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.