Research: Past & Present
all students achieve higher standards
Understanding in an 8th Grade Classroom
by Matt Wayne
"How could they give an exam and know if you met standards are not?"
- Lou Jun Jao, 8th grade student.
The question of how we know students are learning
is at the heart of my action research. In my
classroom, I try to practice on-going assessment
what my students are learning. On-going assessment means that I am continually
checking students' understanding and what support they need. These assessments
are not just end-of-teaching tests, but are done through observation, dialogues,
traditional quizzes and tests, performance tasks and projects, and students' self-assessments
gathered over time. The results of my assessments then inform my teaching so
that I can provide instruction that will push the students' understanding.
Contrast this to the most common way we ask students for evidence of their
learning - tests. This reflects what Alfie Kohn describes as our propensity
to do things "to" children rather than do things "with" children. As I reflected
on how I assessed the students, I realized that I wanted to try to do it "with" them
more. From this thinking, my action research question emerged: What happens
when students participate in the process of providing evidence of their understanding?
During our classic American short story unit, I challenged the students to
provide evidence of their understanding of and thinking about their reading.
After having worked together reading Edgar Allen Poe, I gave the students Poe
stories to read on their own. We discussed as a class what the students needed
to show as evidence for their understanding. These became our "standards" based
on work we had done in the class throughout the year and New York City Performance
Standard E5, the Literature Standard. The students decided that they would
like focus on demonstrating literal understanding, analysis, and interpretation
of the Poe stories. Once the students decided on the standards, they spent
the next few days reading and working on their evidence of understanding the
texts. Through observations, interviews and class discussion, I documented
Class observations conducted every 10 minutes while the students worked
on the project revealed:
- Time on task was high. Students rose to the challenge of providing
quality evidence of their understanding.
- Students talked with each other a lot. Many sat together after reading
to confirm their understanding of his challenging stories. (Some of
my struggling readers used an abridged version of the text to help
- Students could decide to work individually or in groups. 5 students
worked individually. 5 pairs of students. 3 groups of three.
- 10 students finished quickly and were satisfied with their first
attempt. The rest changed what they were doing several times.
These are the different ways in which
the students provided evidence of their reading
- 1 poem
- 1 comic strip retelling of the story
- 2 discussions of the students' reading
process - how they figured out what happened
in the story and what it meant.
- 1 discussion of the students' response
to the story.
- 1 paragraph-by-paragraph annotation
of the text.
- 2 pictures of a scene with summary
of the story and analysis of the scene.
- 1 outline to a reading response.
- 2 reading response essays.
Students then presented their evidence to the
class and we discussed whether their work "met standards" or
not. This provoked many interesting discussions
about what is good evidence of understanding and the challenges of assessing
our learning. Here is one piece of evidence we discussed along with student
comments from our discussion.
Susan definitely understands Poe's style. She creates tension in her poem
like he does in her story.
Susan said she wanted to capture the feeling of helplessness she had when
reading. She does that here when the narrator falls down the pit.
Susan recognizes how the pit can be seen as a symbol for the emptiness
in man's soul.
Susan shows a good interpretation and analysis of the story, but lacks
evidence of her literal understanding of the events of the story. However,
the class questioned whether that evidence was necessary based on the depth
of thought in her poem.
| Students should
be active, not passive, in the on-going assessment
of their learning. By being involved in the
process, students were more focused on what
they were supposed to be learning and what
it meant to provide evidence of their understanding.
Our discussion of evidence that met standards
(e.g. Susan's poem) or not (e.g. an outline
of a reading response), demonstrated a need
to balance the freedom to assess in unique
ways and the structure necessary for students
to produce effective evidence. Finding this
balance should be a part of the planning
in our classrooms and schools.
- Provide students with meaningful opportunities
in the classroom to assess their learning.
- Provide teachers with professional
development to support their efforts
at on-going assessment and involving
the students in the process.
develop as a school staff a variety of ongoing
assessments. Student self-assessments and
student created evidence of their learning
and understanding should be incorporated.
is a social act. It is necessary for students
to share their ideas and explore their
thinking together if they are going to
successfully interpret and analyze challenging
texts. The number of students who spoke
with each other about what happened in
the Poe stories is an indication of how
important this is. Also, the class agreed
that the students who discussed their reading
process and their thinking about the story
were effective in demonstrating their understanding.
- Reexamine current
assessment system of heavy reliance
on standardized testing.
- Recognize multiple
forms of evidence of understanding.
- Study school sites
and systems that use multiple forms
in book clubs might be an acceptable form
of evidence. Students could submit a videotape
of their book club conversations to the
district or to a panel of evaluators as
evidence of their understanding.