Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Differentiated Assessment in a Standardized Tested Time

Differentiating Assessment for Different Types of Learners and Levels:
How one school successfully uses standardized tests in conjunction with differentiated assessments.
By Amber Henrey
September 14, 2011

Every year teachers are faced with the same dilemma: giving students the (almost) end of the year State Test. It is a standardized test, meaning it is given to all students state wide during the same time frame, in the same exact way, with the same exact questions.

The problems is that not all students were taught or learn in the same manner. As a data-manager as well as teacher for my school this problem haunted my grade level and me as we tried to sleep at night.  We know that out of our 90 students we have huge discrepancies in everything. Socioeconomic status gap was far and wide. English language levels were diverse. Simply the matter of sitting still for a length of time varied between students. There was no way we could effectively teach such a diverse population without addressing the diversity within our classrooms.

We decided to switch for core subject matters from heterogeneous homerooms to homogeneous core classes. Every teacher still taught all the subjects but our kids went between us at different times of the day. It used to be called tracking but I will explain why it isn’t.

To start the year off the students are grouped by a combination of CST scores and teacher recommendations to get the core classes going. 4th grade is the first year these kids are grouped homogeneously so one teacher’s advanced student may be another’s proficient. We monitor who is standing out in the group and adjust accordingly.

During the first month of school we give dreaded assessments. Its not fun but it must be done so that we can quickly diagnose learning abilities and missing skills . We try to keep it to 30 minutes once or twice a day. The assessments are diagnostic and formative in nature. This helps us monitor gains made during the year but also helps to determine our Targeted instruction. The whole grade level takes a mock CST for 4th grade standards to help us make more decisions about who to teach and what to teach them.

Once the results are in we adjust the three groups for Language Arts and Math. If we could have 5 groups it would be ideal but we only have three fourth grade teachers. The advanced to high proficient group maxes out at 35 students specifically assigned to the teacher that has GATE credentials, and is truly an expert at teaching students to utilize their higher level thinking skills. The high basic to proficient group also maxes out at 35 students. The basic to below group hovers around 20 students unless they are pulled out for resource at this time.

The groups are taught the same skills and essential standards at the same time but in different ways. You may see different levels of text and pacing however you will see that if comparing and contrasting is occurring in the advanced class it is occurring in the below basic class as well.

We give weekly assessments based on that specific skill. We do not give “story tests” because we aren’t teaching story recall. We find an alternate text for the kids to read. We select passages that match our theme or genre. We create questions using question stems for our focus and using blooms taxonomy.

Here is where the differentiation comes in. If a student’s reading level is high they take the assessment at their reading level. The questions are the same questions given in the lower levels however they tend to be more open ended. The expectation is that they will be able to answer the question without any other prompting. The middle group has a text at their level but the questions typically have a sentence starter or frame for them to fill in. The lowest level has reading at their level. Their questions are typically fill in the blank with an example or vocabulary list. If necessary we use a multiple choice format as well. We try to mix the types of questions on each test so that we can see if the kids are able to do the standard or are just good at test taking.

Here is what is key:
We focus on the skill and standard chosen as a grade level for that week. We create tests that assess the skill and standard, not if they can do everything at once: read a certain level, write, or spell.  If a group can do all those things and demonstrate mastery of the skill then they are assessed in a way that has all the components. If they cannot do all those things then they are given an assessment in the manner that they can. Regardless of how they show it; if they can demonstrate that they can accomplish the skill or standard then they are considered a success.

Back to the issue of tracking. Our kids do not stay in the same groups all year. We have flexible groupings. If a student has demonstrated mastery for 3 or more weeks they are often switched into the higher group. The reverse also happens. If a student is not able to keep up with the rigor of the class they are in than they can be moved into the lower group.  There was a time where almost an entire class had changes because one teacher was really able to teach something well while another wasn’t. Teaching styles matched to student's learning styles played a big role in why some students were rotated between groups.

We also address the fact that kids have gaps to fill or enrichment to extend. We have another block of instruction called Target Time. We have additional support staff that help us break our groups into even smaller specific groups for 40 minutes 4 days a week. These kids are grouped based on their diagnostic assessments and given time to work on their gaps and one specific standard at a time.  A pre-assessment is given every three weeks for that one standard and one skill the students are working on. Then at the end of the three weeks a post assessment is given. These assessments directly relate to the groups ability. Groups are rearranged as needed.

The students know what group they are in and why. We know kids notice that they are homogenously grouped and instead of acting like it isn’t so we are up front about why they are placed where they are. “This group was created because on the assessment we gave on making predictions using context clues you scored less than 75% we are going to focus directly on that standard for the next 3 weeks and give you an opportunity to move groups again."

This is the third year working this way and so far we haven’t had any issues of insecurity or teasing. If anything it is a relief for our students to be with common peers struggling with similar issues or ready to be challenged. Our CST test scores took a grade level from 39% proficient in third grade to 64% proficient in fourth grade. We continually evolve our procedures and streamline them. 

(I know there are more specific and better ways to differentiate assessment. There are students that get assessed in ways that depend on their strengths. For example a very verbal student had a hard time writing a summary so I interviewed him with my cellphone recorder and then had him play it back to himself as he wrote. He earned and A. Maybe my next blog will be about those as well)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

What Teachers Make

What teachers make? I don’t make much but today was a day that I made memories to hold onto forever.  My day was given a curve ball when 10 minutes before school my hardworking principal asked me to fill her shoes for the day.  As I predicted , her gorgeous stilettos are not an easy thing to fill.  I spent every moment of my day doing something that felt like an emergency. A suspension, ELL re-designation, parent phone calls, broken printers, impromptu SPED meeting and much more kept me so busy I didn’t eat breakfast or lunch. Even worse I forgot about my expensive coffee on my desk.  When the last bell of the half-day rang I felt like it was merely morning break. Amazing how fast time flies when you fill every second of it.
You would think my day was over but alas I still had 7 hours to go. It was Back to School Night and I had a classroom to get ready. Dinner was not going to be an option.  I scrambled to clean up two days worth of subs notes and mess. (I forgot to mention that I missed the day before because I put my tired 30 year old back out erasing a whiteboard.) I hung artwork and prepared PowerPoint slides. I cut out cute “love notes” for the parents to write to their child as a surprise. I even managed to make it to the bathroom.  The gates to our school opened early for younger grades. Our doors weren’t to open until 6:40 on the dot. As I hid in my darkened room I could see parents, kids, and grandparents lined up outside my room. It was only 6:15. I went in the “office space” aka my closet. I felt too guilty seeing them outside the window waiting.
            Finally the moment arrives and my translator isn’t there yet. I let the parents in. The hesitantly looked around the room and took a seat. Without a moment to spare the translator walks in and we seamlessly begin. I have 20 minutes to impart these parents with the goals and expectations I have for the year. It’s not an easy task. I know I didn’t do it justice, but I plan on making it up soon with a parent night on my terms. Overall I’d give it a 5 out of 10. I am hard on myself.
The night adjourns. On my way out my principal tells me she wishes she could clone me. It feels good. What felt even better was a mom calling to me across the parking lot.  It’s 7:40 I should be home tucking my kids in bed and thanking my husband for helping, but I can’t ignore her. She’s come to me with tears in her eyes. At first I think its something tragic. Instead it’s something glorious. She’s come to thank me for understanding her daughter, her greatest gift in life. For the second time in her daughters 5 years of school she has a teacher that inspires her and accepts her. Her daughter isn’t always an easy student but she, like all the others, is always a blessing. That is what I make.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Interesting Day

Today I accomplished a lot. Here it is Summer Vacation...and I am working. Summer is my chance to make the things I will need for the up coming year. The things that in the middle of a lesson I say to myself, "gee I wish I had already done this."

My All Done List for the Day:

Tutorial video on using Google Maps
Video explaining the value or Twitter
Interview for a magazine article
Prepare my grade book
Make my Excel spreadsheets with formulas
Clean out old emails
Make how to sort webmail tutorial
Make some phone calls
Research teaching strategies

Tomorrow there are more things to do. For now I am going to rest and enjoy the last few moments of my son's nap. (BTW that interview thing I mentioned - pretty cool. My first ever. It isn't anything big and I can only hope my name actually gets mentioned...but not the fact that I stammered a couple of times. I am not very good with open ended questions...I need a graphic organizer in my head for those)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Back in the Swing of Things

-Hugging and petting blog- 
Hello friend. It has been too long.

This year has been moving so quickly that I don't realize that it has been almost a year since I began my masters. I've learned so much from my classes and have fully embraced myself as a techie teacher. When I taught 1st grade I used technology for teaching. Now as a 4th grade teacher my students use the technology for learning.

Students are ready to work from computers. They thrive in their natural environment so why not let them? I try to make every lesson include an element of technology. I want them manipulating the technology as much as possible. They think they are just having fun when they are making something in PowerPoint, Hyperstudio, or Previ; but I know the truth- they are learning the technology and my lesson. They are reaching the critical thinking skill of Synthesis, Application, and Creating. It is inspiring as a teacher to see 31 heads focused on their work, happy to be typing and decorating their presentation on parallel circuits or explaining figurative language.

By the end of the year my students knew more about technology than most of their parents. It made parents happy, students happy, and me happy.

I promise not to be gone so long. I have so many wonderful things to my website:

and all the hard work that went into it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I need to do something with this blog!

I have so much going on that it is really hard to find time to blog. I know it is my opportunity to reflect on my teaching...I just don't have time.

Teach 8-12
Data manage 12-3
Mother 3-5
APU Masters classes 5-9
Homework/Planning 9-11
Sleep 11-6
Get ready and to work 6-8

See no time!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Technology = the wrong kind of intelligence?

After watching the videos assigned for my Educ 515 class I am left pondering what I am doing to my children (and students) by introducing them to technology and all of its wonders?

Am I opening a metaphoric Pandora's Box? Will I be giving my students the "gateway drug" of basic computer skills that will allow them to be exposed to too much information?

Is there such a thing as too much technology?

I am becoming increasingly aware that my children are learning a lot about technology. Before I know it my sons, ages 12, 8, and 2 will have surpassed my technology skills. It almost makes me want to stop them from taking part in it. However, I know that is not feasible. The society and culture that we have chosen to live in would be too difficult to sensor from my boys. So I earnestly move forward, teaching them the ins and outs of using a computer and to my chagrin, the Internet. All the while I will continue to instill in them my personal values and warnings about the dangers that exist. It's funny how my values now need to include a chapter on the Internet.

In truth I want them to be computer whizzes. I want them to be able to pursue careers that deal with technology if they so choose to. I do not think it would be fair for me to limit their possibilities because I have a small fear that they may be exposed to more than I want them to.

I liken it to when my mom made me cover my eyes during love scenes of a movie. I almost always peeked, but even if I didn’t I knew exactly what was going on. It’s most likely the same way for my children, at least the 12 year old anyways. Instead of telling him to look away…perhaps I should be telling him WHY he needs to look away for as long as he can.

Hmmm…new question. Perhaps technology isn’t just speeding up our productivity; perhaps it’s speeding up our children’s' childhoods.

Adding to what I've already said  -from class :)

We know about the different modalities and types of learners; visual, auditory, kinesthetic, naturalist, interpersonal, intrapersonal...perhaps technological is the new modality?

Is that an issue? I think not. Some people are going to be doctors, some mechanics, some web page designers...I believe it is important to hit all the modalities and I absolutely believe that "technological learner" is a type modality.

Monday, September 20, 2010

EDUC 515 Response to Continuity vs Change

My opinion is that technology has revolutionized our society and because of it, we need to change our education systems as well. Technology has made many aspects of our lives easier so that there is less need for traditional education and more need for students to know how to be logical and innovative. I believe technology has essentially rewired our brains. I believe teachers need to prepare our children for futures where they will be using technology. I do not believe we are doing our students a disservice for bringing more technology to them.

Technology is a new “language” and like learning any new language, synapses are being formed and connections being made to experiences that do seem to change the brain. I am not an expert in neurology but I do know that as children grow and experience things their brains create “memories” by creating new “wirings” within their brains. The same is true for my mother with Multiple Sclerosis. Each day she has to retrain her brain and essentially create new synapses because over night they have degenerated due to the nature of her disease. Her doctors have specifically prescribed certain brain games for her to play using technology. According the article by Prensky, “the brain constantly reorganizes itself all our child and adult lives, a phenomenon technically known as neuroplasticity.”

According to the book, Outliers; The Story of Success by Malcom Gladwell people who spend over 10,000 hours doing something basically become experts at it. It makes sense to me that our children who are growing up watching hours of TV and spending exuberant hours playing video games are becoming “experts” in a form of passive learning with technology. It makes sense to me that these students are rewiring their brains to react to this type of stimulus. It would be wise of teachers to take advantage of the desire to be involved in technology and use it to teach. Personally, I want to grab my students attention while I still can and fill it with as much excitement and learning as possible. Technology seems to be the way to get it all in there.

In my fairly short lifetime I’ve seen so many changes and I do not see the changes slowing down anytime soon. I believe it is imperative that we give our students the most exposure and training with technology because the possibilities are endless. We do not know what jobs there will be in the future but we can hope to give our students a step in the right direction. I forget which article it was but I remember reading “we are preparing our students for jobs that don’t exist yet.” I couldn’t agree more.

Students today are spoiled in that there is instant gratification through technology. When you want information you can get it with a few clicks on the keyboard. I don’t think it is a disadvantage however, If anything we need to embrace the fact that information is at our fingertips and us it to catapult our students into higher levels of thinking. A student no longer needs to memorize all the names and dates of the presidents before they can write a paper comparing and contrasting the effects that those presidents had on our society. I love that as a teacher I can send my students in the right direction for information and can then skip to the “nitty-gritty” part of my job and have them synthesize and form opinions on the information. According to Prensky, “the reason we memorized so many of there things in the past was only because there was no handy/speedy way to look them up.” I can think of so many more valuable ways to use that brain “space” besides random fact keeping. Attention spans may be shortend, but only because the brain realizes valuable information when it needs to now. I feel our “brains” no longer feel the need to hold onto useless facts because it is better able to categorize and interpret information.

I am looking forward to reading everyone else’s’ opinions on this, as I find it truly fascinating discourse and food for thought.