Many of you have heard, and probably believe, that you should give all of your students a fresh start at the beginning of the year. No peeking at their cumulative folders, no conferences with last year’s teachers, and definitely no gossip. The idea harks back to some oft-quoted research about expectations. The research basically proved that the expectations you believe are the expectations that children will meet. Average children can meet very high expectations if that’s what you have for them, and advanced learners can make little progress if those are your expectations. While the argument is powerful, I have to call bull****. Children victimize children, children injure teachers, and you need to know before they get to your classroom.
It is not uncommon to have a kindergartener who runs from your after school club, exits campus, walks around the block and down a busy street. You need to know. 2nd grade girls have explored another child’s privates while at school and even put inappropriate items in panties. You need to know. A 2nd grade boy has already been experimenting with drugs because his middle school sister thinks it’s funny. You need to know. 2nd grade girls have been hospitalized because they refuse to use the restroom. You need to know. 3rd grade boys draw pictures of bombs and guns on the birthday cards you let them make for each other. You need to know. Some 3rd graders, both boys and girls, are already practiced bullies with confirmed victims in your class. You need to know. 3rd grade boys pass genitally accurate drawings of intercourse to the girls in your class. You need to know. 4th grade boys urinate in the trash can and cover toilet seats with their feces. You need to know. 5th grade boys get angry and hurl chairs at the teacher. You need to know. 6th grade boys threaten to beat up group members via corrosively worded texts if they have to do any of the group’s work. You need to know. 7th graders add gang symbols to their artwork after you display it, angering many parents and threatening your job. You get the idea.
Since you need all of this advance information, you’re going to have to learn to manage your expectations. Try keeping them all expansively high. But on no account should you walk blithely into your classroom trusting that your students came straight out of a made for TV movie. In today’s world, a lot can go wrong with very young children. The better informed you are, the better protected you are, and the better you can protect all of the children in your care.
You will also want to know their special strengths. It can take you months to find out that a 3rd grade boy loves golfing every weekend with his father, that the 6th grade boy who struggles to read spends his weekends nurturing trees in his father’s nursery, that the 8th grade boy who falls asleep in math gets up a 4:00 a.m. every day to milk the cows, or that the 7th grade girl who won’t eat during the class party is fasting for Ramadan for the first time. Other information has academic consequences. The visiting Spanish teacher needs to know which children are already fluent, and you need to know if a translator is required at parent conferences. In middle school, some students already have promising college scholarships in sight as concert violinists, chefs, gymnasts, tennis players, or soccer stars. They must not only spend hours practicing and traveling, they also have the anxiety of performing well compounding with the anxiety of passing your class. Most of us only have our students for a year. Starting with a blank slate means months can go by before you discover how special these children really are and can make a deep connection with them.
On a more benign assessment topic, early one year, the new literacy coach dropped by my classroom. I had been Ms. Ahead of the Curve and had nearly all of my 3rd and 4th graders complete the lengthy computer assessments in reading, language arts, and math by the end of the first full week of school. I had given the spelling assessment and was working on the dreaded three-day writing test as well. My mother, Ms. Barbara, was even completing a sight-word assessment. I had already grouped my students in reading, math, and word study, and was starting guided reading. Not so fast, pardner. Because we were a Title I school, the district wanted an informal reading inventory score for each one of my students. It’s a good thing the students weren’t there because the suddenly stressed me said some not very nice things that I would have to apologize for later.
The informal reading inventory (IRI) is similar to a DRA. Students read a passage aloud, the teacher takes a running record, and the student answers comprehension questions. Then, depending on the reading fluency and comprehension scores, the teacher decides whether the student can read at this grade level or if she should administer the test again at a different grade level. Without interruptions, each level takes about ten minutes to administer, and a child probably averages three levels to complete the assessment.
Without interruptions. The problem is that it is the beginning of the school year. Procedures and expectations have just been put into place. The classroom culture has barely been established, and frankly, several students will not work unless they are well supervised. There is no such thing as without interruptions. Under these conditions, I have to find thirty minutes times more than twenty children. That’s a conservatively estimated ten hours of learning time. I have to find work for all of the other students that will somehow keep them engaged at best and out of trouble at worst. And at my grade level there was no money to hire subs.
Some of my colleagues use their own sick time and hire a substitute teacher who runs their class while they pull students and test them. It’s certainly an option although it doesn’t seem right to use two days of my sick time to meet impossible expectations, especially since I will have to do it again at the middle and end of the year. It also takes me hours after school to prepare sub plans. Others, particularly kindergarten teachers, invite their students before school starts and test them on their own time. Even when the lower grade teachers get subs, I see them in the hallways away from their students for days. For what? The literacy coach suggested that I might get important information from these assessments. I am a reading specialist. I have given and analyzed many IRI’s. I know what it takes, and I knew that I was not going to have time at the beginning of the school year to analyze over sixty pages of data. Plus, the children had already taken extensive computer tests and were already reading with me. I was Ms. Ahead of the Curve, remember?
This happens to me every year. The only difference is that my relationship with our literacy coach is vastly improved. It wasn’t her fault. There are times she should wear a sign that says, “Just the Messenger.” In fact, she solved the problem because she tested nearly all of my students. A colleague of mine prefers to test her own students. By her own admission, it is weeks before she starts teaching reading. So when this happens to you, do the math. How much learning time are your students going to lose? It is so easy for someone in the district office to say they need a test score. (My mom’s theory is that someone needs it for their dissertation.) It is much harder for a principal to face a teacher who is asking to show fifteen hours of movies while she individually assesses each child. You can put it in other terms as well. One year, I told my principal that at the rate I was going, I would not finish testing and be able to start teaching reading until October. Keep making noise. Help will come from somewhere.
Having said all of that, assessments that you know how to use are incredibly helpful. Even more helpful are assessments that you can apply all at once, class wide. Even if your district does not have a computerized system, there are some simple ways to see what your students know and need to know. On the first day of school, I give my spelling assessment. I love the elementary inventory from Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction (5th Edition). The elementary inventory has 25 words ranging in difficulty from “bed” to “opposition.” The intermediate version goes all the way up to “camouflage.” It gives students a taste of just how hard we will be working this year, and it gives me a broad scale to see what the word study needs are in my class.
While we are getting through the computerized assessments, students also complete reading work in mixed groups. Each group is assigned a relatively easy book to read (Amelia Bedelia, Frog and Toad, Cam Jansen, etc. for 3rd graders) and given an individual folder with comprehension questions to answer in complete sentences. Mom carefully wrote the questions, chapter by chapter, based on the grade level expectations for 3rd graders. The work tells me a lot. Some answer the questions based on pictures. One child insisted on answering the questions before she read each chapter. Others read, but the story in their head somehow overrode the one in the book. None went back to the text to check answers. Also, many children didn’t know what a sentence was even when prompted. I sat with groups, and they could read the words to me, but most couldn’t answer anything past the basic fact recall. This all became my list of skills to teach.
For math, you can get the end of year test from the previous grade’s teacher and use that. Every math text has an end of year test. Children who do well can try their current grade’s end of year test. Your district may even have its own math benchmark that you can use. You need to find out what math chapters you can skip, and what math chapters you need to nest in. If you are blessed with help in your classroom, the results of these assessments can help you plan math groups. I don’t have math help every day anymore, but on the days that I do, my mom has plans to pull my advanced students out for accelerated lessons. Last year, she took my struggling students. Why the change? Data.
Interviewers will ask you this question as well, “How will you use data to drive your instruction?” One obvious way is to decide specifically what to teach. You can see whether students already know whether to capitalize days of the month, how many degrees are in a triangle, and the tenets of Buddhism. Another is to decide how to group and regroup students. But I believe the most important way is to transform how you think about teaching.
Tennessee was one of the first states to compare student test scores by individual child from year to year. They started back in the 1990’s. A web site that briefly summarizes even the old research from Tennessee can be found at http://www.tagpdx.org/tvaas.htm. One of the surprising things they learned was that their highest achieving students were not improving. This made teachers upset, even angry, but it also changed how they taught. Think about it. Most of us focus on the struggling students, those who score basic or below basic, trying to catch them up, year after year. We either see the high achievers as a relief because they need so little or as something of a pain because they finish too fast. Being unchallenged in many classrooms, advanced students don’t advance much.
Knowing this before I started teaching, I was determined to challenge all of my students all of the time. See chapter 18 – Differentiation for specifics. At the end of every year, I checked all of the scores available to make sure that I hadn’t shortchanged those children. I compared the progress of all sorts of subgroups, but I kept a special eye on those who started with low vs. middle vs. high scores. California scores were hard to compare because students could max out the test, but I have better tools here in Missouri. Every year, the data came out pretty much the same. Those who started with low scores averaged almost exactly a year’s improvement which is frustrating because I have tried all sorts of ways to help them catch up, but they stay the same distance behind. (Actually, there is wide variability in these scores. Some improved dramatically, some very little. So frustrating!) Those who started with mid-range scores averaged more than a year’s improvement, about two month’s more. And those who started with high scores averaged about a year and a half improvement. Yippee!
Until I stopped teaching combination classes. My first year teaching a straight 3rd grade was also the first year I didn’t have access to two grades of math materials, the first year I couldn’t put advanced students into the next year’s math, and the first year I couldn’t push higher grade level, but low-achieving, children through simpler materials for a few weeks. This year, when students already knew the material in a particular chapter, I tried giving them math enrichment activities which were quite challenging, but did not form a cohesive structure. When I checked my data at the end of the year, I felt deflated. I had let them down. They only averaged six months of growth across the year. So the data changed how I taught. I kept the low-scoring students in class with me in my never-ending search for more than a year’s growth from my struggling students. The advanced students had Ms. Barbara for math. And they studied math in a cohesive structure. I was not messing around. The next year, the low-scoring students still averaged a year’s progress, but the high-scoring students? 17 months.
On the topic of math, we tend to think of each grade level as qualitatively different, as if putting a child in a different grade level of math is a big deal. Having taught four grades of math, often twice at once, this is not at all the case. Take equivalent fractions. Common core standards for 3rd grade require that children understand simple equivalent fractions using visual models or number lines. In 4th grade, students add the understanding that multiplying the numerator and denominator by the same number will yield equivalent fractions, and they explain this understanding using, once again, visual models. In 5th grade, students learn to add and subtract fractions, changing a fraction to its equivalent if they need to. The leaps between these concepts are a year apart for some students and two minutes apart for many others. In fact, as you teach one, you often find yourself reaching for the next year’s concept as an explanation.
For example, as my 3rd graders were learning about equivalent fractions, several of them got tired of creating and comparing number strips. A few thought they had discovered a pattern. Once I confirmed their discovery, they were off to the 4th-grade races multiplying by every number they knew. Not too many minutes later, a cantankerous child asked why we had to know how to make “these dumb equal fractions.” Good question. No one else had a great idea, and the best answer I had at that moment was so you could add them. I showed them how. Suddenly, several students were trying 5th grade work. On that day I learned that bureaucracies can organize learning any way they want, but it’s better to light the fuse and get out of the way.
My truth about assessments is this. Hard work trumps tests. I use some assessments intensively to decide how to group children and what to teach, but none of that matters compared to how hard a child tries. Observe your students and challenge the hard workers. I have had two girls who were refused special education services because their IQ scores were a hair above 80. One improved over two years in reading, all the way up to grade level. The other made no progress at all, even slid backwards. I have had two amazingly gifted 4th grade students. One left my classroom with test scores in the high school range, but more important, sneak reading at every opportunity. The other made no progress, remaining barely at grade level, sitting and staring at his desk every day. Several middle school students have started the year in my easiest spelling group and ended in the hardest just because they were determined to get there. And I still remember student-teaching two little 5th grade girls who were struggling to learn English. They gave up four lunch recesses to retake a reading test until they got 100% on it. Honestly, our governments assess the wrong things. Make sure you look for the right things.