Assessment and Evaluation Blues

Feeling angsty about this topic. Decided to blog it out.

For a recap of the situation that has given birth to my angst, read my previous post.

I understand current theory about assessment and evaluation. I’ve read Wiggins and Stiggins and McTighe and Cooper. I’ve written and spoken–with great certainty–about designing backwards, “not rehearsing it if it’s not in the play”, and assessment for learning vs. evaluation of learning. So why is it that when I sit down to put together a sample summative assessment task for grade 10 applied English (a course that I’ve taught a number of times) I get stuck? It’s driving me crazy.

In an attempt to figure out why I’m stuck, I’m going to be metacognitive (and slightly schizophrenic) here and outline my process and then try to figure out where I’m going wrong.

I pulled out the curriculum expectations and studied them to try to get a sense of what the big ideas are in the course. Ah, well here’s the problem with that: There are too many expectations! I know that, which is why you have to use your professional judgement to decide what those big ideas are. Right. And how did that work for you?

Not very well. They’re all very vague (which should be a good thing because it allows for more professional judgement) but it makes it pretty hard to pull out a big idea. For example, here are the overall expectations for the Oral Communication strand:

1. Listening to Understand: listen in order to understand and respond appropriately in a variety of
situations for a variety of purposes;
2. Speaking to Communicate: use speaking skills and strategies appropriately to communicate
with different audiences for a variety of purposes;
3. Reflecting on Skills and Strategies: reflect on and identify their strengths as listeners and speakers,
areas for improvement, and the strategies they found most helpful in oral communication situations.

What do I do with that?

Well here’s what I did with that: I tried to figure out what how you could create an essential question for each of the strands, but before I could do that, I started to think, “Hey, if it’s an essential question, shouldn’t it cross strands?”

So I looked at the other strands too and came up with something like: What rights and responsibilities do we have as both consumers and creators of information?

I was quite pleased with that question. Then I started to think, how is this an essential question for 2P English? Isn’t it an essential question for all English courses? That was a little paralyzing, so I tried to move forward and thought, what does it look like to use that question to guide the curriculum planning?

Well, quite frankly, it’s not a very engaging question. It puts a very preachy spin on everything, and when you go back to look at the criteria for an essential understanding, I’m not sure I could say that it IS essential for a 2P student to understand that they have rights and responsibilities as consumers and creators of information.

When I went back and looked at what the 2P English teachers thought were essential for their students the list included: being able to support opinions with facts, write a proper paragraph, cite their sources properly, etc.. First of all, those are all writing expectations and writing is only one of the strands in English. Second, they’re all skills. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what we want from our students?

English isn’t just about skills! That came as a bit of a revelation to me after spending that last 9 months looking at literacy skills. I have a slight case of tunnel vision. If we reduce English to a skills course, we suck the soul out of our discipline. Why do people read? Why do they write? Why do they speak? Why do they create? It isn’t just to develop skills. It’s about power and personal expression and a desire to make and see connections.

But how do I justify that as an essential understanding? By the end of this course, it is essential for students to understand that communication is what makes us human. That’s a pretty heavy cross to bear. Yikes!

What I’m stuck with now though, is the summative task for 2P English. What do I want the students to understand and be able to do and what will the evidence be? I have mindmaps and half-completed charts with coded expectations and big questions covering my desk and I’m no further ahead. Why is this so hard?

Sigh. If you’ve got this figured out, please tell me.

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