions in his book (practicality, authenticity, reliability, validity, and washback), standardised tests are high on practicality by nature. This means they’re usually easy to administer and grade. There’s nothing wrong with this aspect of standardised tests per se. However, any kind of assessment should provide learners with meaningful and effective feedback. Learners should be able to use their tests results to find out how to improve and what they need to work on. Unfortunately, most teachers don’t do anything else but giving students a grade, be it a number or a letter. Students need guidance to find out what they need to study. Now, it’s not that most teachers don’t want to give students useful feedback, but, depending on the context, it’s simply impossible.

There are classrooms around the world with 50 students, and some teachers have to teach 16 or 18 groups. This means some teachers have more than 800 students. Not only do these teachers have to plan their lessons, but they also need to design and grade all these tests, and they usually are forced to have reports on students’ progress every other month. Now if teachers have 16 to 18 groups of 50 minutes each, they’re in the classroom around 30 hours a week. Add to that all the time it takes to assess students outside class, planning lessons, and being an educator in the core meaning of the word (worrying about each student and his or her learning, and empowering your learners), then you tell me how such an educator would be able to radically change his way of assessing students, going from summative to formative, using portfolios (for instance) instead of standardised tests, or tests made by the teacher him or herself. This means keeping track of 800+ students’ writing. I can’t blame teachers for not doing that. Besides, if a teacher has to assess that many students, there’s the serious risk of rater-reliability issues. But this is something for another post.

Your turn.

Why I think a change is needed – #edchat 11/24/09

November 25, 2009 6 comments

Picture this: a teacher walks into a classroom with 45 to 50 teenagers. The classroom is organised in orderly rows so as to make sure students do not work together. Not that it would matter, anyway. Most students haven’t got many options in life but to work for a factory, or simply doing work which requires very little creativity and critical thinking of them. These kids are being trained to listen without questioning, to simply take in what their almighty teacher tells them. They aren’t supposed to think. Instead, they’re merely supposed to copy whatever the teacher dictates and writes on the board. They’re expected to memorise lists and do well on standardised tests.

The scene above seems like something taken from Dickens’s Hard Times. Students were being prepared to work in mechanical, repetitive work industries required. A handful of them would have a chance of doing something else, but nothing exactly thrilling.

This is what schools were for. Preparing children to become adults capable of getting a job in those days. Actually, isn’t this one of the roles of schools? Preparing our youth to thrive as adults? Aren’t schools supposed to prepare children for what they are going to have to face in the real world, as well as helping them develop their full potential? I think that’s the purpose.

Now, look at the world as it is nowadays. We’re no longer in the industrial age. We live in the age of information. Our youth needs to learn how to participate in today’s world. They need to learn to collaborate. They should learn how to think critically, question. Teachers should encourage creativity, not stifle it!

Needless to say, the classroom of today is way different from the classroom you pictured in the first paragraph of this post. Is it? If it is for you, then you’re lucky. That’s not what I witness in any regular school I visit. Are we still preparing our children to work in factories? Are we still teaching them to simply take for granted what the person in charge (their teacher) has to say?

Why is a change needed? Who will start this change? How can it be done? It’s definitely hard to answer these questions, but it’s high time we started thinking about them.

Reflections post-#edchat 11/17

November 18, 2009 Leave a comment

If you’ve taken part in today’s #edchat, you know we discussed about how to motivate teachers who are resistant to technology to initiate in this world to benefit their learners. If you haven’t participated, well, you just read the topic. As the conversation is just over, I still need to organize my thoughts, but there are a couple of things I feel I should write down (even if I write another post contradicting this one later).

1. I still believe the most important thing is listening to and responding to your learners’ needs. If you try to impose on them something which is not part of their reality, you’ll end up getting nowhere. A student of mine mentioned once, ‘we only make use of what our friends are making use.’ It’s the old idea of tribes, or we could also put it in other words: Great minds think alike.

2. We are living the age of information (or am I misinformed?), and one of the key skills we need is filtering what is applicable to our context. The fact that we can discuss with educators from all over the world through #edchat is indeed awesome. But we are talking to people who might not have a clue of what we have to face in our own teaching situation. We need to learn how to read critically, just as we want our learners to do.

3. I’ve seen great educators walk into a classroom equipped with laptops, Internet, TV, and what have you, not make use of any of these, but still succeeding in teaching their learners. Not only that, but usually the students wouldn’t trade these teachers’ classes for any other class in which teachers made large use of technology. Why is that? Tech is just another tool. It might be a very effective one in the hands of a teacher who knows how to use it, but it can squash students’ motivation in the hands of those who only rely on it. TEACHERS HAVE TO BE RESOURCEFUL. Funny anecdote on that? There was once a power shortage in the whole city. The lessons started at 2 pm, and there were lots of large windows in the classroom. Teaching wasn’t a problem. Suddenly, a teacher says, ‘Oh my! I had such a wonderful class ready on PPT.’ Upon hearing this, another teacher replied, ‘It is now that we can see the difference between good teachers and great teachers.’ If teachers are not resourceful, they’re bound to miss the point more often than not. Be careful not to let the tail wag the dog. (Granted: apart from being an enthusiast and a believer in the power of technology in the classroom, I strongly agree with Dogme. There it is!)

4. The Internet is not the only place to keep learning. I’ve just talked to highly respected people in their own fields of education about their use of Twitter, blogs, wikis and alike. Their answer was a mere, ‘Hmm… people in my area usually communicate through scientific magazines, journals and articles.’ Even though most of these are online these days, they’d still rather write an article to comment on what they read instead of posting a comment. Appalling? I guess it all boils down to point #1. If the people in their circle isn’t making use of these tools, they’re useless. The important thing is communication, regardless of the chosen means.

Well, I guess these four points will get me started. Maybe I’ll change my mind tomorrow after re-reading this post, or after some comments. Any thoughts???

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