Sunday, February 14, 2010

Professional Learning Community:Common Assessments

My school's PLC is reading Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work. (Dufour, Dufour, Eaker and Many: 2006). This past week's assignment dealt with common assessments and the need for all professionals to come to agree on the most important tasks. Only those most enduring tasks that are essential for building understanding at future levels should be assessed, and those assessments should be standard for all children throughout a grade level.

The conversation takes me back to me first days of teaching. In Preston County, department members met together and decided the essential knowledge that each child needed to have before progressing to the next level. The content was derived from state's content standards and from enduring deficiencies perceived by the faculty. The faculty then developed a pre/post test instrument to be given each child at the beginning and end of the term. We used these tests as instruments to assess both our effectiveness and the children's progress.

In addition to our pre/post instrument, each child was administered the annual CTBS test. As some of my colleagues suggested, the CT in this moniker was silent. While the test gave an indication of how our students fared in comparison to others who took the test, it did not provide the insightful measure that our own tests did.

The pretest should have been a valuable instrument to determine what our children already knew and what they needed to know. Unfortunately, it was not used that way, at least not by me in my early career. Now I know that I should have used the test to inform what I teach.

I also know now that the post-test, while providing a measure of what we had accomplished, was useless in helping us fine tune instruction to meet our students needs. It occurred after the CTBS test was administered and after the instructional period had ended, too late to use for any type of intervention.

Today, by contrast, we have a myriad of tools that help us guide instruction. We have DIBELS to assess reading in grades k-5 and Acuity to assess math and reading in grades 3-5. All textbook series come equipped with ready-made assessments for chapters and units, as well as suggestions for formative assessments along the way. What is missing from these tools is teacher input, teacher-consensus about what is most important for our students to know. The teacher, it seems, is inconsequential in this equation, irrelevant and unnecessary to guiding the intellectual development of her students.

I think it is high time we take back our classrooms, even if initially it means more work. As suggested in Learning by Doing, we need to "Keep" the essentials in our standards, "Drop" the unnecessary from our CSOs, and "Create" what is lacking. As Leslie pointed out, the CSOs are our curriculum, and we should frame instruction around those learner outcomes. We need to eliminate the textbook as the driving force in our curriculum and rely on our collective professional judgement.We need to develop our own tools of assessment that are relevant to what we as professionals have collectively agreed is most important for our students.

In short, I think we need to blend today's assessment-saturated atmosphere with the practices we used in Preston County Schools in days of old, We can use the ready-made assessments such as DIBELS, Acuity, and publisher-made tests, as Peggy suggested, but only to the point that they assess our instructional goals. The rest can be disregarded.

How liberating that would be for both teachers and students.

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