Old School Assessment

One of my greatest flaws as an educator deals with the notion of assessment. I struggle perpetually about how to assess, what I am truly assessing, and whether or not the tools and methods I select are actually meaningful. I am constantly stealing ideas, reading articles, and lurking in the background trying to discover the secrets of master teachers who have, as it would seem, an innate sense of what good assessment looks like.

Enter my colleague Rachel Collishaw – a Senior Years history teacher from Ottawa who I had the pleasure of visiting with in November at the Governor General Awards:

Rachel is the bee’s knees and when I heard that she was delivering a webinar for Canada’s History on assessment, I was stoked. In the webinar, she spoke of turning the idea of traditional assessment on its head, and seeing the process as a confversation. She asked the big “what if?”  What if a summative assessment was a conversation between people?

Now, this is not a new idea. Humans have been doing this for thousands of years. But for me, it was a new idea in terms of my practice. What if I really wanted to hear what my students knew, what they cared about, and what they could do? What if I could go deeper into their brains and souls without the worry of plagiarism or the idea that they might be trying to conform to a test, as opposed to expressing their ideas?

Based on her inspiration, I decided to take the plunge! Over the course of the year, I realized that I had not developed the relationship with my Grade 9 Canada in the Contemporary World class that I had wanted. Through a perfect storm of inservices, PD, and, and something called Sochi, I had missed quite a bit of face time with this crew. As such, I decided that I needed to have a conversation with them. Their term test at the end of February would be an interview.

As a group, we began to prepare for these interviews. We initially developed a list of content, skills, concepts, experiences, and “big ideas” that we thought were appropriate for discussion. Next, we created a Google Document which contained a list of questions that might elicit the type of responses that would allow us to determine whether or not we had actually learned something over the past few months. From there, we developed an assessment criteria that would help guide whether or not we had to go back and take a second look at things that we may not be sure of. It also helped me create a “mark,” an apparent and necessary evil of the industrialized education model.

The result was perhaps the best assessment that I have ever done. Not only was I able to see into the mids of the learners in my class, but I was able to see where I needed to improve as a teacher. I saw common themes where my teaching lacked (in argument development, for instance), and where certain learners needed some scaffolding. Most importantly, I began to develop a relationship with the students – the cornerstone of collaborative learning.

Here is a sample:

Granted, the oral assessment is not a new idea, but I am eternally thankful to Rachel for kicking me in the assessment pants. I am really looking forward to playing around with this methodology for the years to come. As per usual, I am late to the game in terms of many things related to pedagogy, so I look to you all for guidance.


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