I thank my lucky stars every day that I teach at a school where individual differences are embraced and encouraged. We strive for excellence in as many areas as we can. But how would we do this without relying on PATs to tell us this valuable information? We don’t even use number grades…or letter grades…how could this possibly occur?
I’ll tell you how – communication and collaboration. When I first joined my school four years ago, they were on a journey to more accurately measure student learning. It started with having clear targets for students to work toward, rubrics for common assessments and more information about formative assessment.
What happened was organic and magical. Our new teaching practices clearly told us that our assessment practices did not match our reporting practices, so – yep, we changed them.
Report cards were revamped and revamped and revamped… (yes, this annoyed many people) and we were continuously defending our system of assessment and learning to many who did not grow up with this kind of learning environment.
I left for a few years to expand my repertoire (18 years in elementary and middle school left me curious to see what it would be like to teach at high school and university) and although I loved my 2 years in the wild, I am so glad to be back! Some of the same students I taught in grade 6 are now in grade 9 and I get to be their teacher again. They are still as fun and smart as they were a few years ago…maybe even funner (sic) and smarter! My return has assured me that all of that hard work a few years ago was worth it – we are seeing some amazing things.
How did we do it? First of all, our team (and it truly is a team) had honest conversations about how we could help our students be the best they could be. It meant changing many of our professional practices and taking some risks. We realized that our students needed more literacy support and the PATs didn’t give us any data that would help us because by the time we got the data, the students were in different classrooms with different teachers and we didn’t even have the assessments in hand to analyze these results. Yes, we had the results, but we were missing the teachable moment – what exactly were they struggling with and how could we reach each them.
We formed a Literacy Steering Committe and started throwing around ideas. We quickly realized we really didn’t know the patterns of learning within our school population. In a school of over 600 kids, the thought of handling massive amounts of data was a little intimidating. We decided to choose some tools that would give us benchmark data at the beginning of each year. Our AISI Lead Teacher was on board (as usual!) and she added her expertise in assessment and collaboration to the mix. We decided to use the following tools to look for patterns:
1. Spelling – Morrison-McCall Spelling Test (to look for spelling and writing issues)
2. Reading- Gates-MacGinitie Reading Tests (Canadian Edition) – Vocabulary and Reading Comprehension Subtests
We trained our humanities team to administer the tests to keep consistency. They submitted their data to me and I entered the scores into a spread sheet. (600 students x 3 test scores – you do the math). After my eyes uncrossed from looking at numbers, we colour-coded the data to flag which students were above, at and below grade level. We created a profile for each student so at a glance, everyone involved with the student could see some basic literacy information. Wonder why that students struggles with problem solving in math? Oh…he is reading is significantly below grade level and maybe needs some supports. Hmm….
I left the school the next year and the team continued to collect the data, record it and analyze it by looking for discrepancies and digging deeper where required. The homeroom teachers started “plunking in the data” on a master spread sheet on the teacher server and the conversations continued.
This fall, we have taken our little plan a little bit further. We now have data of every student in the school (from last spring) and new students can be tested on arrival. Google Docs makes sharing this data much easier and we spent some of our PL day organizing and analyzing the data as well as creating an action plan for our students. We meet as a grade team once a week to discuss housekeeping and emerging issues, but we also meet twice a month to talk about how our kids are doing, what is working and what is not.
Students that are below grade level are being assessed with informal reading assessments (QRI, Jerry Johns,…) to dig deeper into their issues and learning plans are developed. The entire school spends the first 15 minutes of the day together in a reading block – silent reading, strategizing or working with kids to set goals. Yes, our kids know what levels they are at and they use that data to inform their decisions. Not bad for a bunch of teenagers, huh?
By the way-we did look at the PAT results at our recent PL day, but we didn’t need to spend a lot of time because we had one-on-one data instead of grade data. We quickly looked at the kind of questions that our kids seemed to have problems with and thought of ways we could give them more opportunity for practice. But again, those students were long gone to the high school, so we really couldn’t work with them any more.
Student data is shared with parents at Parent-Teacher Conferences or well, anytime, they want to. They just have to ask their kids! My parents know that they can email me or set up an appointment any time and they can see for themselves what’s going down in my class. I just finished meeting with all the parents of children who need IPPs for the year so we could write the goals and accommodations for their child TOGETHER. Funny, not one of them asked me to look at their child’s PAT scores, but they sure wanted to see all of the other data, checklists and anecdotal records we have kept over the years. We have built a culture of trust, caring and professionalism that makes our school a is the fabulous place to work.
Wouldn’t it have saved us a lot of time and energy if Alberta Education developed the benchmark assessments so we didn’t have to research and use commercial tests? Yes, but the adventure is in the journey, not the destination, and I learned so much during that journey, I can’t imagine doing it any other way. However, a system such as this would be extremely helpful to teachers and parents and would make a great alternative to the current system of using PATs for information about children.
I have never said I was against standardized testing – just the misuse of them. I strongly believe that the PATs are a misuse of a standardized test and our children, parents and teachers deserve better.
I could write on and on, but I’ll save those for other posts. I hope this helps some people see that teachers are the best places to go if you want to know how your kids are doing. Don’t ask the Fraser Institute-ask the professionals. They really know your kids.
Til next time,