Archive for October, 2011

A few years ago I attended a  presentation at my school called “Thinking about Knowledge” by Martin Skelton, and one brief comment he made really changed my whole outlook on assessment and reporting. He simply said “true assessment must be pre and post”. In other words, how can you claim to assess learning and report on learning if you don’t know what students know beforehand?

This set me off on a tangent thinking about the future of report cards. Sure everyone’s on the standards-based bandwagon now (including myself), but wouldn’t report cards be even better if they were student-based, that is they report the actual growth of the student’s learning, not just a final snapshot of how they measure up to some arbitrary standard? I understand that have some benchmarks for evaluating one’s progress compared to the “normal” expectation is important, but I think the evolution of learning is trending towards even more personalized learning and assessment, and soon we should be able to track and report on learning in a truly student-based way.

Anyways, I digress! The point I’m trying to make is that teachers need to do a better job of pre-assessing their students. While some may think pre-assessment is a waste of time, the opportunities they give for personalized differentiation and assessment of learning progress are many and valuable: Pre-assessing allows you to identify the students who already have a grasp of certain concepts and will need to be challenged in other ways to continue learning. Pre-assessing exposes student misconceptions that may interfere with learning and need to be addressed. Most importantly pre-assessing gives the teacher and the student a clear“before and after picture” of their learning, which is useful for student reflections, parent conferences, and teacher improvement as well.

For the past few years we’ve been doing pre and post assessments for all of our science units K through 5. It’s taken a lot of trial and error to refine them, but we’ve improved them to the point where they are useful and important piece of our curriculum, so I’d like to share the product and the process. Since it gets a little technical (and it’s getting a little late for a sleep-deprived new parent like me), I’ll break this up into a two-part post: the pre post and the post post.

I’ll use our 3rd grade Sound and Light unit as the example, since I can share some of the pre and post data that’s already come in this year (if you’d like to see examples from other grades- just let me know). Here’s the Sound and Light  pre-assessment, a short written assessment with 6 short-response questions:

The questions have been developed carefully to get a bit of assessment evidence for each of the key concepts of the unit. The post-assessment, as you will see, is much more thorough, but I believe efficiency trumps thoroughness for pre-assessments, so we’ve kept our pre-assessments short and sweet. Also, all of our pre-assessment questions are open-ended/free response, since we don’t want to encourage any guessing with multiple-choice type questions, we want the pre-assessment to be as true a reflection of students’ prior knowledge as possible.

I should add that the pre-assessment is given to students at the very beginning of the unit, with basically no prompting other that “I’d like to find out what you already know about sound and light. If you aren’t sure of something, it’s fine to just write ‘I don’t know.'” Students unfamiliar with pre-assessments will need reassurance that it’s not graded as well!

Teachers don’t need to spend time rigorously assessing these pre-assessments, they simply give them a look over to help them identify the students who already have a lot of prior knowledge about the subject and will need their learning differentiated. We have a pretty high-achieving student body, so there’s always a few in each class who need this kind of extra challenge (side note: I once had a 1st grader identify on a pre-assessment the scientific name and function of each of a fish’s fins! Good luck differentiating that one!).

Then pre-assessments are passed on to me. As the science coordinator at my elementary school, I use the pre and post assessments to evaluate the success of the unit. So take a random sample of 5 students from each class (random.org is a great site for generating quick random number sequences for this) and score their pre-assessments. Like all of our assessments there’s a 4-point standards-based rubric for this. A 3 is meeting the standard, a 2 is approaching, a 1 does not meet, and a 4 is exceeding or excelling. Here’s the scoring guide for the pre-assessment:

I record all of these scores into a spreadsheet, because I want to be able to compare the scores of the same students on the post-assessment after the unit. This year I’ve been using GoogleDocs for my spreadsheets, because it’s great for sharing the results with teachers easily and without cluttering up their inboxes. Here’s a snapshot of what the spreadsheet for this pre-assessment looks like:

As you can see, besides the 4-point scores, I also like to pick one question and record their responses. There’s always some interesting prior conceptions that pop up… for instance you can see here some students are already making connections about sound and air, and sound bouncing off things, and a couple of the students are already aware that sound in made from vibrations (differentiation anyone??).

Lastly the pre-assessments are saved so students can look at them again after the post-assessment at the end of the unit. But more on this later in the post post… stay tuned!


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The other night I gave a presentation to parents about our elementary school science curriculum. Since it summarizes both our program at ASD and some of my own philosophy about science teaching, I though I would share it here.

As John mentioned, it’s ironic to lecture parents about inquiry learning, but I’ve yet to come up with a better idea short of installing Big Brother cameras in my classroom or holding a “Bring Your Parent to School” day… so I’d love to hear other approaches on this.

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