What Do They Actually Know?

Using mini-assessments to break free of the norm

As a ten-year teaching veteran, I have seen many educational “trends” come and go. The one trend that never goes anywhere? Assessment. This is not to say that assessment hasn’t evolved over the years, but for the most part, the evolution I tend to see lies more in the delivery of the assessment as opposed to the style or content.

My current school-home is designated PLA (persistently low achieving) by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. This poses some obvious challenges, as well as places a heavy burden on my English 10 PLC team to produce steadily increasing End of Course (EOC) assessment scores. One freedom our principal has afforded us is the ability to break from our district’s pre-set curriculum map.

We spent a week over the summer looking over the map and the core standards to determine a sequence of standards we thought would best prepare our students for success not only on the EOC, but in the coming grades as well. With this freedom came another challenge: our map no longer matched the RPAs (reading proficiency assessments) provided by our district.

After attending a full-day training on Next-Gen assessment hosted by Student Achievement Partners (SAP), I had slew of new ideas about how to fill the gap that the RPAs would leave. With the blessing of my district ELA specialist, I set about training my PLC team on the style and content of the SAP mini-assessments. This would prove especially useful once Kentucky announced that we would be abandoning the EOC for a new assessment system next year, likely one that would resemble the type of questioning seen on SAP assessments.

Our goal with assessment has always been to determine “what do the students actually know or understand.” Many of our formative assessments are based heavily around demonstrating their understanding through writing in various forms: Claims, Evidence, Analysis paragraphs, graphic organizers, on-demand writing. We, as a team, felt that being able to cite evidence to support their claims was critical to students demonstrating their mastery of the standards.

The biggest appeal to the SAP style of questioning was how closely it was tied to analysis of evidence. Gone were the simple, one-word answer choices that often led to “gotcha” results due to a lack of vocabulary in our students. In their place were comprehensive multiple-part and multiple-response questions that took students to task on backing up their thoughts, while still using a simple enough language structure to not alienate our student base.

We took a two-tiered approach to incorporating mini-assessments into our curriculum. The first step was creating assessments in the SAP model to use as weekly formative assessments with our anchor text: at the time, Neal Shusterman’s Unwind (see attached). It took us about an hour and a half to write a new mini-assessment together. This allowed our students to see and experiment with the format before giving it to them in a high-stakes environment. The second step was to use pre-written SAP mini-assessments in lieu of our district RPAs. Both of these steps showed encouraging improvement in student mastery scores. The students were showing around 45% mastery, whereas with the district tests they were hovering in the 30% range at the start of the year. With assessments that were more closely tied to the standards and the content being taught by our teachers to help them meet those standards, our students were able to truly demonstrate what they’d learned.

I also gave the students the opportunity to provide feedback to me as well as to SAP on their testing experience. While some students had the usual “testing gripes,” their thoughts were largely positive, and they generally believed that this sort of multiple choice with chart integration truly represented their understanding of a piece.

In conclusion….just kidding, I would never do that to you. One of my biggest takeaways from starting the mini-assessment process is that it is actually possible to demonstrate true understanding by “picking B” — multiple choice items can be powerful too. The upfront work to create these assessments for yourself and tailor them to your texts/standards is daunting, but the payoff of seeing students who are used to poor test scores energized by these new results is well worth it. Don’t be afraid to rock the boat when it comes to your assessment style and curriculum sequence.

You can find more ELA/literacy mini-assessments from Student Achievement Partners here. To see the assessment for Unwind that Rob and his team created, including annotations to explain their thinking, see the document attached to this post.

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About the Author: Rob Woodworth has been a High School English teacher for ten years. He has worked as a PLC lead for English 10 accountability year teams for nine of those. He has a Bachelor of Arts in English & Creative Writing and a Master of Science in Secondary Education, both from Indiana University. His dog’s name is Phil, and there’s no teaching Phil.