Teacher Scholar Voices

Data based instruction: Assessment for learning that goes beyond bubble tests

Teacher Scholar Voices

Data: for many teachers, this word has come to mean standardized test score data frequently used to evaluate teachers and schools. Given at the end of the year, after instruction has occurred, they are not particularly useful to guide and inform ongoing instruction. By contrast, when we in the Mills Teacher Scholars project talk about data, we are talking about a much broader array of data: classroom assignments, interviews and conversations with students, teacher observations of students engaged in learning experiences, videotapes of small group learning, along with standardized test scores.

It is our view that the use of these data can help teachers adjust their teaching on a day-to-day basis, and to address the obstacles that get in the way of learning. Our Mills Teacher Scholars groups–both site based and at Mills College give teachers the tools and support they need to collect and make sense of the kinds of classroom based data that can inform teaching practice.

Dina Moskowitz has been teaching for seven years and has been in the Mills Teacher Scholars group  for three years. She began her most recent inquiry project investigating her middle school students’ reading comphrehension guided by a Teacher’s College Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop  philosophy. Using real time formative assessment data, her inquiry went in a very different direction than she had originally anticipated.

From the beginning of the year it was clear to me that students generally fell into three camps—the “I love to read!” group, the “I’ll read because it is my homework, but I’d rather be doing something else” group, and the “I won’t read, you can’t make me!” group. For my research, I decided to focus on this last group. 

As she began to try to look at reading assessment data for her students’ independent book choice selections and written responses, she realized that there was nothing for her to assess because these students simply were not reading the books they had chosen.

 I began to really focus on them.  I watched what books they chose, I checked in with them more about their books.  Nothing seemed to be working. They just weren’t reading. They might start a book and get about 5 or 10 pages in, but never further than that.  In the middle of the year I gave out a reading survey.  The survey asked what they could use help with in reading, and the overwhelming answer was “help me find books.”  Something that I hadn’t really thought too much about was, how hard it is for kids to find books that they want to read. It can be really overwhelming to look at the rows of books and pick one out.

After pondering these ideas for a while, I began to implement my biggest instruction change, which was really focusing on helping kids find new books. Physically putting a book in a student’s hand, saying, “I think you’d like this, it is kind of like…” … or “here’s the sequel of the last book you read,”…or “you like fantasy, here’s this new fantasy series.” And amazingly, they often give those books a try.

Deandra was one of my focal students.  She has struggled with school for a long time. Throughout the year, I’ve had some small success with her. We found one book she was really excited about, she read about half of it and even did a book talk on it. But then she never finished it, saying it was too depressing. She came to me and told me that she needed a book. On Friday, when I went to collect her reading log, she had nothing written. When I asked about it, she said, “I told you, I don’t have any books at my house.” “None?” I responded. She said, “Well, just Holes and I already read that.”

We spent some time searching for a book together on the shelves but she didn’t want to read anything I had. Finally, I said, “Come here.”  We sat down at my computer to look for a book. We put in titles of books she’s liked (there weren’t many) into Amazon and tried to get other recommendations. I also showed her the library website.  While we were doing this, another student came over to me and asked if Jessica Blank had written other books, because she had just read Almost Home. I said I wasn’t sure, so I put her into Amazon. Turned out she had. I was feeling especially giving that day, so I said, “Should we order it?’” The student got excited, and I clicked order on Amazon. Deandra was sitting there watching this and I think was really shocked that I would buy books for kids with my own money.  A day or so later Deandra came in with a piece of paper of the title and author of a book she wanted. It was a non-fiction book about a gang leader turned “straight.” I didn’t look too closely to be honest, but I bought that for her and I think she felt really special. She’s read almost the whole book and was carrying it around all the time at the beginning.

Looking closely at Deandra and her other focal students, Dina was able to identify an obstacle to reading success that went beyond her original focus on reading comprehension. Students were not necessarily disengaged with their reading because they did not understand the text. They simply did not have the tools to select books that truly engaged them.

Three students have read memoirs about people who grew up in tough situations and reformed their lives.  They clearly want books that represent their lives and experiences.  My journey with Deandra has reminded me how much teaching is really about relationships and knowing your students.  Putting books in their hands is one of the best ways to get them to read. Completing the book, well, that’s about it being a just right book: just right in terms of reading level and interest. 

Teachers frequently have a hunch that personal connection is a crucial component in their students’ learning. Dina’s story demonstrates how an evidence-based approach to learning can confirm that hunch, and can help guide a teacher in using personal connection and knowledge of a student to move that student towards higher achievement.