As a young teacher, assessing students has become one of the more daunting tasks that I have to deal with on a regular basis. One of the biggest problems I face is deciding what it is I should be assessing. How important was that task? How important was it to the big picture of what we’re doing? How important is it to her development as a writer? As a reader? As a valuable human being? Then another question always seems to rise: what percentage of the quarter or semester grade should that task count for?
As teachers, we have an obligation to society, schools, parents, and even the students, to assess where a student stands in a given class. I do not want to pass a student onto the next level if that student is not ready. If a student works twice as hard to get somewhere as another student, the hard working student deserves to be rewarded (this is where an effort grade comes into place). If a student has not mastered certain skills, I do not want to send that student to a university with a “B” on her report card; I do not want to students a wrong message. This is doing them a disservice, I believe.
Giving grades to students is necessary. Although this may sound a bit cruel, some students can get it done and some can’t. This is not to say that all “lower skilled students” will fail. There is a big place in the way I assess my students for participation and effort in the class. Sometimes, I think I should increase the percentage (role) that these two areas play in determining a student’s final grade. (Some players get it done on Friday nights, some don’t)
I believe in assessing students on what they know, not what they don’t know. I try to provide a classroom environment that offers many options. I want my students to reach, to grow, and to try new things. I want them to be involved in the assessment; that is, I want them to have a say in what gets assessed.
During the current school year, I have restructure my Writers’ Workshop a bit. We still work two or three times a week. In a given quarter, students are given two types of grades: a “skills” grade and an effort grade. Students choose which paper they want to turn in for the skills grade. This should be their strongest piece of prose (how can you assess poetry?); it should be a piece that they are confident in and proud of. Students can turn in any type of writing for their effort grades: poetry, critical reviews, song lyrics, banter, plays, etc. I want them to experiment. This is a way that students can play around with writing without the pressure of a grade. They are rewarded for taking risks, participating, processing their writing, and striving to grow as students. Their overall effort grade for Workshop is determined by just that: their effort.
I want my students to put their skills to use. I want to test them on what they know. If I guide them (through mini lessons) to use certain skills, then I do expect students to use them, or at least try to use them. However, if a student takes a risk and falls flat on his face, I’m not going to punish that student for trying something new.
I try to create an environment where all students can be successful; one where students can use all of their literacies. A student may not be a strong presenter, but she may be a wonderful poet. One student may not be a strong writer, but he may excel at interpreting what he reads to the class. As I said before, I try to provide options. We may be reading The Great Gatsby and I may ask my students to create a response for the first two chapters. They have options; they can respond however they feel comfortable responding. If one students want to respond to passages from the text, he may; if a student want to write a poem, she may; if two or three students want to present some sort of skit, they may. They can express themselves any way they choose. This allows students to utilize their literacies; it gives every student a chance to be successful.
I believe that a great deal of assessment should be done on an individual student basis. This is a tough call, because some students in our classes are at completely different levels. Does a second language student who may write a ? page paper full of errors deserve a “c” when another student writes a page with no errors? One student is doing everything he can while another is barely tapping the potential-well. I struggle with this. They are on completely different levels; however, one is maximizing his potential while the other student is barely hitting the minimum.
I believe that we need to set goals and plateaus for each student. Students, themselves, need to set goals. They should strive to be at a certain place, master certain skills, attempt new discourses. Each student is at a different level, and each will set different goals. Let’s face it: to set goals and objectives for your class of thirty-five when students 1 and 35 are at completely different phases of their language development is useless. What’s the point? You know that student 35 will not get there; why put that pressure on her to climb that mountain. Although these goals should push students, they need to be reachable.
This is why I believe in Writers’ Workshop. Each student is at a different level, and that’s okay. Each works at his or her own pace; each is trying to reach personal goals. Each student is trying to grow and improve. The same can be said for some of the reading we do. Students get to choose which books they want to read on their own. Students choose books that serve their interests; not only do they choose books they want to read, but they choose books that are appropriate for their reading level. The teacher, of course, makes recommendations.
As teachers, we must assess our students on things that have relevance. What students learn must have relevance to them; their education must be meaningful. How can we assess where a student is through an aptitude test or a vocabulary test or through a worksheet? I’m not saying that these are absolutely terrible for assessing a student’s progress, but one cannot be the only measure used. Can we tell how intelligent or bright a student is from a four hour multiple choice test? Many assumptions can be made, but we cannot get the big picture. A vocabulary test cannot measure a student’s use of the language. And although many worksheets have validity to them, we cannot measure a student’s complete understanding of something through a “packet” of copied worksheets. These measurements have their place; I honestly believe that. But how can they authentically assess a student’s progress or development?