Considering Assessment

Gifted kids like to know why they’re doing things. Why am I learning this? Why am I taking this test? What’s the point of this activity? Why do we have to follow a social contract? Why do I have to show my work? So often, we use some form of “because I said so.” Really though, we assess through student work and discussion, and what kids learn (or don’t learn) sometimes eludes us until we think about assessment differently.

In coaching teachers of gifted students, I know that they work incredibly hard to make whatever assessment they give to kids, whether it be formative (what do we know so far?) or summative (what did we learn altogether?), meaningful and one that will give useful information going forward. The idea of an open-ended assessment is scary, because what do teachers do when the students respond in unexpected ways? Many have moved to technology to create Google quizzes and exit tickets to try to capture what it is that they hoped students learned in a lesson and throughout a unit. And that’s fine…this year.

In my first two years focusing on teaching gifted learners, I tried to do what I was taught in teacher school: Create a pre-assessment and post-assessment that was exactly the same, one that used a variety of question types such as fill in the blank, matching, multiple choice, short answer, long answer, and perhaps a task of some sort to see whether or not the kids could use the information they’d learned to do something specific.

The kids taught me some things.

First, I found that kids can guess the correct answer on a multiple choice test because adults are dumb and we make the right answer obvious.

Why did William the Conqueror invade England in 1066?

A) He liked the view better from England than from France.

B) Harold II unfollowed him on Instagram and he was peeved about it.

C) William, a distant cousin of Edward the Confessor, said that Edward had promised him the throne of England during a visit to France. When Edward died, he came to claim what he felt was rightfully his.

D) William had been taunted by a French knight from a castle down the road and wanted to prove that his mother was not a hamster nor did his father smell of elderberries. Street cred, bruh.

I learned not to use multiple choice questions very often unless it was for an intentional purpose.

Second, I learned that giving kids questions in which they had to regurgitate information was only so useful. Yes, it told me that they remember that William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, but the questions requiring the regurgitation of facts didn’t show me that they understood the significance of that event, or why that person was important in the history of England, or why people invaded anywhere anyway. (Invasion is such a huge effort. Putting together an army, all the travel, uncomfortable lodging…is it really worth it?)

Third, tests of domain-specific vocabulary are not useful if the kids are not using the vocabulary in conversation about a topic, concept, or idea. Kids should certainly know what a variable is and explain its significance in a science experiment. However, knowing what it is and using it when speaking about their science experiment in a way that demonstrates understanding is more important. Helping children understand what an unfamiliar word in literature or poetry means is important–testing them later to see if they know the definition is not unless it is one that is necessary to understand texts going forward.

Lastly, when we create assessments, they often don’t get at the essential questions of a lesson or unit, focusing instead on facts, dates, events. The essential questions we plan for when creating a unit get lost somewhere…and we don’t always go back to them at the end of a lesson or unit to revisit them and make sure that the learning opportunities we provided actually helped students answer those questions.

Needless to say, I changed what my assessments looked like. I began offering more open-ended work throughout, asking students to explain thinking when a what-if questions was posed, or to elaborate on an idea or generate additional questions about a topic. My end of unit assessments were often hands on projects that provided kids an opportunity to show what they know in more creative ways, and there was always an element of explanation whether it was to share with the class the thinking behind what they did, share it with just me, or rate themselves on their understanding of the essential questions.

Did it take longer to grade? Yes. It was worth it though, because what the kids created often gave me more information about how I needed to tie ideas together in later units or how I might provide information differently in future teaching when I had to backtrack to clarify something or reteach it altogether. The clarifying questions that the other students or that I asked were helpful too–the kids then knew what other information they should have added or addressed.

Sometimes, I’d notice others looking in my classroom while kids were working on their assessments and there was concern written on their faces–how could I possibly know that kids had learned what I intended when they’re doing a project of choice that doesn’t require answering specific questions or writing essays to address a question. I had specific answers I wanted addressed in my head. The kids knew what they were because we discussed them before we began the work. We created them together sometimes, and sometimes I created them as we went through a unit or lesson. Assessments were almost always open-resource, so it also evaluated how well they had made notes, kept track of information, and what I needed to teach them so that they could have more useful resources available (which was often more than I thought.)

My favorite add-on to assessments was a blank page that said “What do you know about this topic that we haven’t addressed or that I haven’t asked about?” And often, that told me who went nuts with additional learning, who had a lot of background knowledge, and who found what we were studying pointless in the grand scheme, but picked up the little nuances anyway.

This year, there’s little judgement from me about how teachers are assessing students unless it’s really ridiculous and serves no true purpose other than to check a box that says “Yup! There’s an assessment!” This is not a typical year. This is not a year in which we have all of our kids in the same place at the same time. This is not a year in which everyone has the same supplies available. And this is not a year where we can guide thinking during an assessment the way we would if we were with our kids in the same room.

Thinking ahead though, and using what we have learned this year about using technology and adapting assessments (because this is how teachers spend our summers), how might we change our thinking going forward? Sure, using a Google form is great for a quick check-in, but will it really get to the heart of what kids know and how they can use that knowledge in other contexts? How will we know that they can generalize or stretch what they learned?

Summer will be here soon, so tuck this away for mid-June, after you have had two weeks of solid naps, but don’t forget about it. How we assess our gifted kids is just as important as what and how we teach.

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