My post today is going to be about something that hit me several years ago, and it is very timely because these days schools are hounded about assessments, teachers are hounded about assessments, students are hounded about assessments, and parents are hounded about assessments. I agree that we over-assess our students, but I do feel that assessments have a special place in the classroom. Used the right way, assessments can allow teachers to see what students are or are not understanding……but only if we take the time to NOTICE.
When I began my teaching career, I would tote home loads of papers to grade. Grade, grade, grade. My time away from the classroom was not spent doing things I wanted to do because I had ALL.THESE.PAPERS.TO.GRADE. What was I grading? Daily work, homework, tests, quizzes. Then after I graded the papers, I would record the grade (back then it was numerical, now it is either a 1, 2, 3, or 4…which a 4 means perfect. Something I have huge beef with, but that’s for another post…I mean, who is perfect? I have mastered subtraction with regrouping, but I still make errors in my checkbook. So does that mean I shouldn’t earn a 4?) Anyways, I record the grade, sent the papers home, students returned them, and I stuck them in their portfolios. I did look at the grades. I saw who had failed, who barely passed, and who obviously didn’t need to spend anymore time on that skill. And I used the grades to make small groups: those who needed a lot of help, those who needed some help, and those who could learn new skills.
Flash forward a few years, and I was in my master’s program taking an assessment course. And in this course, the professor said why give your students a whole page of addition with regrouping to see if they know how to do it? Give them 5 problems. That is enough to see if they have learned it. And as I thought back, I felt so dumb. Why didn’t I realize that myself? Probably because my schooling had consisted of a whole page of addition with regrouping problems as a test. And some teachers say, “Well, if you only give 5 problems, it will be hard for them to make an A if they miss one. They need more problems so they can make a couple of mistakes and still get a higher grade.” GRADE. Assessments shouldn’t be for grades, they should be for understanding what a student doesn’t get. They should be for figuring out the mistakes a student is making. I began to realize that I needed to take the time to NOTICE my students’ work, NOTICE my students’ thinking, NOTICE what they can and can’t do. And, for those students who don’t know how to add with regrouping, they are getting an entire page of problems that they will do wrong, and it will just further cement the wrong way in their minds, making a much harder habit to break and replace with a correct method (notice how I said A a correct method and not THE correct method….many ways to solve math problems besides using the standard algorithm). And for those students who already know how to do it, how bored out of their minds are they going to be to do an entire page of problems they already know how to do? Talk about busy work.
I vowed from that moment on to change the way I assess. Now some assessments you can’t change, no matter how much you want. But you do have control over the assessments you create and give your students. Namely those formative assessments. Those quick checks to see if a student gets it or not, to see if they are ready to move on to a harder skill or if they need reteaching. My quick checks (as I called them) were going to be just that: quick.
Let’s look at the difference between grading and noticing. Grade each row of problems. How did this student do?
1st row- Zero correct. Now notice what this student did. Quickly we go from thinking that this student can’t add to realizing this student knows basic facts, but does not understand place value when adding.
2nd row- Two correct. Not too bad, but still failing. Now notice what this student did. We realize that this student knows basic facts including those that require regrouping as indicated by getting 17-9 = 8 correct, but this students doesn’t understand how to extend using place value to subtract larger numbers.
3rd row- Two correct. Again, not great but not horrible. Now notice what this student did. This one may be a little trickier. If you teach a grade when student begin to learn multiplication, you probably know exactly what this student is doing. If we grade this row, we will think that the student needs more practice with subtraction and addition. But if we notice, we see that we just need to spend a few extra minutes with this students to straighten out the difference between adding and subtracting with zero versus multiplying with zero. This student has generalized the zero property of multiplication with addition and subtraction. Reteaching this student addition and subtraction would do him no good. However, doing a quick lesson or reminder about how adding or subtracting with zero does not equal zero would be a far better use of time.
When I finally began noticing my students’ quick checks and not just grading them, I became a much more effective teacher, and my students began to progress and excel like they never had before. Why? Because I was noticing their errors. Instead of looking to see if they got it right, I began looking to see if they got it wrong, and, more importantly, WHY they got it wrong. I began noticing and stopped grading. I began giving no more than 4-5 problems during a quick check. Four or five problems is plenty to see a pattern in errors or to make sure they understand. I didn’t spend time reteaching a skill when they didn’t need reteaching. Sometimes all they needed was a quick one-on-one meeting with me to discuss their mistake.
What do you think about noticing versus grading? I would love to hear your thoughts and stories!
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