Tag Archives: accountability

4 Questions We Answer about Exams #3TTWorkshop

We read this tweet, and first of all, let me just say how honored we are to be included with the likes of Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 10.44.35 AMPenny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. The link took us to this post:  Reading (R)evolution post where we read about three high school English teachers much like us who are committed to independent reading and working hard to do right by their students. They asked about semester exams, and since Shana and I recently had a conversation that answered many of their questions, we jumped on the opportunity to share that discussion. We think our friends at Mamaroneck High School will find it helpful– maybe you will, too.

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What are your thoughts on mid-terms/finals and what should be on them?

Shana:  By their very nature, a lengthy exam of any sort measures a student’s fluency with reading and writing, and that’s one of the reasons I like them.  I’ve been thinking a lot this year about sustaining length of thought and what that looks like–not just thinking about one subject for a long period of time, but continuing to read and write and experiment with that subject for a long period of time.  Thus, I’ve tried to create routines that foster fluency, and a lengthy exam is one way to measure whether or not I’ve been successful with that goal.

As for the exam itself, I believe the format matters most.  If we never do worksheets with multiple-choice answers during class time, why start now?  I try to make my exam mirror our daily routines in class–there is a section for independent reading, for sustained writing, for critical reflection, and for goal setting.

Amy:  Like you, I like the idea of measuring fluency with a lengthy exam — and while I do not think one exam on any one day can give an accurate measure of a student’s knowledge, I do think that sometimes it can give us a clear picture of a student’s growth. The exam itself is only one part though. Really, it all comes down to our alignment. How tightly do we align our standards and the skills we need students to master to our lessons and to our assessments, both formative and summative, within our unit cycle? Our semester and final exams should be another extension of that alignment. Too often, it is not.

 

What does a 2-hour exam look like?

Shana:  My written exams all start with a message from me to my students–a missive that this is not an exam one can or should study for, but rather one where students have the opportunity to demonstrate growth, effort, risk-taking, and clear thinking.

From there, I separate the exam into options by subject, and for each subject, I give students a choice of three tasks to complete.  For example, subject one is independent reading, and option one is creating a video booktalk, option two is creating a themed top ten list, and option three is creating a book trailer.

Amy:  When I first moved to a workshop pedagogy, the thing I had to learn is the idea of skills-based instruction and helping students form habits of mind that relate directly to improving as readers and writers. I was no longer teaching a book. Thinking about the skills helped me choose mentor texts and design mini-lessons that would move my readers and writers. Since my instruction changed, I knew my exams had to change as well. And my exams never look the same from year to year.

In my previous district, and especially for grades 9th and 10th, which take the Texas state assessment, half of the semester exam was a common assessment created by the district. It mirrored the state assessment and could be used as a diagnostic tool to measure student growth as they prepared for the end-of-course exam. The other half of the assessment we created in grade-level teams. The second half was difficult because I was the only workshop teacher devoting time to independent reading and writing on my campus. I was able to convince my team to assess skills rather books, but even then, it was difficult to craft an assessment that reflected the practices in my classroom instruction when I was the only teacher with those practices.

A two-hour exam needs to give students the opportunity to show what they have learned about reading and writing, and I absolutely agree:   it needs to mirror the practices we do in our daily instruction, but I also think it needs to give students the opportunity to show how their mastery of those practices help them tackle the kinds of critical reading and writing they must do in their lives beyond my classroom. For example, my students read independently and for sustained periods of time throughout the semester because I want them to learn to appreciate both the efferent and aesthetic value of books –we discuss this a lot as I conduct book talks, and they discuss books with each other. We read to enjoy but we also read to learn. My students write arguments on their blogs weekly, so one option for at least part of their semester exam is to write an argument about their reading. They marry what they’ve gleaned from their independent reading with the skills they’ve learned about writing. (I often give this portion of the exam in advance since it takes time for me to read and assess, but I’ve also given it as a timed writing on exam days. Students know the specifics of what I am looking for in their writing — this ties directly to the AP writing rubric I use to assess their blog posts — so I am able to score these holistically. And quickly.)

 

What should major assessments like an exam measure?

Shana:  What makes a good reader or writer is not necessarily comprehensively covered in any set of curricular standards that I know about.  Instead of feeling obligated to adhere strictly to the Common Core standards, or our WV Next Generation standards.  Because what we value in our classroom is the process of becoming a strong reader and writer, my exam highlights process as well as product.

In addition, some things I really value, like students’ ability to talk to me and one another about their learning using specific academic vocabulary and evidence-based claims, are not measurable by a written exam.  Thus, I assess those things at other times, like during conferences, rather than during exam week.  I don’t feel obligated to try to assess “everything” on one exam–it’s simply impossible to do so.

Amy:  Ideally, an exam should allow students the opportunity to show they have learned the material, right? If our exams are cumulative, and test the acquisition of skills, students should be able to earn credit by showing mastery — or at least growth — as indicated by their exam scores. This goes back to what I said before about alignment. It also represents a big problem in what I see with “grades.” Too often students receive scores on tasks that have more to do with their responsibility (or lack thereof) than on what they have actually learned. Take this scenario:  say a student does not complete x, y, and z assignments for whatever reason. By nature of many grading policies, she receives zeroes for not doing the work instead of not being capable of doing the work. A major assessment should be an assessment that evaluates a student’s ability as it relates to what we have taught, and if she didn’t do x, y, and z, the final assessment should be a last stop measure to show she’s learned what we needed her to learn that semester.

Shana:  I completely agree with the gap between grades and ability.  The whole grade-feedback-evaluation-assessment-ability conundrum has been frustrating us for a while, I know.  Some of my students did not finish the exam by the end of the week, but I won’t hold that against them–they will take it home over break and return it to me in the New Year.  I’m not sure, really, if I ever feel confident “grading” an exam item by item.  Instead, I consider the urging I give at the beginning of my exam–deep thought, strong effort, and time spent–and give a letter grade based on how well it is apparent that the student did those things well.

 

What would your ideal semester-ending assignment look like?

Shana:  I usually end the first semester with a series of activities like I described above, but I always end the second semester with a multigenre project of some sort.

For my first semester exam, Amy and I brainstormed together how to preserve student choice, our values of having students create products rather than just complete tasks, and how to allow for the showcasing of learned skills rather than a “gotcha” mentality with new material.  In our notebooks, we jotted down ideas and I wrote this up.  I made it available to students the Monday before finals week, so they’d have about a week and a half to work on it.  I think what’s important is that the last activity is reflection and goal-setting–looking back on 2015, and looking forward to 2016.

For this year’s end-of-course assignment, I’m excited to do a spin on Tom Romano’s literature relationship paper, in which students create a multigenre series of writings focusing on their relationship with and reading of a text.  I hope to have students re-read a favorite independent reading novel and write in many genres that include reflection, craft analysis, narrative, poetry, and more.  With that end goal in mind, I have designed more written product assignments that deal with narrative and analysis than I usually do.

Amy: My midterm exam is much different than my end-of-course exam. I loved how we talked through what our exams would look like when we were together at NCTE. As you know, what you wrote up will work well for me. Thanks for sharing that and saving me the time of having to write my own. I did a few revisions, and mine looks like yours, except with one less choice of options — and it is only for 50% of the test. Students will work on it in class the week or so leading up to the end of the semester. We have a week and a half after winter break.

The other 50% will be practice for the critical reading part of the AP exam. The 90 minute block will be enough time to take a full-length practice test, important for stamina, and then talk through a few of the passages. Of course, the second portion of the exam will be more diagnostic for me than anything — although we have analyzed texts in much the same way the exam asks students to do.  I haven’t decided how, or if, I’ll take a grade on it yet — my students are all over the place in terms of their critical reading abilities, so no doubt there will be a curve somewhere. I thought about taking a grade on the level of thinking I see in their annotations, but that isn’t fair. Not everyone needs to annotate the same way to truly think about a text. What I may do is have students write a one page reflection about that critical reading test after they take it, maybe set some goals for how they want to continue to grow as a reader during the spring semester. If they are honest with themselves, this reflection would be more specific about tackling complex texts than the reflection they write about their independent reading for the first portion of the exam. (And now I am just thinking as I write.)

Like yours, my students do a complex writing piece at the end of the year, which combines several different genres of writing. For the past few years, we’ve studied multi-modal feature articles and then written our own. On exam day we present our favorite parts to the class. Here’s a few examples of students’ published work from last year. Anthony wrote “Current and Future Sources of Energy,” Maribel wrote “Beauty Unlimited and Undefined,” Bryan wrote his immigration story. These types of assessments are my favorite.

Students take ownership of their writing and take pride in their finished products. They also evaluate their writing process and give themselves their own grade. After all, they do all the work:  thinking, planning, researching, drafting, revising. They are the ones who know if they’ve accomplished what they set out to do.

Please join the conversation:  What are your thoughts on exams in a workshop classroom?

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#3TTWorkshop — How to Hold Students (and Ourselves) Accountable for Reading

Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop in our Secondary Classrooms. Read more about us here.

We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.

Reading accountability and grading our students’ reading goes hand in hand. Both are parts of a workshop classroom that can seem daunting, and sometimes we have to be flexible until we figure out what works well for our students and for us. Let’s start the conversation with accountability.

How do you hold students accountable for their reading?

Amy:  More than any other year, holding students accountable for their reading is driving me crazy. I’ve tried passing a clipboard like I learned from Penny Kittle. Many of my students cannot get their heads wrapped around a simple “Write down the page number you are on” and then “tally your reading for the week.” I see my students for half a class period on Mondays and then every other day the rest of the week. Seems if they miss the chart at the first of the week they never get it caught up.

Last year I tried an online reading chart. Each student had a page in a spreadsheet that I asked them to keep updated. I gave them a couple of minutes in class right after independent reading time. That worked a little better, but it was more difficult for me to access at a glance. I really like to get a true state of the class.

The past few weeks, I’ve started walking around on Mondays and recording page numbers myself. I decided to try this since my students were moving into book club reading. I can see if they are on target with the reading goal for their groups. It’s worked better, but this is not the kind of accountability I want to inspire in my readers. I’ve made myself the accountable one, and I am outnumbered.

Jackie: I’ve had a love-hate relationship with accountability like you, Amy.  The initial passing-around-the-clipboard method did not work for me either.  I shifted to checking individually two years ago.  I have a spreadsheet in which I enter their page numbers and reading rates on Mondays.  The spreadsheet then immediately calculates the percentage they completed and whether they fulfilled their reading rate for the week.  It isn’t a perfect system and I would much rather be conferencing with students instead of checking page numbers, but there are both pros and cons.

On the bright side, I do like checking in with every student on Mondays, and with a class of 24, it takes me about 13-15 minutes to record pages for the entire class.  The other benefit is that I also immediately know when students didn’t complete the number of pages they were capable of reading for that week.  Instead of telling them they didn’t complete the assignment though, we have a conversation about their reading overall.

Honestly, for my freshmen, this form of accountability is key.  It is less important for my AP Literature students, but I enjoy walking through the class every Monday, touching base with every student, and ultimately starting my week off by acknowledging their reading successes.

Amy:  Like you, Jackie, I do enjoy checking in with every student on Monday morning. The time is a trade off though, since I try to hold reading conferences when students are silently reading. I just don’t feel like I have the time to really talk to my students who are not getting their reading time in (That might be the crux of my frustration — I have too many students still not doing enough reading), and now meeting with each student for a longer reading conference on a regular basis takes that much longer. Seems like time eats my lunch every day.

I ask my AP Language students to read three hours a week in their self-selected books each week. Some students read voraciously, and I find these readers don’t necessarily like keeping track of the pages they read each week. I love that they read because they want to — something I hope for all my students, so I do not want to penalize them for not marking an accountability chart.

Besides just noting how many pages students read each week, what other accountability structures do you have in place?

Amy:  In our writer’s notebooks, we keep track of the books we start, abandon, and finish. We also pull vocabulary words –5 words a week — from our independent reading to put in our personal dictionaries. I know you and Shana just discussed vocab last week.

This year as another accountability piece,  I started asking students to complete an occasional reading one-pager. I have mixed feelings about this because I know the value of reading for reading’s sake, but marking the reading chart wasn’t working, and I have a difficult time conferring as often as I’d like. I also need my students to practice writing about literature. All they want to do is summarize, and the one-pager is one way to help them move beyond that.

I hope to get my students to think about accountability as self-evaluation. We talk a lot about the reason for reading:  We build fluency, acquire vocabulary, gain empathy, and learn information. “How has your reading this week helped you do that?”

Jackie: We also keep track of the books we start, abandon, and finish.  Students add to their “Books Read” list at the beginning of their writer’s notebook and they check off the books they complete.  Students also pull four words per week from their independent reading and log them in their WNB dictionaries.

Like you, I tried one pagers from Kelly Gallagher two years ago, but they were difficult to track and my strongest readers oftentimes slowed down their reading to avoid the one pagers.  I believe they can work, but I haven’t found a perfect fit just yet.  My AP Literature students do keep a critical reading journal (CRJ), which I started using this year thanks to Sheridan Steelman’s help.  Sheri is a phenomenal AP Literature teacher I met at UNH Literacy Institute.  Her structuring of CRJs has helped me gain even further insight into my AP Lit students’ needs and successes.

At the end of the day, my greatest source of information comes from the conferences I have with my students.  Students want to talk about their books, and it is a pleasure to sit beside them and learn every day.

So how do you grade your students on their reading?  

Jackie:  My school has competency based grading, so I file reading initiative grades under “formative assessments.”  I look at reading time as purely formative in the sense that it is necessary practice time for students to explore their interests while also building reading stamina.

Students in my CP Freshman English class must read two hours in their independent reading books while students in my AP Literature class must read three hours.  Each student has an individual reading rate, which they calculate and recalculate throughout the year. I adjust their reading times based on whether or not students are completing whole class or literature circle novels.  Students then receive a weekly reading initiative grade out of 20 points.  At the end of the day though, this structure is in place to help students carve out time for reading.  

One of the greatest complaints from my AP Lit students at the beginning of the year was that they didn’t have time to read anymore.  They loved it but it had been a long time since they’d picked a book on their own.  After a quarter of independent reading, Jessica said, “I love independent reading.  It gives me a break from everything” while Claudia said, “I have read more this quarter than I have in the past year.”

Amy:  I wish I didn’t have to give a grade for reading. I wish I didn’t have to give a grade for a lot of the work we do in class, but that is a topic for another day. All my little reading checks equate to a reading grade, all formative, except for a self-evaluation of their reading lives students complete about every nine weeks — that’s a summative assessment I model after a reading ladders assignment I learned from Penny Kittle.

Really, when it comes to grades, if my students show me growth and improvement, the grading is easy. It’s all about moving as readers. Eventually, most students come to realize that — and they thank me for making reading matter again.

How do you handle reading accountability and reading grades in your workshop classroom? Please add to the conversation by making a comment.

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