The Do’s & Don’t of Creating Meaningful Assessments

I am excited to announce that one of my pieces has recently been published by the Association of Middle Level Education magazine. You can see the published version here. You can also read the article below:

The Dos and Don’ts of Creating Meaningful Assessments

Designing assessments to analyze teaching and learning

By: Dr. Shayna Cooke


One of the most frustrating parts of teaching for me has been assessments. There have been so many times when I’ve felt success in learning with my students throughout a unit only to realize they haven’t learned what I thought or hoped they had. It’s equally frustrating for my students to take an assessment, thinking they’re prepared, only to bomb the test. In my mind, I have prepared them. I spent hours planning the unit, engaging them in the materials, reviewing the material before the test, and creating what I consider to be a reflective assessment that addresses the important material. From my student’s perspective, they have equally prepared. They showed up and put in the work. They studied hard and felt confident with the material but were disappointed by the results. In these moments, I have felt that the trust and collaboration I worked so hard to build with my students was damaged.

Here’s the hard part … the truth of the matter is that the responsibility falls on me. Certainly, there will always be students who will not put in the work it takes to be successful, but the majority will, and if they too are floundering, the responsibility is mine. This was a painful realization for me, and truthfully, more than a little frustrating. I found that I needed a hard reset when it came to assessments. I needed to spend some time reflecting on why I was using assessments in the first place, aside from the obvious that it is a requirement from my administration. I needed to ask myself, what is the point? What is the objective?

We are in an inspiring place in education. Teachers are intentionally thinking about every aspect of the teaching and learning in their classrooms. Classrooms are being transformed into laboratories where teachers are trying new pedagogies, protocols, reflection tools, and any tool they believe will help them reach their students where they are on their learning journeys and connect their learning to the world outside the classroom. One of the most challenging aspects of this planning, learning, and creating, however, is creating meaningful assessments that truly and deeply showcase learning.

Assessment always seems to be the most challenging component of teaching. Unlike teaching itself, traditional assessments have not changed drastically over the course of the last decade. For some teachers, the true purpose of assessment remains unclear, and finding ways to teach through the assessment can be even more challenging. Creating meaningful assessments is an incredibly difficult task. We know that assessments should be viewed as tools for learning and are just as important and informative as the content being assessed when created strategically. Assessments then have the potential to become an integral part of the teaching and learning process, both for the student and for the teacher. Unfortunately, there is not much emphasis placed on creating meaningful assessments in most teacher training programs, and therefore teachers struggle with understanding what constitutes meaningful assessment creation.

Reflecting on the following dos and don’ts of effective assessment creation can help educators begin to explore the purpose of each assessment and provide tips to create assessments that will continue the learning process. When creating meaningful assessments, consider the following:

  • Start with reflection. Have the assessment reflect primarily on the big concepts and skills that were emphasized in class throughout the unit. Use the learning objectives and student outcomes as a guide.
  • Provide students with clear criteria for judging performance. It is important that there be transparency around what you are looking for and how they will be graded. This can be accomplished through rubrics, exemplars, review packets and discussions, sample problems used throughout the unit as formative assessments, etc.
  • Create an assessment rubric for yourself as a grading aid to keep grading honest and objective for each student. Rubrics are excellent tools that provide students with evidence of when they are not meeting the learning standards and that give them a tangible goal to aim for.
  • Provide significant feedback regarding the grading on the assessment. It can be frustrating when students focus solely on the grade and don’t seem to read the feedback, only to end up making the same mistakes again. Try giving the assessment back with only the feedback and no grade, then asking them to make an appointment after they read the feedback to discuss it with you and receive their numerical grade.
  • Allow students to fix wrong answers for partial (or full) credit. If they didn’t learn the material, how can they move on until they do? If we keep the learning as the focus rather than the grade, it makes sense to allow them to further their learning of missed material and try again for proficiency.
  • Make sure that formative assessments are reflective of the summative assessment. Students need to be able to practice testing as readily as they practice learning. If the summative assessment is more traditional (multiple choice, true/false, short answer) make sure that at least one-third of the formative assessments are that format as well.
  • Use the collective student success (or lack thereof) to inform your teaching practice. If the majority of your students miss the same question or section, chances are that it’s not them and it might be your teaching strategy of that particular piece of content. Use the assessment results to inform instruction moving forward.
  • Allow students to take collaborative tests. This is more representative of real-world learning and provides practice at high-stakes collaboration.
  • Use exemplars. Modeling a range of exemplars from poor to excellent for students will help them better understand what quality work looks like.
  • Always provide opportunities for reflection for students. Include a section of self-assessment at the end of each summative unit test. For example, “On a scale of 1 to 5, this unit helped me to further develop my critical thinking skills.” Follow this question with, “Provide three pieces of evidence to support your answer.” When asking students to be self-reflective or peer-reflective, always ask for multiple pieces of evidence to support their opinions as they may be seeing things about their work and development differently than you do. These pieces of evidence can serve as a starting point for discussion. I always give my students points for answering these reflective questions as it will allow for a little boost to their grades and I have found they are a little more engaged with these questions with that bonus.
  • Use authentic assessments whenever possible. Every assessment doesn’t have to be traditional in nature. Authentic assessments might look like reports, journals, speeches, videos, or student interviews. Allow yourself to be creative with the assessment format and be willing to try something new.
When creating meaningful assessments, avoid the following:

  • Approaching an assessment as an opportunity to play “gotcha” with students by asking obscure or arbitrary questions.
  • Creating assessments as a means of regurgitation of material. Students parroting material learned by the teacher to the teacher is not an indication of true learning.
  • Making questions that are “Googleable.” If a student can Google the answer of an assessment question, the question itself is too basic and does not dive into true comprehension.
  • Surprising students with assessments, either with the timing of them (pop quiz) or with the material on the test itself.
  • Testing students on material that was not significant during the unit unless you are scaffolding and using the assessment as a way to reinforce previous learning.
  • Deducting points for things that are irrelevant to content learning (i.e., not putting their name on the top of the paper correctly, turning in the paper late, incorrect formatting, messy handwriting, etc).

When done well, assessments can become an integral part of the learning process but the assessment itself should not be the end of the line for the unit. The assessment should be a story about the learning itself. It is important to understand where the student struggles. If students haven’t learned the material, there should be the opportunity for relearning, corrective learning, and misconception destruction if we truly want them to understand and comprehend the material we deemed important in the first place. Ultimately, we assess our students’ learning to know where they are as students and where we are as teachers. To dismiss this important information would be an egregious missed opportunity for collective learning. Assessments, when created strategically, can be used as a tool for comprehensive analysis of the teaching and learning that is happening and where there is a disconnect in that process.


Shayna Cooke, Ed.D., is the director of educator development with the World Leadership School.

 

STUDENT ACTIVISM

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I just returned home from an incredible week leading a student program on the US/Mexico border in El Paso. In all my years of teaching and traveling with students, THIS program is the most formative and transformational, hands down. Our El Paso program is one of the most popular domestic programs that we run right now and it is easy to see why. The academic nature of this program is intense and every aspect of this program makes one challenge assumptions and stare head on into misconceptions. One of the aspects of this program that I loved the most was watching the students begin to truly form their own opinions and ideas around this issue of immigration and the US relationship with Mexico. The students, like adults, came on this program with firm beliefs about immigration and throughout the week of meetings with border patrol agents, undocumented immigrants, migrant farmers, healthcare workers, immigration attorneys, and magistrate judges, the students began to solidify their understanding of what the true problem is at the border and began exploring what they found to be valid solutions for those problems. This is the beginnings of student activism for these students. As we have seen in the US lately, student activism can take many forms. Student activism in the US is not a new phenomenon but we have been seeing more and more instances of it over the course of the last few years. In the last month alone, there were two incidents of youth protest such that this country has not seen since the Vietnam era. #MarchForOurLives and the national student walkout, #neveragain, were organized and executed by students impassioned by events that struck close to home for them. This kind of uprising has not occurred with such force since the 1960-1970s when the youth in this country began fighting for civil rights for all people.

Wherever we stand on these issues and with whatever perspectives that we hold, one thing is certain, we are being called to help our students navigate this time and these newly found passions as they find themselves, some for the very first time, being compelled to act.

One of my favorite quotes by Margaret Mead reminds us that even the smallest stone can create an unstoppable ripple, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Whole-Hearted Teaching Manifesto!

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 9.39.43 AMRecently, I found myself cleaning out files on my computer and stumbled across my original teaching philosophy. Part of my master’s work was to write my teaching philosophy, which is ironic, because how could I create a philosophy about something that I had no real experience with? I read through my philosophy from fifteen years ago and in reflection, I can confidently say that I have grown and changed, not only in my understanding of educational practices but also in my understanding of how students learn and why that is so important. I have taken a very idealistic philosophy of a profession that I knew nothing about, and I have turned it into a reality for myself. Now though, 20 years later, I can feel another shift in this thinking, one where there is a transformation from a teaching philosophy to a teaching manifesto. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that the sharing of beliefs is important but even more so, a plan to transform those beliefs into action gives a more comprehensive understanding of who I am as an educator.

I believe that we are in an incredibly inspiring place in education right now, one where every aspect of teaching and learning is approached with intentionality and creating space with students firmly in the center of this work. Along with this intentionality however, we are inadvertently creating spaces for students that often ask too much of them. Our students are striving hard to achieve in all areas of their educational practice but often, they are not sure why they are doing what they are doing. This lack of clarity in purpose is leading to record high levels of anxiety, stress, and depression in students today and I believe that it is our job collectively (parents, teachers, and administrators) to reimagine what the learning experience looks like and feels like for students so that we can anchor this experience in their own developing sense of purpose. According to Matt Damon of Stanford’s d.School, purposeful students are happier, healthier and manage stress more effectively than students who are merely goal-driven. Purpose is a critical antidote to the growing levels of anxiety and stress in teens today and is a potent game changer for school culture. It is my belief that there are visible and intentional strategies that schools can pursue that help teachers and students explore purpose and bring greater meaning to learning.

To that extent, I work each day to:
1. Strategically support teachers as they transition their classroom focus from a teacher-centered to a learner-centered environment.

As educators, we approach our work from a student-centered lens. We put the overall well-being and psychological safety of our students at the forefront of the work that we do every day. But, being student- centered and learner-centered are not the same thing. To put the learner at the center means that we are critically looking at the learning experiences in our classrooms from the perspective of the student, making sure that each experience allows for student autonomy and that a deep exploration of student purpose and passion occurs through the learning.

2. Work with the Administration team to ensure that the professional learning provided for teachers meets them where they are in their own learning journeys and aligns with their personal professional development interests.
School change can only happen when teachers are allowed to own and drive the change. Teachers embody the culture and the purpose of a school and, when properly supported and inspired, teachers transform schools with their energy and ideas around learning. Teaching in the 21st century is not only a skill; it’s a mindset shift. Therefore, educator development needs to be long-term and continuous to be effective, knowing that true change in the classroom requires long-term work.

3. Look critically at the mission and vision of the school to ensure that the activities and traditions align with what we want for our students’ growth and development.

Using the Backward Design model to look critically at the big picture learning experience for students is an essential practice to ensure that we are indeed “walking our talk”. Reflecting on longstanding traditions to ensure that they provide equitable spaces for all students to be seen and feel valued; using the Profile of a Graduate as a starting place to not only examine what we want students to look like when the leave our institution but to create a corresponding framework to measure the success of that vision; and, ensure that the students themselves are at the center of this work and that the mission and vision of our school is reflective of the learners that occupy this space.

4. Work with the parent community to explore ways that parents can help children approach their individualized educational experience with the uniqueness that makes up each and every one of our students.

Educating the parent community on the complexities and ever-changing nature of the educational experience for students is a necessary component of collaborative support of students. We must work with parents through the understanding that best practices in education have caused a shift in priorities in schools and that these priorities are focused solely on the success of each student as a unique and inspiring member of the community.

5. Be a sounding board for students as they navigate through their personal and educational experiences in this period of their lives.

The most important thing that we can do for students is to help them develop a deep love and respect for themselves, others, and their environment while in our care. Beyond the walls of educational institutions lies a world waiting to be made better by the passion, dedication, and determination of our students as they embark upon the world in pursuance of their own dreams and goals. Preparation for this moment will ensure the empathy and understanding necessary to not only become a valuable member of our communities but also become a valuable member of the entire human race.

PURSUIT OF EQUITY

We are hearing more and more about creating equitable spaces and classrooms within schools…and it is about time! I am so excited about this work because for a very long time, a large number of our students have felt left out, marginalized, less than, or invisible. I have yet to come across another profession that is as intentional and self-reflective as education. We are CONSTANTLY looking at ourselves and our schools for ways to improve; improve our teaching, our testing, our connection with our students, the way in which we push our students to connect to something bigger than themselves and with each other. Finding space for equity is an incredibly important aspect of focus but can seem overwhelming. Where do we start? How do we know how we are doing already and how far we have to grow? My suggestion is to start with your classroom and your curriculum. This checklist provides hard data on 27 observable teacher behaviors that contribute to culturally responsive teaching and equitable classrooms. This is a good place to start to see where your strengths are and where your growth areas are. CSTP has published a rubric that teachers can use when creating lesson plans to ensure that you are being culturally responsive with your planning and activities for student development. The Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium has put together a school-wide equity audit rubric that covers curriculum inclusion, teacher behaviors, school-wide policies, and classroom practices.

Some of the changes that need to happen may be small. For instance, my son, who is in third grade, has a reading assignment this quarter that requires that he read three biographies with no stipulations other than he be interested in the people that he is reading about. After learning about this assignment, I told him that he needs to choose one female biography, one person of color biography, and the third can be an open choice. That would have been a very small change for his teacher to make to this assignment, but one that would have provided an opportunity for students to explore people that they otherwise would not intentionally look for.

Some of the changes that need to happen may be large and overwhelming like the design of whole educational systems in places, practices in and out of schools, and the way in which resources are allocated. Keeping focused on the outcome of more engaged and successful students who feel supported and inspired is important enough to put in this good work.In focusing on the pursuit of equity in schools and in classrooms, my hope is that this newsletter will provide guidance on how to begin making those shifts, both big and small, in your classrooms and in your schools. The hope is that this newsletter will help you begin to take steps away from talk and into action by providing a framework for an action plan that you can commit to now and into the future. We love each and every one of our students, of course we do, but learning HOW to love each of them in a way that resonates with the student is the important piece that we need to begin to really focus on. If you have any thoughts, ideas, practices, or suggestions that you use in your own classroom or school that focuses on the pursuit of equity, please share with me.

EQUITY VS. EQUALITY: 6 STEPS TOWARD EQUITY

As we continue to focus on creating equitable spaces for our students, I think it is important to listen to what other educators are doing in their classrooms. Depending on where you teach and what your student make-up looks like, the creation of your own equitable space might look very different than someone else’s. I like this article by Shane Safir as it offers tangible suggestions from knowing each child well, understanding how their life stories influence their learning stories, and how to remain mindful of the idea that a “one size fits all” approach to learning is really a one size fits none approach. This work is hard and uncomfortable but every moment of critique and reflection are worth it when your students know that you see them and that you cherish them as much as every other student in the room.

10 WAYS EDUCATORS CAN TAKE ACTION IN THE PURSUIT OF EQUITY

Pedro Noguera is a founder of UCLA’s Center For The Transformation Of Schools. In this podcast, Noguera shares ten specific actions educators can take to pursue excellence through equity. Some of these are things we need to speak up about, some are shifts we need to make in our own mindsets, and others are changes we can implement in our own practices. Noguera goes step by step through each of these specific action steps towards more equitable classrooms.

  • CHALLENGE THE NORMALIZATION OF FAILURE
  • SPEAK UP FOR EQUITY
  • EMBRACE IMMIGRANT STUDENTS AND THEIR CULTURE
  • PROVIDE STUDENTS CLEAR GUIDANCE ON WHAT IT TAKES TO SUCCEED
  • BUILD PARTNERSHIPS WITH PARENTS BASED ON SHARED INTERESTS
  • ALIGN DISCIPLINE PRACTICES TO EDUCATIONAL GOALS
  • RETHINK REMEDIATION, FOCUS ON ACCELERATION
  • IMPLEMENT EVIDENCE-BASED PRACTICES AND EVALUATE FOR EFFECTIVENESS
  • BUILD PARTNERSHIPS WITH COMMUNITY TO ADDRESS STUDENT NEEDS
  • TEACH THE WAY STUDENTS LEARN RATHER THAN EXPECTING THEM TO LEARN THE WAY WE TEACH

READING CORNER

USING EQUITY AUDITS TO CREATE EQUITABLE AND EXCELLENT SCHOOLS

Screen Shot 2019-09-10 at 12.26.48 PM.pngI first read this book in my doctoral program and thought it was an excellent way for educators to use the power of equity audits to help eliminate achievement gaps and educational bias in their classrooms and in schools. This text provides a set of “inequity indicators” for evaluating schools, generating essential data, and identifying problem areas for school leaders. There are also nine skill sets for improved equity-oriented teaching for classroom use. There really is something for everyone in this text and I can’t recommend it enough to help you with this work.

ONWARD: CULTIVATING EMOTIONAL RESILIENCE IN EDUCATORS

Onward, Elena Aguilar’s newest book, tackles the problem of educator stress, and provides a practical framework for taking the

Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators

burnout out of teaching. I LOVE this book and the accompanying workbook. I could see schools using this as an ongoing PD for educators for the entire school year. This actionable framework gives concrete steps toward rediscovering your self, your energy, and your passion for teaching. You’ll learn how a simple shift in mindset can affect your outlook, and how taking care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally is one of the most important things you can do. The companion workbook helps you put the framework into action, streamlining your way toward renewal and strength.

  • Cultivate resilience with a four-part framework based on 12 key habits
  • Uncover your true self, understand emotions, and use your energy where it counts
  • Adopt a mindful, story-telling approach to communication and community building
  • Keep learning, playing, and creating to create an environment of collective celebration

THE CHALLENGE

This month, I challenge you to identify two areas within your classroom, curriculum, or school where you can begin to create a more equitable space. Use this Action Plan Framework (PDF version as well) as a way to organize your priorities and your timeline for this process. Check in with me throughout this process and let me know how it is going for you!
Have a great month and, teach well Friends!

This is the year. This is YOUR year!

THIS IS THE YEAR. THIS IS YOUR YEAR! (watch this video for some inspiration!)

August always brings so many emotions for me. The idea that the summer is almost over, that it is time to begin transitioning my thoughts away from the simplicity of summer days where, for me, the greatest decision is which flavor of ice cream to eat, to thoughts of the school days on the horizon. There is nothing like having a good chunk of time in the year to step out of your professional life and back into yourself, finally reflecting on YOU and your needs. Now, that is not to say that teachers do not work over the summer. I do not know a single teacher who does not continue to develop curriculum, read current books related to their content areas and pedagogical exploration, reassess and rework projects and PBL units that need a little love, and think about strategy regarding assessment throughout the summer. However, there is something great about being able to do it over a cup of steaming hot coffee in your PJs (or is that just me?).

August also brings a wave of excitement for me. I still get those butterflies in my stomach when I think of the first day of school and meeting all my new students. There is so much possibility in that first day. The untapped possibility that fills the room with nervous energy as the students survey you and their classmates. The brimming possibility of meaningful relationships with these developing humans. And, the possibility of inspiring these incredible young people to find and develop their own sense of purpose; who they are, where they fit in the world, and the responsibility that comes with that. We teach our content, of course we do, but we do so much more than that. We cheer these kiddos on when they finally understand the problem, we pat them on the back when they demonstrate that they get it, and we beam with pride at the end of the year when they walk out of our classrooms, ready to take on the world. Is this a bit idealistic? Yes. Is every day this inspiring? No. But could it be? Absolutely. I worked with a teacher this summer who told me that her goal was to make every student that comes into her classroom smile, every day. Will that happen? Who knows but let’s high five to her for trying. This is the year. This is YOUR year! Let’s make it happen!

Teach well friends!

A CLASSROOM WHERE EVERYONE FEELS WELCOME.

As we prepare our classrooms for the new group of students that will come in on day 1, each wearing their own armor of protection, be it humor, silliness, nonchalance, disinterest, or disengagement, it is important to be ready to meet them where they are and to really SEE them. Getting to know our students and forming relationships takes time but Janice Wyatt-Ross shares six tried and true ways to embrace each student so that they feel seen and welcomed into your world from the beginning. This article offers suggestions from learning your students names and how to pronounce them correctly to seeing yourself as your students see you as a few of the ways to engage authentically with your students from the very beginning of the year.

 

EVERY KID NEEDS A CHAMPION!

I have shared this video before, and I will undoubtedly share it again because I LOVE this woman and her message. At one point in this TedTalk, Mrs. Pierson says, “while you won’t like them all, the key is that they can never ever know it ” and the very first time I heard her say that it stuck with me and does to this day. We have ALL had those students that we DREADED every.single.day and it takes all the reserve that we have to make it through the class with this kid. But, what Mrs. Pierson says rings true. These children deserve our best, and our hearts, every single day, no matter what. There are plenty people in their lives who don’t believe in them, who will hurt their feelings, who will try to break them down; don’t let one of those people be you. You are building a legacy of relationships with each and every student that you teach and in doing so, you ARE changing lives, every single day.

READING CORNER

MAKING CLASSROOMS BETTER: 50 PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS OF MIND, BRAIN, AND EDUCATION SCIENCE

MAKING CLASSROOMS BETTER: 50 PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS OF MIND, BRAIN, AND EDUCATION SCIENCE

Thanks to modern technology, we have learned a great deal about the complexity of the brain and the learning process. Unfortunately, however, we have not learned very much about how to teach in a way that takes full advantage of how the brain learns. In this book, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa describes Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) science as the intersection of neuroscience, psychology, and pedagogy and draws on research from each of these areas to offer 50 best practices that teachers can employ to maximize student learning and achievement.

The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace

THE 5 LANGUAGES OF APPRECIATION IN THE WORKPLACE

Catch the vision of authentic appreciation! Learn the foundational concepts by reading The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace. This book helps supervisors and managers effectively communicate appreciation and encouragement to their employees, resulting in higher levels of job satisfaction, healthier relationships, and decreased cases of burnout.