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My No (Traditional) Test Classroom

January 24, 2013 | Tags: guest blogger, formative assessment
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High school English teacher and tech coordinator Nicholas Provenzano writes frequently for Edutopia and his own blog "The Nerdy Teacher." Nick also contributes to the SmartBlog on Education, where his January 21st post, "I've got 99 problems, but a test ain't one," began this way:

As the semester draws to a close, I look back at my grade book and I see all of the assignments, essays and projects I have given and a smile appears on my face. I have not given a test the entire first semester. Not a single quiz or unit exam shows up in a column. My students smile just as wide when they look at their grades as well. It’s been an amazing year so far, why ruin it with an ugly bubble test?

A few years ago, I wanted to see what it would be like if I spent one marking period not giving my traditional multiple choice exams at the end of units and see what would happen if I gave my students options to demonstrate their knowledge. At the end of those ten weeks I saw higher engagement and a much stronger demonstration of skill and knowledge than any multiple choice exam had ever shown me.

Nick Provenzano goes on to share details about his classroom shift, and the careful reader may detect that his teaching methods, including project-based learning, imply some ongoing assessment of student learning. But is that explanation enough?

When Nick's post came up for discussion in the online Alabama Instructional Partners Learning Network (the "IP Ning"), Tarrant High School social studies teacher Beth Sanders shared these thoughts:

A critical element of creating a classroom like Nick's is the correct and critical use of formative assessment. I fear that some may read this post and feel as though Nick is not assessing his students (although I'm sure he is). My classroom is also a "no (traditional) test" learning environment and it wouldn't work without formative assessment and individual/small group feedback.

One thing that works really well for me is that my students write every single day. They reflect on what we are doing and make meaningful connections to the project at hand. This is, in part, a process of continuous assessment of learning that informs me (and all of us) about our progress.

We also talk a lot about the purpose of our projects. For example, we are not content focused, we are thinking focused. We are becoming experts in applying our thinking and literacy skills and are using the content (which is important but not dominant) to support us in becoming critical thinkers.

This is a huge shift in focus for most high school classrooms, but it is essential if we are genuinely preparing our students to be ready to grapple with whatever content they encounter in college, careers and their personal lives. A great book that helped my own thinking around this issue is Tony Wagner's Creating Innovators. (Thanks to ABPC consultant Jackie Walsh for loaning it to me!)

Another important aspect of the "no test" classroom is student voice and choice in project/rubrics creation and project assessment. My students are involved in the rubric and project building process. I have all of the state College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS) and Alabama High School Graduation Exam (AHSGE) expectations mapped out. I know where we want to start and where I want my students to end up, but we plan the middle (the day to day learning experience) together.

Students in my classroom have real learning options, and they are masters of the terminology used to assess. (The terms I use are very similar to those used in Educate Alabama -- I have broken them down into a vocabulary my students understand and can take ownership of.) They grade themselves with the rubric and grading terms that we have co-created and agreed upon. We also have 1:1 and/or small group conferences to discuss why they graded themselves the way they did, if their assessment was fair, what could have been done differently, and how it connects to the broader ideas of being college/career ready. 

During my first year of teaching, ABPC's Cathy Gassenheimer shared the book Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning by Marc Prensky with me. I think it is a great place to start for educators who are shifting their classroom from teacher centered to student centered and are looking for ways to become an innovative learning environment rather than a test-driven environment. Prensky is very good at explaining the process of shifting to a partnership classroom, and his step by step approach is great for teachers who are interested but hesitant about making this shift happen.
It's just not possible to do it in one jump. I am in year three of this shift and I fall a lot but I can attest to the power of the process and I'm happy to share more about what is working for me.

Bottom line: traditional classroom tests and quizzes reveal very little about the most important aspect of any classroom -- the success of the teaching and learning enterprise. The best assessments are ongoing and they are fully integrated into the everyday educational experience. That's the heart of my teaching practice, and I'm sure it's the same for Nick Provenzano.

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