In this age of accountability, assessment has become a popular buzz word. DIBELS, DRA, BLT, WPM…the alphabet soup of how we assess if students can read or not is expanding at a rapid pace. The voracious appetite of this assessment monster is seriously threatening instruction. Teachers are so worried about assessment that they don’t focus on instruction, they just assess. Assessment has edged out good old fashioned instructional practices. It is evident across all grade levels.
Elementary Sight Word Instruction
Let’s think about sight word instruction. Teachers are notorious for calling students over, holding up flash cards, checklist in hand, carefully holding up cards, then telling them which words they have to practice more. Teachers ask students to read the sight words from PowerPoints, school walls, long lists, and carefully mark what they should study later. IS this instruction? Sounds to me, a lot like an assessment. Is this checking for understanding? Checking for understanding should come after instruction. It should not be the instruction. What is the actual instruction? Students need to read books, have books read to them, have models of what to do when you read. They need to touch books-a lot-to get sight words. Sight word tests are an assessment of what they have learned from instruction and exposure to text, not the other way around.
High School Novel Studies
Let’s all read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Let’s read passages aloud and I will ask you what just happened. Or—maybe I will let you read at home and the next time give you a quiz to see who read. Then I will see if you can tell me which parts have satire. What theme is here? Tell me, tell me.
Instruction or assessment? Read the text and regurgitate what it said or what other people think that it says. I am sorry—that is an assessment of your memory. Let me assess if you did something. Then I will rank how well you did it. What happens next? When does the teaching happen?
The latest Common Core argument is over what texts we should teach. Um…you teach skills, not a text. Who cares if it is Hamlet, Canterbury Tales or Malcolm X? If it matches the reading level, it does not matter. We want you to develop reading skills. The skills revolve around analyzing how words and phrases are used (standard 4), supporting your assertions about a text with evidence from the text—any text (standard 1), deconstructing the author’s point of view (standard 6), or looking at competing narratives and perspectives (standard 9).
Middle School Grammar Drill and Kill
We all know this process. The class is focusing on subjective pronouns. They are shown what it looks like, the definition, and how to find it. Then they practice finding them on the board, off of worksheets, in carefully crafted paragraph, with a partner, in a group, with the teacher. Then, they get a big ‘practice’ test where they circle those same words (usually placed in a predictive pattern) and mimic this again for a test. Was the instruction where the teacher showed the definition of the term? Was it when she circled or diagrammed it? Was it instruction when it was in a piece of text? What is the purpose?
I think of my own experiences. I use appositive phrases like nobody’s business, because I think that they add a powerful punch to any sentence. Despite the oh-so-fun name, I sprinkle independent clauses throughout everything I write. I like the rhythm of it. It just makes a sentence sing and explode with information. I do this because I was taught to examine text and compare the differences between the ways that different author’s used these devices. I remember laying a Judy Blume book next to a Beverly Cleary book and looking at how they used quotations differently. Which one did I like? Why did it work well? Why were words in italics? What did those three dots do (ellipsis)? Could I do that too? I got a lot of instruction. I was lucky, I went to schools where instruction mattered, not assessment. I was instructed on why different literary and grammatical devices mattered and I got to practice wielding the power of those tools. Drill and kill will never do that. Those are regurgitation and memory assessments, not instruction.
How does Common Core fit into this?
Common Core, despite the resistance to its very existence, demands that teachers focus on the SKILL, not the text or the high grade on the alphabet soup assessment. The instruction is about context and how to think about these things. I know, it’s hard, but we have to start explicitly instructing students about the skills. We should be using think alouds to show kids, in all grades, how to interrogate text. We need to create rich contexts for literacy, demand that kids use an evaluative lens when they open any text, and teach them to think critically. We are instructing students. Assessment can inform instruction. but it cannot be a substitute for instruction.