By Megan Kopetzky
“A third of LPS students don’t meet science standards”-“Scores drop in tougher Nebraska writing tests”- “Under new standards, students see sharp decline in test scores”
These are just a few of the many headlines spanning across state and national newspapers regarding the results of student assessments. Articles report decreases in student achievement in several subject areas and ask the questions: Why are the scores decreasing? Why aren’t students meeting standards? What aren’t schools and teachers doing appropriately for our children? However, what society fails to ask is, are these assessments and tests a true representation of student knowledge and understanding/learning?
Throughout my elementary and secondary school experience, I tookstandard multiple choice exams. However, in reflecting over these experiences, I realize these exams were not a true representation of my learning. Rather, they demonstrated how well I could cram and memorize facts, dates and definitions. These types of assessments still exist in our ever changing classrooms where they conflict with today’s demographic realities.
In today’s classrooms, there is a great diversity of strengths and needs among students. We have students with learning disabilities and those recognized as gifted learners. There are students whose first language is not English. Students come from a range of diverse cultures and economic backgrounds. Along with that, students come to school with a wide variety of background experiences, varying interests, and preferred styles of learning. In order to meet all these students’ needs as well as support their learning strengths, it is important that educators teach using a variety of instruction strategies that allow all students to experience the content in a meaningful way. Equally important is the manner in which we assess student learning. Teachers should use a variety of assessments in their classroom that allow all students the best opportunity to demonstrate their learning.
Author Elizabeth Hammerman highlights in her book, “Formative Assessment Strategies for Enhanced Learning in Science, K-8” the three primary forms of assessment often used in the science classroom: pre-assessments, formative and summative assessments. Each assessment strategy has its own unique role within a classroom. Pre-assessments are often used to gain insight into students’ current level of understanding about a topic and any misconceptions they might have. Summative assessments, often referred to as assessments of learning, are used to determine how well students “measure up” to standards and for the purposes of assigning grades. Examples of these are unit tests as well as state assessments that students take at the end of each school year. Formative assessments, on the other hand, provide a variety of ways for diverse students to demonstrate their learning. Hammerman suggests the need the shift our focus from utilizing summative assessments, to utilizing more formative assessments, that are done for students and can aid in student learning.
In an online video of a third-grade classroom, Jean, the teacher, assesses students’ understanding of the developmental stages of a tadpole in many ways. Students demonstrated their understanding through writing, drawing and sculpting with clay. (check out the video here! http://www.learner.org/vod/vod_window.html?pid=46) Hammerman touches on this by explaining, “The key to successful formative assessment lies with the use of multiple and varied ways to capture evidence of thinking and learning that naturally flow from well-defined goals and rich and meaningful contexts for instruction” (pg. 13). Most importantly, formative assessments can provide helpful feedback for both teachers. Hammerman explains that “their purpose is to provide meaningful feedback to teachers and students about student progress in reaching important learning goals” (pg. 6). Teachers can also utilize assessments to help adapt teaching, according to the needs and current progress of children.
There are multiple types of formative assessments that teachers can implement in the science classroom. These can include, but are not limited to, using science notebooks, graphic organizers, making observations, asking questions and using performance tasks. I will focus on two forms of assessment that have impacted my learning.
One of the most simple and effective types of formative assessments is asking questions. Questioning can help guide students thinking and learning and allows teachers to quickly assess where students are in their learning. Harlen explains that there are various types of questions that students may ask, ranging from very simple questions such as “What is it?” to more complex and productive questions that encourage activity, such as “Can you find a way to…” Teachers can promote student questioning in various ways, including creating a classroom environment that promotes inquiry and encourages student questions, as well as appropriately responding to children’s questions. Teachers can also improve their own questioning techniques, so they can better model for students.
Science notebooks can also be an effective tool to assess student learning. Notebooks can help children express themselves and communicate their understanding. Within science notebooks students can record questions, observations, data and results from activities. There is a great flexibility with science notebooks. For students that may struggle verbalizing their understanding, they can write down what they know in their notebooks. For those who may struggle in writing, student scan record their observations in picture form too.
In thinking about my future classroom, I know there will be pressures from summative state assessments. In my 3rd grade practicum classroom, I have observed how testing and end of the year assessments impact instruction throughout the whole year. However, in order to truly benefit students, it is essential that formative assessments are a constant part of instruction. For students learn and grow, teachers must provide students with feedback that will help them improve. Furthermore, formative assessments will allow teachers to reflect on their instruction, and assess whether or not their teaching is meeting all the diverse needs in the classroom.