Throwing Out Standardized Tests — and Grade Books

By BRAD DAVIS

In a city school system that has added more standardized tests in recent years to an already test-driven curriculum, one little known option is available to principals who want to try something different. The schools chancellor calls it Design Your Own Assessments, and nearly 300 of New York City’s 1450 schools have taken him up on it.

Laura Garcia, principal of Ella Baker.  BRAD DAVIS/Covering Education

Laura Garcia, principal of Ella Baker. BRAD DAVIS/Covering Education

Instead of letter grades and check marks, teachers at these schools offer narrative reports detailing each student’s education. And the child has as much to do with his assessment as his teacher.

Here is how it works for the 300 kindergarten through eighth-graders at Ella Baker School on East 67th Street in Manhattan, one of the design-your-own-test schools.

Instead of getting traditional A-B-C letter grades, one fifth-grader assesses his own progress in his classes. He and all Ella Baker students write what Principal Laura Garcia calls a “narrative,” which includes the stories of the child’s education. Teachers then read the stories, discuss them with students and write their own narratives of students’ classroom performance. Finally, parents join in the process during three conferences throughout the year.

Throwing out the grade book takes the negativity out of assessment, Garcia said. Instead of hearing “You didn’t do this correctly,” the child explores and better understands his strengths and needs.

File Photo

File Photo

“It’s more ownership by all,” said Garcia. “It’s not just the assessment that the teacher is making and telling you — it’s the kids figuring it out for themselves.”

At the beginning of each semester, teachers sit down with each student to map out goals. They can be specific skills, such as multiplication tables. Or they can be goals about more general work habits, such as not talking when the teacher is talking. Teachers also bring their own goals to the meetings: If they see a student show a particular flourish for poetry, they might charge that student with getting published by the end of the year.

This non-traditional assessment becomes a conversation, Garcia said, between students and teachers. And the conversation is about work — the heavy lifting both students and teachers must do to meet the goals they decide upon.

Traditional assessment — letter grades and standardized tests — is less about work, or the process of learning, and more about memorization and cramming. “It’s superficial,” Garcia said.

“Class work should be the assessment — not the test,” she said.

To meet Department of Education (DOE) assessment standards, Garcia and a group of other schools must each year present their own assessment plans under the department’s self-design plan.

As part of the program, Ella Baker and other schools do not have to take the education department’s periodic standardized tests, which are given throughout the year in each grade in English and math.

Garcia said teachers are better judges of what a student has learned — and still needs to learn — than a fill-in-the-bubble standardized test. She said portfolio-based assessment is a more relevant and deeper probe into student achievement.

“We’re taking observations, goals — we’re able to really plan,” Garcia said. “It’s how a child learns — not to play ‘catch you’ or penalize children. It’s information for teachers and a child to be able to teach.”

The schools that design their own are not exempt from the standardized state tests all fourth and eighth-graders must take. This makes it possible to compare the performance — at least when it comes to standardized tests — of traditional assessment schools vs. non-traditional assessment schools.

Ella Baker students are eventually forced to give their students an actual grade — as opposed to a written narrative — when their students reach the eighth grade. It’s the only way the Department of Education will evaluate whether Ella Baker students can move on to high school. So teachers then look over the narratives — both theirs and the students — and assign a 1 through 4 “grade” to each student, with a 4 being the best.

It’s much different from Ella Baker’s typical means of assessment.

Students are asked to evaluate themselves based on a six-point rubric, including such traditional requirements as being prepared for class and working well independently, along with the more nontraditional measurements on whether a student “takes creative risks” and accepts “critical feedback and revision.”

Then, students write their narratives.

One fifth-grader writes, “I am working on bringing my drawings to another level this year.”

Another fifth-grader evaluates his art teacher, Ilan Weissman, whom he calls by her first name: “I think Ilan is a good teacher when it comes to expressing your feelings. You go crazy when you lose your cool, like every time.”

Another student shares a poem:

I feel the pain

It’s hard to talk

You feel it swelling up inside.

You ask yourself.

You lie and lie.

And don’t know what to say

Because the truth is what’s inside

And you know it’s what’s right.

Another fifth-grader comments on a group project and his life: We “chose to write about this because it was a topic we could all relate to. Well, it would relate to me because there are so many cowards on my block with knives and other stuff.”

Weissman, the art teacher, said she would then go over each of her students’ narratives and add her own comments.

Without a strict set of requirements, Weissman said Ella Baker teachers still mean business.

“Freedom doesn’t mean no structure,” she said.

During a recent Department of Education evaluation, Weissman said, outside evaluators visited the school, filling up their notebooks with what would become the department’s annual Quality Review report on the school.

Most DOE visitors are used to visiting schools where scripted teaching, with curriculum assigned to exact blocks of time are typical, Weissman said. When they came to Ella Baker, they didn’t know what to expect.

“One of the guys who came asked a third-grader, ‘What’s your reading level?’ She couldn’t answer him. We don’t do it that way. She just came back and brought a bunch of books and explained to him.”

Turns out, the third-grade girl was on a sixth-grade reading level.

“He was like, ‘Whoa,’” Weissman said of the DOE official.

Garcia is almost finished with the application for her school’s exemption from the department’s traditional assessment. She’ll hear back by the beginning of the next school year whether her school was granted another reprieve from a system she says doesn’t respect that learning is on a lifetime continuum.

“This stuff is messy, but it’s the real stuff,” Garcia said. “When you just show test scores, outsiders looking in on her learners can make quick judgments about things they haven’t taken the time to really understand.”

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