Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Benefits of Shared Assessments

One of the things I really wanted to implement in the MYP (grades 6 through 10) this year is shared assessments across different classes. I cannot emphasize the importance of this, if you are are a department chair reading this. Our school is fortunate to have very strong, very experienced MS and HS math teachers with varying areas of expertise, but the danger of that is that you end up closing the door and teaching in isolation, because you don't need to collaborate with others. Before I came to the school, in most MYP grades there were already twice a year shared assessments (in December or January, and then again in May or June). This is pretty good for making sure that half-way and full-way through the year, we are more or less synchronized in terms of topics covered. But, what I personally found last year as a first-year teacher at the school, was that there was too much anxiety placed upon me and my students the month before those "big tests", to adjust our pacing and content to match the other classes. The truth is that no matter how thorough your curriculum documents are, they are still up to the teachers' interpretations; the only way to ensure that students are not missing any part of pertinent information is by looking at what is assessed, at the end of the unit, in each other's classes, and then adjusting instruction to fill in gaps in real time.

So, this year I recommended that at least 4 times a year (including the midyear and end-of-year exams), we try to create shared assessments. And thus far, this has been really great, because it has allowed/forced us as a department to dialogue on an on-going basis about what we are teaching, how fast we are teaching it, and whether we think our students are moving faster or slower than other groups in the same grade. This makes adjustments possible as an on-going process, instead of only twice a year when the crunch time rolls around. Also, because these smaller shared assessments are based on a single topic/unit only and each teacher can give it when they feel that the class is ready, we can really take the time to fine-tune their content to match the MYP expectations. (In the MYP framework, for example, each assessment must contain "new, unfamiliar" situations for applying the learned topics in order to encourage students to think flexibly beyond normal applications. When we each create assessments for our classes, it's time-consuming to think of good problems like this to use, but when we all collaborate, it's really not so bad.) Another hidden benefit is that shared assessments helps us to provide a shared meaning of grades (ie. a "5" means more or less the same in all classes in the same grade), as well as helps us to identify those kids who are truly behind or truly ahead in their classes, compared to peers across the entire grade. In short, good things are already coming out of this change, and I am feeling quite encouraged by the small changes that are, in the long run, making our students' learning experiences much better!

Another thing we have agreed to try to do this year is to build in a common schedule for MYP projects, which would be a couple of weeks (surrounding vacations) during which time each teacher will come up with their own favorite projects to use for their classes. We have not actually gotten around to doing this yet this year, but I am very interested in getting the conversation started very soon within our department about the particulars and logistics of projects. It will hopefully be another opportunity for us to share ideas on projects and to have a dialogue on what makes a good MYP project.


  1. Some administrators in my district are looking into implementing shared LESSONS across the district, that would be written by our math specialist. We have held strong against this idea so far, and are only implementing shared unit assessments as of this year. My fellow teachers and I feel that each of us brings our own flavor to our classrooms and that implementing lessons created by one person would really be negative for all of us. Thoughts?

  2. Hi Jessica! I have worked in a school that implemented shared lessons. As a new teacher, it was really good for me, because sometimes it forced me to examine/experiment with other lesson formats that I would not have normally gravitated towards myself. In the end, it was a really good learning experience. Now that I've been teaching for a few years, I think I would find shared lessons to be stifling, especially if they are forced upon me, which is why as a dept head I have only implemented/obligated minimal "sharing" across the department. But, from a systematic perspective I can understand the advantages of implementing some shared materials such as lessons or projects. Ideally, you want to provide enough written resources (in the form of a partial curriculum) that all teachers can add on to and take from, that would guarantee some level of success in all classrooms, regardless of teacher's experience level or their personal teaching style. The more such resources you provide, the more you are freeing teachers up to use their energy where best suited -- to offer extra out-of-class help or to personalize the lesson material for their groups without having to re-create the pacing, problem sets of appropriate content/difficulty, etc. If you can do some of that grunt work for the teachers (from a systematic perspective), you are maximizing their effectiveness by allowing them to focus their creative energies elsewhere, thereby improving their students' learning experience. But, there is a big difference between offering shared written curriculum resources and FORCING everyone to use them. The latter is very tricky, because you have to be pretty sure that what you are putting out there would work for all students without modification -- which in my opinion is impossible.

  3. So, in summary, good luck with your district's new situation. Sounds tough, but you should try to keep an open mind and keep the communication line open to giving the administrators honest feedback about their new system / new policies. From a district's perspective, I think the admins are probably feeling some pressure from either having high math teacher turnover, some inexperienced teachers, or low/inconsistent test scores. They probably felt that they needed to do something to address an existing problem. There is likely a reason why they would opt to implement shared lessons, and if you feel that the new system is not actually helpful to your students (after checking out the lesson resources), communicating that clearly to the admin while trying to find an interim solution to address their external-facing problem is going to be the most effective means to counter the new policy. Good luck!!

  4. I am so glad to hear about the changes you are making. It was definitely time to shake things up!