I’m encouraged by the current public consultation on the future of student assessments in Ontario which is being led by Dr. Carol Campbell. Her team’s task is monumental. I’m encouraged because the process is providing an opportunity for all stake holders in Ontario’s education to have their voices heard.
I offer my voice and experience simply as a classroom teacher. I have the unique perspective of having taught grade 6 for twenty-one years, since the inception of EQAO testing, at the same school, in the same classroom. My teaching and assessment practices have evolved. What worked in my class 20 years ago, didn’t work 10 years ago and certainly would never work today. The only thing that really hasn’t changed during my teaching career is the Provincial Assessment. Over the years I’ve struggled with many questions about about the test and finally wrote my EQAO Test Questions that I simply don’t know the answer to.
But here’s what I do know….
I know that my assessment practices used to mirror that of EQAO. I know that I used the text and let it drive my teaching and my students’ learning. I’d teach from one lesson to the next and one unit or strand was followed by the other. Because I often taught a combined class, my math class was all about control and structure. My grade 5s would work independently on some math problems, typically following algorithms, while I took up homework with my 6s, followed by a textbook driven lesson, followed by textbook driven questions. Once I had the grade 6s working silently, I’d repeat the process with my grade 5s. My assessment was largely based on an end of unit test, a mark would be assigned and we’d move on. We HAD to move on. I had a full textbook of lessons to cover before the beginning of May so I’d have time to review everything before THE (EQAO) TEST…. the one that mattered the most! My Language lessons were similar to my math lessons; textbook driven, teacher centred, unit to unit, tests at the end.
The result of my teaching? We rocked the EQAO test! My students scored high above our board and provincial average in all areas. I was doing everything right! THE TEST confirmed and reinforced this. What EQAO didn’t know was that my first class of students to write the provincial test were conformists and rule followers. They were also a very academic group. Many had the support of their parents at home who sat down with them to do the endless hours of homework I assigned every night.
When our staff reviewed the results of our first EQAO test, we celebrated our success because the numbers looked great. Yes, 15-20% of our kids hadn’t met the provincial standard, but in general we had done great! We made some plans as to how we could improve our scores even further and dove into a new school year. This year’s group was different. I had many more level 1’s and 2’s in my class. But, I was confident, based on the “success” of last years class, that I could get them to that all important “level 3”, so our scores would once again look good. I had to push hard. I struggled and so did my kids. It was a stressful year with lots of tears, meltdowns and breakdowns.
The result of my teaching? We did pretty well on the EQAO test! We still scored above the provincial standard and even above our board average in writing. Yes, 25-30% of our kids were “Level 1 and 2’s”, but in general we had done well! What EQAO didn’t know was that I had many students with behavioural and emotional needs in my class that year. Many were not conformists and rule followers. Many did not have the support of their parents at home. Many came to school hungry and tired. I had students who had outbursts and meltdowns on a daily basis and our learning space was compromised often. I had six identified students who I struggled daily to get to; to help, assist and support. But, we had to push on, THE TEST was looming.
What EQAO doesn’t know is that three of my identified students, who were present every day in our classroom, were exempted from the test; removed from our classroom and assigned a zero.
What EQAO doesn’t know is that one of my students simply refused to write the test.
What EQAO doesn’t know is that one of my student’s mom passed away two weeks before the test.
What EQAO doesn’t know is that one of my students who was identified and modified at a grade 3 level, wrote the test and did her absolute very best. She was so proud of herself and so were we. Upon leaving her school in grade 6 and entering senior elementary school, she would have received a report from the Ministry of Education stating she was a “Level 1.”
Throughout the next 7 or 8 years of my teaching career the same pattern continued. My teaching and assessment practises remained static. How and why would I change? My resources were limited to the ones on the shelves in my classroom and my “success” was reinforced by EQAO test scores that were generally quite positive. Sure there were some years that we showed big blips, but why change what wasn’t broken?
But there was a question that was constantly gnawing at me…could I do better? Not for the test or the results, but for my students? What kind of difference was I making in their lives? What was I doing to help the most vulnerable, under privileged students in my class? Were my teaching and assessment practices really HELPING kids? Was I getting kids excited about learning and coming to school? I could do better. I HAD to do better.
I know that slowly, over time, I stopped focusing on texts, tests and marks and started focusing on kids and presence. Let me explain.
I know that a total shift in my teaching and assessment practice occurred approximately ten years ago after straying from the math textbook, as I traditionally did once a year at Christmas during our annual fundraising efforts for our local Shelter House. As tradition has it, my students raise money via a yard sale and then go shopping to a local grocery store where they purchase food for the less fortunate and finally hand deliver the food (a truck full) to the Shelter. Math, during this time, became relevant and “real” to my students. They work with the money we raise and figure out totals, percentages, budgets, unit pricing and manage and analyze the data. For me, teaching math this way proved incredibly rewarding and easy. My students really seemed to”get” the concepts we were discussing.
However, upon returning to school in January, after Christmas Break, I would reluctantly return to the math textbook and math once again, felt mundane and teaching it often felt like pulling teeth. One day, in the middle of January, after returning from recess I asked my students to take out their math texts and turn to their new unit on Geometry. As my kids extracted their texts from their desks, I once again felt more like a dentist than a teacher, I was back to pulling teeth! It was at that pivotal moment that Erin let out I sigh and implored, “Mr. C, when are we going to do some real math again?” Her question stopped me in my tracks. I felt the same way and so did the rest of my class. However, I also felt conflicted. I knew the text like the back of my hand. The questions, assignments, black line masters and unit tests were all laid out for me. The path was familiar and easy to follow and navigate. But at the same time my students wanted more. The text didn’t provide the same opportunities for learning math that they desired. They wanted to do real math.
So I took a deep breathe, told my students to put their math textbooks away and put their outdoor clothing back on. Once outside I instructed them get into teams of two and construct a rectangular prism out of snow. The math talk and problem solving immediately began. I brought out the camera and took pictures of their learning. We brought all the prisms back inside and I challenged them to find the perimeter and area of the base of their snow cubes. From there we worked on the volume and I figured, while we’re at it, I could introduce surface area. The kids decided they could draw nets to help them find the surface area. The students were completely engrossed in their math and really seemed to be getting it. Their computations were based on something that was relevant, tangible and real to them. We decided that the following day we would compare our prisms, work out the mean and medium and graph and analyze the data collected. As their rectangular snow prisms began to melt and my students prepared to leave for the day, Erin approached me with a huge smile on her face and thanked me for returning to real math. I thanked her for the challenge and for having the courage to speak up. As the kids walked out the door, I reflected on the number of expectations I had covered in one single lesson because we weren’t confined and limited to the content of the text. We had the freedom to explore many different math concepts, traveling down some familiar paths, as well as new and unexpected ones.
I know that over the course of the following years I slowly strayed further and further from the text and stopped stressing about preparing my students for the EQAO test. My focus was steadfastly on my kids and teaching them that they had the power to make a difference for themselves and others. While still working within the confines of our curriculum, I used what resources I had to let my students passions drive our learning. The data I was most interested in was my attendance rates and getting my students excited about coming to school every day. By moving away from being test and marks focused and to being present in my students’ learning, I had the freedom to move from student to student; to listen, prompt, question, reinforce and redirect. In doing so, I gained a much clearer picture of where my students were at and where they needed to go. Assessment became a much more fluid process in my classroom. Feedback and modelling was “just in time” and usable. Students no longer were marks focused; they became learning focused. They thirsted for my feedback and that of their peers. I knew that this is what teaching and learning was all about.
What EQAO doesn’t know is that some of my students who couldn’t wait to get to school every day throughout the school year stopped coming to school during the week of the test.
What EQAO doesn’t know is that some kids who are used to getting feedback often and having their teacher present during their learning tend to shut down during provincial testing.
What EQAO doesn’t know is that kids who are encouraged to collaborate and “think out” solutions feel limited and restricted when writing THE TEST.
What EQAO doesn’t know is kids who are normally very engaged in their learning become quite disengaged when writing the EQAO test.
What EQAO doesn’t know is that my students read texts that are self selected and are given much choice in their writing. Ample time is given for students to reflect on their reading and writing. Time constraints greatly inhibits the quality of student work.
What EQAO doesn’t know is that my students’ learning is relevant and real. There’s very little that is relevant and real about EQAO testing.
What EQAO doesn’t know is that I also teach and model resilience and determination throughout the course of the school year and my students always try their best regardless of factors.
What EQAO doesn’t know is that I worry deeply about my students, who, regardless of how hard they try, still “fail” the test. What impact does that have on their learning?
I also know that I came to another cross road in my career approximately seven years ago. This road led me to a more personalized type of learning and assessment and allowed me to reach students in ways I had never dreamed possible. I know that the thoughtful integration of technology into my classroom has completely transformed my learning space.
I know that technology has provided my students with an abundance of tools that allows them to demonstrate their learning in ways I never before imagined. For example, my students use Explain Everything and QuickTime to explain their thinking in math, iMovie to turn their narrative stories into video and YouTube to share their ideas in many different subject areas. Google Classroom and GAFE tools provide endless opportunities for students to demonstrate and share their learning. Paper and pencil are still tools utilized in my classroom, however, they have become only one of an endless number of tools in my students’ toolboxes.
I know that these tools also afford me the opportunity to provide effective, meaningful, “just in time” feedback that my students seek and require to take their learning to the next level. Technology has allowed me to be present in my students’ learning; to listen, observe, question and prompt. Google forms allow me to record my anecdotal observations and feedback immediately (I often use the voice option) and in a time sensitive manner. Technology also allows me to effectively model and share student exemplars which helps to push my students learning to the next level
I know that technology allows me powerful means by which to differentiate my instruction to most effectively meet the needs of all the learners in my classroom. Google Read & Write is an example of a multitude of tools my students access daily to meet their different learning needs and styles.
I know that technology also allows me to personalize my instruction to tap into the passions and interests of my students. Pursuits such as Genius Hour or the ability to take my students on “math journeys” wouldn’t be possible without it.
I know that technology allows me draw upon resources I never before had access to. It allows me to tear down the walls of my classroom to give my students a voice that permeates far beyond our city and our country. Technology gives us the ability to learn from and with people all over the world. My students are involved in projects that make a difference and matter. They are incredibly engaged, active learners and show up to school ready and eager to learn.
Technology allows me to build an incredibly powerful network of educators to call upon, to collaborate with and share best practices. It has given me the ability and connect, to self direct my own professional learning; to become a better teacher for my students.
What EQAO doesn’t know is that my students demonstrate their learning everyday with tools that are real and relevant in their lives. They work on meaningful, rich tasks. They wish they could share that work with EQAO.
What EQAO doesn’t know is that my students are uninspired by THE TEST. They work collaboratively all year in a learning environment that is rich with tools and resources. During testing week all that is stripped away.
What EQAO doesn’t know is that there are many great teachers who leave grade 3 and 6 because of the pressures they feel from “the test”.
What EQAO doesn’t know is teachers put very little stock in the data from EQAO tests. We feel that too much time is taken up talking about data when all we really want to talk about is kids.
What EQAO doesn’t know is that teachers crave the gift of time, to collaborate and share; to talk about kids and what works for each individual student.
What EQAO doesn’t know is that regardless of all of these facts, most of my students do very well on “the test”. But I have a difficult time celebrating this fact, because I always worry about those who don’t and the impact it has on them.
So, we are at a cross roads. It’s time to look seriously at assessment and reporting in Ontario. Based on everything we know, how can we make it better?
I have my thoughts and my ideas? What are some of yours? You are welcome to share YOUR thoughts here.
….to be continued.