A series of seven posts on major turning points in my teaching career. A study of where I was, where I am, and where I'm headed.


Assessment is a topic I focus a lot of energy on every year. Regardless of the number of times I have taught a course, the assessments are fresh each year. I write 20 Pre-Cal assessments a year, for example. The premise behind all this creation is I want to reflect my most current feelings on the course. I don't want assessments I wrote five years ago to affect the way I teach curriculum in the present day.

Where It Was

My assessments were standard fare. I taught Algebra II on-level with a team of teachers. Being a first year know nothing, I made use of the tests written by the team. There was no policy that you had to use the team tests, but they were available and I had no idea what I was doing. It was the best choice. They had about 25 items and were usually two pages. Grading these was a pain. Should I award partial credit? What's worth -1 versus -2? Should this item count for 4 pts or 5 pts?

In my second semester I began writing my own ~25 item assessments. I had more experienced double check them. I wasn't sure what was too easy or too difficult. They had no issues with what I produced which was a nice validation. The pain was still there. And what the heck do I do with students who clearly didn't understand what was going on? I have to write a completely new 25 item assessment?

Then I started noticing stuff. Kids weren't interested in any of my comments. They looked at the number at the top and that was that. Often I found graded papers in the trash. Regardless of class performance, once the assessment was handed back, we never spoke of it again. The number of points per item felt arbitrary. Partial credit felt arbitrary. It would feel like classes did ok on page 1 but would bomb page 2. Kids had no way of knowing if they did well on any particular topic.

I came to realize that these big units are missing something. But no one seemed to have a better alternative.

Where It Is

In the spring of 2011 I implemented a method of Standards Based Grading. My particular jumping off point was Dan's mini-thesis on the subject. It made a lot of sense. Why do you have to assess in such giant chunks? Why do you have to assign arbitrary point values to items? Why are you going through all this effort to provide feedback if kids are just going to throw it away? I couldn't find satisfactory answers to these questions. The risk was worth it. Worst case I'd go back to the established normal.

There are dozens of SBG methods out there. It is not a rigid system. A major talking point I had to reiterate when sharing the idea with others. Lots of people new to the idea want a checklist of rules to follow. The moment that sets you free is when you realize it's about making an assessment that helps you as an instructor, chapter numbers be damned.

Pre-Cal currently uses a two-attempt system. Work a topic once, get a score, work it about a week later, demonstrate you got better or still have it on lock down. What constitutes a section is entirely up to me. If a topic is particularly dense, I'll divide it among multiple sections. If we make advancements from week to week the second attempt will probably demand more of the student. It lets the semester flow smoothly. What topics were relevant this week? What could use more work? What might I delay? Regular, targeted assessment lets me keep pace with the flow of any given school year. I don't stress out if we aren't exactly aligned with previous years. If I want to flex the order of some unit, I can write new assessments to match.

Assessments are short and sweet. Always one page, never more than 5 separately assessed sections. Students can use their notebooks to help them work. From time to timeI let students work together. When first deploying SBG, the sections were pretty rote exercises. After spending a few years in the freedom that short and sweet assessment brings you, Pre-Cal is less about rote exercise and more about putting together pieces to reason through a situation.

As designed, students were to use methods of solving quadratics to determine that the two intersection points where the solutions to one of the three equation systems. This student realized it could be reasoned through with knowledge of transformations.

Here students were given a suggested value for angle p. As designed students could check a cosine ratio against a trig table to see if 59º was a reasonable expectation. This student not only checked cosine, but wanted to see what sine and tangent had to say. All three ratios helped the student reason 59º was close but not quite. Other students use the assumption of p to find a value for the second interior angle and check that as well.

Assessment to me is less and less about seeing if students can follow a script I write in my head. I want to see what they can do with the topics we talk about. Often and on purpose the questions they are given on an assessment are combinations of things they do in class, or require that they design something on the fly. I give no review sheets. Classwork is the review.

Here I provided some requirements and students had to produce something that met the idea, and then describe specifically how their modifications met the goals.

Where It Is Going

Calculus presents a bigger challenge in this department. It is a simple course but there are a lot of moving pictures. You spent a few months talking about tiny pieces of the course until all at once around the end of January, students can see the whole picture. Providing more time for students to discuss material has become more important than having them work through paper tests.

I have tried a variety of SBG methods in Calculus and none of them seem to stick. Calculus has become my biggest assessment playground. At the conclusion of our unit on area between curves and volume, I turned to Desmos Activity Builder. This and Google Forms are both very interesting options for assessment. A Pre-Cal student who complained mightily about having to labor with a pencil to answer all my writing questions mused about whether Calculus would have more opportunities for typing this kind of stuff. That student might be on to something.

My wide-eyed group of BC students are the assessment playground for next year. Will they even take a paper test? Will I grade them in any sort of normal manner? We shall see.


What do you want from assessment as an instructor? What do you want students to take away from assessment? How are you using your opportunities to assess to let students demonstrate and explain what's been going on? I don't think chapter tests written by a textbook answer these questions sufficiently.

AuthorJonathan Claydon