Subject: Ideas for alternative forms of assessment

The following is an email I sent to my math department on May 25, 2020 with a few edits in [] for clarity and to preserve anonymity.

Dear Math Colleagues,

I write this email as a fellow math teacher, not necessarily as a facilitator of the Geometry CPT [common planning time team], or any other pseudo-leadership role I’ve somehow taken up in the past few months.

Per []’s Friday email, it seems that we have been mandated to give a final-exam-disguised-as-a-diagnostic-test-but-we-promise-totally-not-a-final-exam during the last week of school according to a totally-not-final-exam schedule.

For many reasons, I do not believe that this is right.

I am jumping on this early opportunity to suggest a menu of alternatives. In doing so, I am asking you not to be tempted to just give your final exam from previous semesters in some hastily adapted digital fashion and call it a “diagnostic test,” as loosely suggested by []’s email. Instead, here are a few ideas that I think will still earn you points for meeting this mandate but won’t betray the equity and rehumanizing work we’ve been striving for in our classrooms, which I think popping out an exam in less than 14 school days does.

0. Don’t give a separate “diagnostic test.” You’ve known each student for 15 weeks by this point in the semester. You’ve been assigning work every week during COVID for at least the past five weeks. Surely you do not need to give one more test to report “for planning purposes” what students know and what students don’t know. You have the attendance data to your virtual class meetings, you’ve been keeping track of the work that has/not been turned in. Come up with a “score” based on all the work that your students have already submitted, that qualifies as a recommendation for what students will need next. Report this score as your “diagnostic mandate.” This captures the spirit behind this mandate without the need to write, modify, administer, and grade “for completion” a separate “diagnostic test” to report data that you already have. This idea does not require any new materials, any new integrity policies, any special accommodations, and it allows you to give the most fair, comprehensive snapshot of a student’s ability prior to leaving for the summer.

“Okay, but rules are rules, and I have to give some test, or else.” Fine. Here are alternative forms of assessment I am also considering (Note: []’s email says it must be same for the entire content team).

1. The one-question diagnostic. This is the placement test we gave 8th graders to be placed into Alg 1, Alg 1 HN, Geo, and Geo HN for 9th grade at my old district. It is literally one question that has a low floor and a high ceiling. Though I would not recommend this particular problem for your “diagnostic” this quarter (we have written about this so much, that the solution is too easy to Google), perhaps you might be able to find a problem for your content area that similarly taps into students’ creativity and problem solving skills while allowing them to show you how much they know, without too much stress.

2. A math reflection portfolio. I tutor a private school student whose school uses end-of-semester reflection portfolio presentations in lieu of any test / exam for all classes. Here is a presentation template in that style, which each student could fill out in lieu of taking a traditional exam. The slides ask students to give an overview of their semester, list concepts they learned, list concepts they still find challenging, and prepare a lesson of a concept they would like to teach their family. This assessment allows students to show you their learning, reflect on areas of growth, and practice explaining a concept they feel confident about, without having to take a “test.”

3. A video or written essay answering one of the following prompts by Francis Su. Su gives the option to write about Persistence, Curiosity, Imagination, Disposition toward beauty, Creativity, Strategization, and Thinking for Oneself—all of which are qualities of a mathematician that traditional exams do not capture.

4. A specially-curated 3-5 question assessment. From the work that your students have submitted during COVID, pick 3-5 of the most-often missed questions, and go over them with your students in the week leading up to “exam day.” Then “administer” those 3-5 questions (keep them exactly the same or change out the numbers) as your diagnostic test. Report that score.

 (Thank you, Tina Cardone, for these last two ideas!)

I hope these suggestions will help you think outside the “let me try to digitally give my final exam to meet this diagnostic test requirement” box. I know colleagues out there have other creative ideas, and I hope you all will share them. Together, we can think about what “better” can look like (and, selfishly, relieve some of the frustration I’ve felt and hung onto this entire long weekend since that email landed in my inbox).


Published by Xi Yu

Twitter: @xyu119

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