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Common assessments, common experiences, and the messy path of acquisition

Teacher: Hi Mike. I’ve read all your stuff but one thing that I am hearing from the more resistant-to-CI teachers is: “How do we address common assessments with this approach? How do we ensure we are on the “same page”?” I realize that until we can all discuss bigger things with answers grounded in SLA research, these questions are futile as they all need to understand the paradigm shift– moving beyond units, etc. Even so, I do notice that you don’t mention common assessments in your “My Perfect Year” book where you discuss this topic. Could you speak to that briefly? When you worked with other teachers in your dept’s journey to CI, did you have any common “end points”?

Mike’s response: Sometimes traditional teachers are unwilling to abandon common assessments because, although they may never articulate it this way, they do not trust that their colleagues will “cover what needs to be covered”. Good for you that you were able to abandon vocab & grammar sections on the common assessments! You have won the nit-picky “let’s use assessments to compare teachers” fight… I have never seen that approach successfully build a department, it only tears people down.

So first the truth: I don’t mention common assessments because we stopped using them altogether. I imagine that your colleagues won’t want to hear that, but there is a wide if silent agreement among many national presenters who have told me privately about their own practice, even when they present on assessment methods. Over and over again, experts suggest less formal assessments, less time giving those assessments, and more time for a variety of CI activities. Assessment is necessary for the teacher to understand their own impact and some assessments help students appreciate what they do in class as they recognize the progress that they have made. Informal assessment is integrated into the meat of every activity we do. I also often use quick, formative assessments such as exit quizzes to verify that specific lessons were comprehensible to the less vocal students (such as after story-listening). But informal and formative assessments are quite different from the big common assessments that many departments develop.

Common assessments, on the other hand, are almost always summative with one of three less-than-useful intentions. They want assessments that will (1) organize students by proficiency level or some other metric of language ability, (2) identify the “strong” teachers so that “weak” teachers can learn from them, and/or (3) inform students of where they are on their path to proficiency in the belief that that helps them chart out strategies to continue onward. This last point implies some conscious awareness of their language acquisition which might be useful for a self-study student who is going into deep immersion over the summer (I have seen it!), but that does not seem very relevant to most high school students. The other, more troublesome take away could be that students are supposed to consciously keep track of their language learning, stuff like “hey you need to remember not to conjugate verbs after prepositions unless…”, that kind of feedback could be very harmful. See a researcher named John Truscott on this point.

In my experience, the second option never works in practice (and when I look at it on paper, a chill runs through my bones). You might be tempted to develop data comparing your CI students with their students, thus encouraging colleagues to go pure CI once they see how well your students perform. I wish humans were so rational. Instead most of us would be humiliated and become entrenched in our thinking when faced with “data”, and we find ways to disprove it or interpret differently. Changing the culture of the department requires a fine dance to prevent anyone from digging in.

The best option in that case is to train your entire staff on different ways to “dipstick” or get informal assessments in the moment so that teachers recognize the exact moment when students cannot understand what is being said, or better yet (following Krashen), when the “illusion of comprehensibility” has been broken and students begin to feel confused. A less-than-effective colleague who develops the tools to better read his/her students will then develop skills to self-assess his/her delivery of CI. Change from within is an approach that takes years and requires a growth mindset from the teacher, but is there really any other way?

The other reason to use common assessments, to organize a student population to better provide instruction, I think is deeply flawed, but there is less agreement among various presenters on this point. I believe that kids should not be penalized for how their brains work. They all need rich CI, even those who do not output quickly or accurately. Some educators would rather divide the student population so that the teacher can provide input that is roughly at the same level. I believe that all classes are multi-level classes, and that separating students creates an unequal and unnecessary social reality that inevitably confirms to many students that “they are not smart”. Students succeed most when they feel successful.

Some educators might argue that “the community is paying me” to assign accurate grades… which is ridiculous. I am being paid to support the development of all of my students. I am not being paid to give a grade that will allow colleges to determine whether or not to accept my student… I am not a gate keeper of any kind. I do not issue grades to determine whether students should move on (the answer is always yes unless they simply did not come to class, the only reason my students would earn less than a B). Some of my assessments, the ones that give me a critical perspective of my students true abilities, are never reported as grades. They are for me, to determine how to push forward and determine exactly what “i + 1” is for my students. Your colleagues who expect common assessments will probably never accept this argument, but I do not think that a common assessment that spits back a number or letter grade associated with each student is valuable.

So here is a brief answer if you HAVE to have common assessments; I would try to get teachers to collect data that could improve their own teaching. (1) Quick writes without any prompt or lesson to serve as a template… just a 5 minute quick write at the BEGINNING of class to get a real sense of the language in students head, (2) another quick write after an activity that introduces new vocab or content (OWI for lower level classes, one of my Maravillas for levels 2 and above). The purpose of the second quick write is to understand whether the teacher is providing enough repetition and is going slow enough to maximize acquisition. Ideally the teacher will recognize that variations in the way the lesson is presented to different classes impact acquisition & will seek to identify those variations. The big lesson for each teacher to learn via quick writes is how to provide grammatically-rich but vocab-limited input in class. In the case of OWIs, the questions that guide the creation of an OWI limit the possible vocab used so that, over time, students hear a lot of unpredictable structures within a very predictable format. (3) Teacher reads aloud a short EASY EASY reading, students listen with no visual text. After each paragraph teacher asks comprehension questions that can be answered in one word (concrete questions, not open-ended questions). The purpose is for teachers to become aware of an optimal reading speed when reading aloud to class. Be careful not to de-motivate students by reading for too long, too fast or otherwise being incomprehensible. Encourage teachers to use a text that is new but ridiculously easy. The idea is not to find the students “drowning point”, but rather to make teachers better at speaking clearly and slowly. (4) However you put this together, do not administer the entire common assessment on the same day. Have the first five minute quick-write on Monday, the second quick write on Tuesday (again, 5 minutes), the reading comprehension on Wednesday. If you have small enough classes you could have upper levels record a short conversation on Thursday. The assessment should not be announced as such to students: you do not want students to overthink the output, you don’t want to invoke the monitor. Just a normal day, as far as they are concerned. No need to ever “tell them the results” either, since the data is all to improve teaching.

You might have noticed that I have avoided addressing the “creating a common experience” thread while discussing assessment. A common experience is often understood as common content, whereas you want to develop common skill sets. Avoid any common assessment that would guide teachers to create a day to day “common experience” that leads them to teach to a test. Any test for which students can explicitly be prepared would not be a valid assessment of language ability. The solution my department adopted was to stress the Sweet 16 verbs throughout the 4 year curriculum. Please click here to read an essay where I flesh out what a common experience looks like in my department. In short, when any of my teachers get students at the beginning of the year, we do not have a list of target structures in our minds that we assume our students have acquired. We do not get angry if our level 3 kids do not understand X phrase; instead we are trained to start the conversation assuming nothing and paying close attention to their eyes. At all levels, as we think about how to phrase our language so that it will be comprehensible, we all return to the Sweet 16 verbs and posters. It is a common experience in all classes, even though I spend a week talking about whales and my colleague spends weeks talking about football (what would you expect from a football coach!).

I have to say, letting go of the concrete “scope and sequence” type goals and instead stressing the Sweet 16 verbs has made my department much happier and functional. Teachers put more effort into their classes now that they feel successful and part of a successful team. Feeling like you are letting your colleagues down because you cannot get that list of prepositional phrases into your students heads is not good for the teacher, their colleagues, or their students.

I hope some of these ideas are useful. I am sure you will need to re-frame the assessment ideas if you present them to your colleagues (especially if they are keen to give students grades and not so keen to self-evaluate). Nonetheless I think these ideas could lead to fruitful self-reflection that might move the process along.

4 thoughts on “ Common assessments, common experiences, and the messy path of acquisition

  1. Our school requires common assessments and that’s been fine, all of us getting together and writing or revising every exam. That’s all well and good except next year we want to move into more untargeted territory with a heavy focus on the sweet 16 verbs. Other than quick writes, what do common assessments look like when every clssses has different vocabulary? Thanks Mike!

    1. Look for activities that help teachers examine the impact of their teaching (rather than activities that simply sort students into categories). Organize the common assessment so that teachers are assessing themselves, not the students. Think about what a good CI teacher does and try to find assessments that can shed light on whether that is being done in class. Students will acquire at their maximum ability if the ideal conditions in class are met. The problem with common assessments, from my point of view, is that they focus on “what a student knows”. If you want your department to be more effective, get teachers to focus on their delivery of CI.

      Off the top of my head I would try to create assessments that make teachers aware of their pacing when speaking, use of comprehension checks, personalization strategies, identifying if the teacher tends to only speak to an active subgroup of students or if the teacher draws in all students, how aware is the teacher of what is happening among students (it is easy to be so focused on delivering CI that one does not note that half the class is on their cell phones), use of brain breaks to keep kids attention, smooth transitions, methods to keep kids physically in class so that they are focused on CI, diversity of activities within the CI umbrella…

      My essay is not a celebration of common assessments, but a reflection on how we can use these better.

      1. Thanks for your comment. I like where you’re going with this… I need to mull this over a bit more.

      2. 🙂 I just did the easy part… the hard part is trying to figure out how this could fit into the current school culture while working with specific colleagues, ensuring a positive working relationship & somehow not putting even more work on the backs of teachers!

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