> Mrs. O'Neill's Blog: November 2008

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Assessment for Learning in the USA

Well, I did it. I found Assessment for Learning in America.

At 7.30 am on Wednesday of last week, I found myself in Plymouth, Minnesota, parked outside an oddly shaped building with an enormous sign saying ‘Intermediate District 287’. I was there to attend a two-day workshop.

Before I knew it I was sitting in a conference room eating a chocolate chip bagel and listening to the course administrator explaining earnestly that that we really cannot smoke. Not even, she explains apologetically, outside the building. It’s against the law and the local cops make a habit of regularly swinging by on the look out for offenders. It’s an education building, you see. I get all annoyed until I remember I don’t smoke.

And then the course began properly. Our speaker, Carol Commodore instructed us to find out why the people around us are here. Some of them aren’t exactly sure. Fortunately I am not tempted to ponder the existential questions that are being raised. I know why I am here. I am here because I need to be here. I started out with so many good intentions to use Assessment is for learning (AifL) techniques in my American classroom. But the obsession with GPA (Grade Point Average) that seems to dominate everything had very nearly defeated my good attempts. How do you fit this into an American setting?

Then, an instance of providence. After much googling, I found that ETS, that’s the Educational Testing Service, were sponsoring a workshop on Assessment for Learning. Now, is this I wondered, the same ETS that allegedly made such a mess of the English National Curriculum Assessments? It was. The irony of it all appealed. And besides, desperate times called for desperate measures. So, I spoke to the person responsible for staff development at my school, and before you can say Minnetonka, Minneapolis - I am sent to the ‘Assessment Training Institute’ for one and a half days.

Anyway to get back to the bagels, or the course actually. Before long we were striding forward through the material. Carol’s presentation was music to my ears, honey to my… oh well you get the idea.

I am being reminded just why I find AiFL such a great way to teach. Carol is explaining that, of course, it is not just about assessment but about how we teach in the first place.

Day One flies by really quickly. Yes, that’s right. It was a professional development workshop and it ended too soon. Day Two I have to leave early for parent teacher conferences and drag myself away.

Lots of stuff to think about. I start small, taking notes of words they use differently. ‘Attainment’ is ‘achievement’ over here. ‘Targets’ are ‘goals’. ‘Objectives’ are ‘targets’.

Carol shows us ways to put our learning targets together so that we can show real progress to students, even when using the grade book. She talks about descriptive feedback –we all discuss how to overcome the ‘I see only my grade’ problem. She talks about schools being places of hope, where the point is learning, not grades.

Interestingly, Carol taught us just as she recommended we teach. She made clear her goals at every stage. She stopped regularly to have us discuss and summarize what we were learning. She asked us for feedback on what she had just taught us.

So I am not, by any means, the only teacher in the USA who wants to use Assessment for learning, not grading.

Carol is an independent consultant with the ETS Assessment for Learning Institute. She has her own website here.

If you read this Carol, thank you for reminding me why I love teaching.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

This week a student surprised me. He wrote that he actually enjoyed writing on the topic I had given him and ‘would not mind writing some more.’ Granted his comments were slightly out of place in his formal essay on whether or not we should be studying Greek mythology, but it cheered me up for two specific reasons.

First, he was a key member of a group of students in a particular class who seem to opt out whenever they find English boring or challenging, in any aspect.

Secondly, he had actually turned in his work, rather than done his usual act about not having access to my webpage assignments, or a computer with a printer, or a book, or a pencil or a piece of paper.

It warmed my heart a little. Perhaps it was his version of the ten dollar note that was stapled to the exam paper of a desperate student. I don’t know. My gut feeling is that even a step in the direction of trying to share my enthusiasm for writing, regardless of the motive, is a good thing. Who knows: the thought may be father to the deed… and all that.

If someone had asked me to nominate the task and subject that most enthuses students in their writing, the chances are that I would not have highlighted the essay question which motivated my student. It was: The Greek myths are outdated and irrelevant for study in a modern high school. Discuss.

What sort of things did you like to write about at school? Please comment.