Monday, February 17, 2014

Can State Assessments Create Authentic Audiences?

In graduate school, we talked a lot about how to get students students writing for authentic audiences besides just teachers and the occasional peer editing session. However, every spring in Virginia, we send off thousands of student essays from our school to Richmond to be evaluated by a minimum of two graders who have at least completed college and preferably had some sort of teaching experience, according to the Pearson document provided to teachers. Could these essays be considered directed to an authentic audience? If not, would creating an authentic audience in our assessment practices improve student achievement and buy-in?

At first blush, this system seems research-based in that it encourages students to write for someone real who isn't their classroom teacher. However, students never interact with graders in Richmond nor are they asked to write about anything meaningful to their own lives. Here are some recently released prompts. None in particular ask for the sort of careful reflection and analysis that will continue to make the U.S. one of the most innovative places in the world. Perhaps an advanced student could make meaningful writing out of them, but that student wouldn't see his or her work again anyway.

Students need work that is meaningful and long-term. Students could create portfolios of many different types of writing - persuasive, analytical, research, and, gasp!, creative. These portfolios could follow students who move to different divisions. A few requirements could be dictated by the state to insure that all students leave our public schools with firm grasps of how to write a coherent argument and a basic understanding of the research process. The rest could be left up to local schools (which are after all just buildings comprised of teachers, administrators, students, and democratically elected school board members) to determine what their kids need.

Master teachers at the local school could evaluate the portfolios for additional pay and prestige. They could give students blind feedback before another sending the portfolio to the state for feedback. Master teachers at the state level could then provide more feedback that students actually receive. This evaluation method not only provides for professional growth opportunities for teachers without taking them out of the classroom permanently, it also demonstrates to students that writing is a process to be refined over and over. Writing is not a scaled score you receive on a printout.

Of course, you'd have to pay the teachers who give students feedback. I can't find exact amounts on how much the state of Virginia paid to Pearson to create, administer, and remediate for the Standards of Learning last year, but I know that the privately-held, UK-based corporation made over 1.5 billion dollars in 2012. I think we could get use some of our savings from lining their coffers to provide research-based assessment solutions for our students. 

Some might think that this system could be manipulated by teachers and administrators. It could be. But the system we have now is open to that exact same manipulation. Furthermore, if we stopped punishing schools for having students who need more time to master the basics and instead helped them support these students, cheating wouldn't be necessary. We'd all want to have complete pictures of how our schools are doing so we can help them instead of punish them.

But that's a topic for another blog post. How do you think we ought to assess student learning? And what do you think is the purpose of student assessment anyway?

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