Assessment Checkpoint

It had been about ten weeks since I started teaching fulltime and I thought I should reflect on how my classroom assessment is going. I am constantly thinking about assessment but sometimes I think it helps to write things down in order to get better clarity of whatever it is I’m thinking about.

My overall assessment plan is different for my senior physics classes and my grade 9 science classes. For physics I have implemented a standards based grading scheme, whereas for the grade 9 I am using a more standard model. The reason for this comes down to my own graduation into sbg.  As I’ve experienced sbg so far, I see it as an assessment method that works well for tests and quizzes.  I’m sure that it works just as well for projects and assignments but I haven’t had time to explore this yet.  That’s probably a good project for me to look into next year.  Since I want to use more of a product assessment model for science 9, I decided to leave sgb for the 9’s this year.

In terms of formal assessment for the 9’s, I’m reasonably happy with what I’ve done so far.  I’ve had a few quizzes, a couple of assignments and a module assessment using concept mapping.  The students are generally getting high marks, which makes me a bit uneasy though.  I worry about marking too easy. In general, I’m not asking the students to memorize a lot of detail.  I think this is one place where students get questions wrong but I don’t really see the point in junior science, especially in chemistry (our first unit).  When I look at what the big ideas are, I think the unit boils down to some basic understandings and process skills.  To address this, I’ve used a combination of assessment tools.  For the second module in chemistry I did a combination test for the summative assessment.  The first part was a short quiz where the students had to complete some Bohr diagrams and answer questions about the periodic table.  For the second part, the students had to complete a concept map centered on “elements.” They were given a rubric for the assessment expectations and the task was open book.  The quality of work was pretty good.  There was of course the risk of some students simply regurgitating text from the textbook.  More complex concept maps got higher marks by showing cascading detail, prior knowledge and linking words and phrases.  In the end though I think it is reasonable to have students work like this.  I think there is nothing to be gained by having kids store facts in short term memory in order to complete more quiz questions.

I think I will continue along with this general style of assessment.  The feedback from the students was positive as well.  In the example above, the students didn’t know that there would be an open book concept map task, so they prepared for my “test” as they normally would.  They worked hard on the concept map and many enjoyed it (I don’t think too many kids enjoy writing tests).  It’s not my job to make sure that assessment is fun, but if it is achieving its goal then the enjoyment is an added bonus.

In terms of informal formative assessment, i spend a lot of time walking around the class and seeing what the students are doing.  I know that in some cases I am revealing problems that the students have, unbeknownst to them.  I don’t give out very much homework, and I don’t have a lot of material handed in to me.  Heck, I don’t have the time to mark homework even if I wanted to.  I typically give homework only to cover process skills (such as doing Bohr diagrams) and we go over those in class.  Practice certainly doesn’t hurt - as long as it’s a reasonable amount of practice and the learning has already happened.

I have the students track their learning on their own progress sheets, and I find that they are pretty honest when it comes to revealing when they are confused or not understanding the material.  This helps flag problems that students might have, although it doesn’t reveal misconceptions.  I admit that by not collecting worksheets, I may be missing out on catching students that are having some problems.  However, in a couple of classes we will be having our last chemistry test and that will really help me determine if my formative assessment is on the right track.

One last aspect of assessment is bothering me, and that has to do with my product based assessment scheme and its repercussions for Science 10. While I may be happy with my scheme and be able rationalize it and also show success from it, there is a hard reality in the near future with provincial exams.  Next year these students will be writing a 2 hour multiple choice exam for science, and it will be the last science provincial exam that they write in secondary school. It seems like high stakes to me (I need to find out what effects of grade 10 marks are for post-secondary entrance applications).  While I loath to change my scheme in order to prepare for one single exam for next year, it may be a necessary evil.  It’s not that I have a problem with doing practice exams - in fact, we can easily do some practice and not make it “for marks”.  It’s that an exam may require a different type of learning.  I guess what I really should do is sit down with some old science 10 exams and see what kind of knowledge is required for success.  Maybe these exams do a decent job of probing for understanding as opposed to memorizing facts and chunks of information.