Category Archives: Assessment

Change Quiz-No’s to Quiz-Yes’s

For the first several months of my teaching career, I struggled with finding a method of assessing students’ at-home reading assignments. I couldn’t seem to create multiple choice questions hard enough for the kids just reading Cliff’s Notes and not so hard as to resort to asking about minutia. I discovered the foundation of my answer in Carol Jago’s fantastic book, With Rigor For All (now updated as a second edition).

Before I explain, here’s a downloadable sample for To Kill a Mockingbird: TeacherSoup TKM RQ Ch. 18-19 . It ain’t flashy, but it does its job well. (A motto I use for many things in life: cars, kids’ diapers, my hair.)

For the first reading quiz, I take extra time to explain to students the format, rules, and my expectations for their answers. The rules are simple:

1) Students create a four-square box on their paper. Some kids fold their papers and use the creases as their lines, some kids draw boxes. Either way is fine with me. There’s something about having each answer in its own quadrant that makes reading the answers fast and easy. (Another motto I use for many thing in life: cars, dinner, my hair. Your mama.)  Students should also write the title of the quiz at the top of their paper.

2) I always give students six questions and they can choose four questions to answer. Don’t you hate it when you read something and someone else asks you a question about the one part you can’t remember? So do kids! I wanted to hold kids accountable, but not punish them for lacking a photographic memory. I was also selfishly motivated. Four short-answer questions takes time, but not an unreasonable amount of time.

3) All answers must be written in complete sentences.

With short-answer questions, I could get at the how, why, and what (which normally indicate a deeper understanding of content), as opposed to the when or where (which typically reply on details or basic facts). These questions made students think about their reading and could preclude further whole-class discussion. I could also ask students to identify the speaker and context of a quotation and explain its significance. Every so often, I would ask students to draw a picture and label the details (one of Jago’s ideas).

The four-question format simplified the scoring for each answer: 25 points means you thoroughly answered the question; 20 means you proved you understood the reading but left out an important point; 15 means you read but perhaps forgot some aspects or didn’t fully understand; 10 means your answer shows a partial understanding (scoring lots of “10″s was usually indicated a student was simply skimming, reading Cliff’s Notes, or only completing part of the reading); 5 points means you didn’t read but maybe lucked into getting credit for some small detail; zero means totally wrong or left blank.

When students finish, they turn in their work and start a new assignment or get a head start on that night’s reading. If a kid isn’t writing anything down, that’s a good opportunity for me to have a one-on-one conference about why he hadn’t read or why she didn’t understand the reading and discuss how we can solve the problem next time.

I gave my students a reading quiz nearly every day following a reading assignment. The quizzes were meant to reward students for doing the reading by giving them the opportunity to prove their work and also to underscore the importance of the reading. How could I teach the book if the kids weren’t reading the book? In that vein, I also used the quizzes to guide my instruction. (“Why did half of the class miss the question about the fire at Miss Maudie’s house?”) If I decided not to give a quiz, I didn’t tell the kids beforehand; for the next quiz, I would just combine two night’s worth of reading.

These quizzes really reveal who knows the text, who’s struggling, and who’s trying to yank a teacher’s chain. I’ve been known to write “Don’t waste my time” on a few quizzes that were full of Grade A Horse Manure. Alternately, I’ve congratulated kids on answers that taught me something.

Whether you teach English/Language Arts or not, I hope these ideas assist you in your teaching and your students’ learning.



“The Test” provides insight and provokes further questions

Since Tuesday, I’ve been reading a new book called The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed With Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be, by Anya Kamenetz.  I ordered it after noticing in the newspaper that she would be speaking at a nearby bookstore called Politics and Prose – an event I attended Thursday night. Kamenetz spoke briefly about the book and how it came to be, then opened the floor to questions. I would have enjoyed hearing more about her experiences researching and writing the book – a “behind the scenes” look at her writing process – or  alternately, where she envisions or hopes the discussion will go from here. Still, I’m really glad I had the opportunity to meet her in person, ask a question, and have my book signed. (Meeting some of her colleagues from NPR, where she is the Lead Education Blogger, was an added bonus for this public-radio-loving nerd.)

The Test cover pic

I’m halfway through The Test, but I’ve already learned fascinating and important information regarding the politics behind the test and the tidal wave of money flowing into testing and test preparation. I asked Ms. Kamenetz at the book talk whether she had discovered in her research to what degree actual teachers were involved in creating the tests or their questions. She answered that the tests were mainly created by psychometric specialists – that is, people who specialize in test creation. Ok, but I’m still left wondering – what is the background of the test-creators? Do they have degrees or experience in K-12 education? Is their work assessed, tracked, and used for their evaluations as test-question creators? Do the same people write questions every year or do the companies (mainly just Pearson) hire new employees? Where is the transparency on the creation of these tests?

I spent 7 years teaching in Florida, so I’ve administered dozens of standardized tests, dozens of times: computer-based reading tests (several throughout the year), FCAT, FCAT Writes, SAT, and AP practice tests, to name a few. When you’re in the thick of it, you are annoyed at some tests and accept others. You don’t have time to research the validity of the tests, to examine their origins, their makers, or their backers. You’re cutting down each tree that’s planted in front of you, without the time to climb to a vantage point and view the forest.

I’ve been a supporter of using test scores as part of a teacher’s evaluation. I still am. I’ve also been a critic of the kinds of testing currently in use and the degree to which these scores are used in a teacher’s evaluation. I still am – now even more so.

In The Test, Ms. Kamenetz has given readers a lot of information, some possible answers, and perhaps most importantly, a great deal of questions left to explore. I’ll leave the review writing up to the professionals (The Boston Globe, Kirkus Review), and simply say I highly recommend this book to teachers, parents, students, school board members, and politicians.

I look forward to doing more reading, research, and writing on this topic and sharing my thoughts and findings with you.

Me at The Test talk