Teachers are encouraged to use a variety of methods to instruct and assess their students. Tests and essays are supposed to be just two of the myriad ways we can ascertain what students have learned over the course of a particular unit. Additionally, a pedagogically up-to-date assessment is at least as concerned with new skills as it is with content.
Theoretically, this is all well and good. However, there is a great deal of pressure to make all classrooms academically rigorous at all times. In public schools, this can mean a teacher must constantly defend any decision to incorporate art, performance and other less traditional elements into an assessment. There is also the possibility that students will not take an assessment seriously if they do not feel that it is a “real” assignment.
This year I experimented with a poster project as an assessment. What follows is a description of the project itself, the rationale behind its various elements, and some reflection on its efficacy as an assessment.
The project overview
My students completed this assessment at the end of our Early American Leaders unit. Students had been reading and writing about the successes and failures of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Working in teams of 2-4, students created two posters: one poster with the two “best” leaders of the early United States, and one poster with the two “worst” leaders of the early United States.
Each group had to decide for themselves who the best and worst leaders were. I provided printed portraits of each leader to help them visually arrange the men in question as they debated their successes and failures. I also gave students a dozen pictures that represented the interests and achievements of the leaders. The student teams had to puzzle out which pictures went with each leader, and then justify their placement of each picture. These explanations had to be supported by evidence from the texts we’d read during the unit.
After arranging the presidents and the pictures, students were required to add a picture of their own, representing an event related to that leader that was not included in the pictures I provided. This had to be original artwork and had to be explained using textual evidence.
Finally, each team had to create a rating system to rank the leaders from best to worst. This could be a number of stars (like a film rating), a letter grade, or some other less conventional ranking system, so long as it was clear. Each rating had to be explained based on evidence from the text, and the views of every member of the student team.
My teaching rationale
The most important aspect of this assessment was that students had to make meaningful choices at every step. From the beginning, students had to decide who did well as an early leader and who did poorly. The students with the strongest opinions were the ones who had best understood what they read. It was often clear which member of each student team had understood the texts by their ready defense of their opinions about the best and worst leaders.
The printed pictures also forced students to evaluate what they had read and make choices. Most students were under the impression that there were “right” and “wrong” placements for each picture, and tried to get me to give away the “answer.” Each time this happened I referred them back to the texts and asked that the students locate a specific reason for any given placement.
If students found a rationale for placing a picture somewhere I had not considered, I treated it as valid. For example, the pictures included four flags: two Union Jacks, one 18th century French flag and an early U.S. flag. Most students placed the British flags with Adams and Hamilton, because they were federalists. A few teams, however, chose to place the British flag with Jefferson because the Embargo Act was in response to British attacks on American shipping. The purpose of the pictures was not to see if students knew the “right” answer, but rather to determine if students were learning how to support their answers with evidence from the text.
The ranking system at the end of the project was intended to get students thinking in broad strokes. Most of my students continue to think of history as a series of disjointed facts rather than an interpretable narrative. My goal was to have each team discuss the entire story told by their poster, and distill that story into one or two essential themes.
Reflecting on the project
Was my project an unmitigated success? No. But the results were consistent with other assessments I have given previously, and I am certain that students learned more during this project than they have when taking more traditional exams. Even the students who ultimately failed commented during the process about how they were starting to “get it” with respect to the overall story told in their texts.
That was probably the most illuminating aspect of this entire experiment for me. While I will continue to give tests that require the students have some knowledge memorized, this forced me to reflect on whether that is the most important way to check for understanding.
Going back to the texts a dozen times with specific goals in mind helped many of the students comprehend the texts, and a large portion of my students can, months after the assignment, cite specific evidence as to why Adams was, in their opinion, a bad president. The notion that “learning time” and “assessment time” must be separated feels significantly more arbitrary now.
As I have indicated in other MiddleWeb posts, most of my students read significantly below grade level when they come into eighth grade, and many also struggle with evaluative writing. The assessments planned by states adopting the Common Core Standards are going to be heavily weighted toward written response questions. Students will be expected to read one or more texts, and then make an argument supported by evidence from those texts. Assessments that give students practice with these skills will be preparing them for these tests, as well as providing useable literacy skills that can be used in college or the workplace.