Continuous Improvement

Written by Todd Beach

Throughout my career I have appreciated the time during the summer to reflect on my teaching practice from the past year and examine areas for improvement.  Like most teachers I have taken additional classes during the summer and attended various seminars and/or workshops, attempting to better understand my content area and my teaching practice.

One of the courses that I teach is AP European History and like every AP teacher, I am generally eager to see the exam scores from my students, which are posted in early July.  I teach at a large suburban public high school of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) and our students often score well.  As fellow Minnesotan, Garrison Keillor would say, “…all the children are above average.[1]

This year we had 153 students take the AP European History exam and 90 percent of our students passed the exam; of those who passed, 23.8 percent scored a ‘5’ which is the top score, compared to 10.7 percent globally.  And, another 24.8 percent earned a ‘4’ compared to 18.7 percent globally.  These numbers are nice and I suppose many schools/teachers would be quite pleased with the results.  However, for most teachers, the information gleaned from the Instructional Planning Report, which is also released by the College Board, is far more interesting and revealing.

It’s from the Instructional Planning Report that I can learn more about the job I did as a teacher.  The report breaks down the elements of the exam scores and I can use that information to reflect on my teaching practice.  The report provides data on how my students did on the multiple choice and the free response parts of the exam; and that data is broken down with even more specificity that allows me to reflect on HOW I teach the associated skills and content to my students.

I like this information and I appreciate that it’s provided for me.  This feedback affords me the opportunity to reflect on my practice and make decisions about my pedagogical approach for the coming school year.  However, as useful as this information is to me, it doesn’t help the students who took that exam because of the summative nature of the information.  The course is over, the exam is finished and while I will use the results to inform my future teaching, those students will not benefit from that information.

What’s most intriguing is that this kind of information can be gleaned DURING the course while I am still teaching (aka formative assessment).  I’ve criticized Bill Gates in this forum previously (read A Better Gates Solution) because he fails to use his greatest resource to help teachers – no, I’m not talking about his billions of dollars, I’m talking about the thousands of software developers who could create assessment tools for teachers and students.

I’ve also stated previously in this forum that there are assessment tools available, which can help teachers and students DURING the teaching and learning process (read Testing for Grades or Learning?).

Using applications such as Naiku DURING the teaching and learning process provide formative assessment information which helps students and teachers throughout the school year to better understand what they are doing well and what they can do to improve.  This type of feedback DURING teaching and learning is essential to improvement and can be tailored to the curriculum and categorized to the needs of the teacher and students.

For example, the AP European History exam classifies questions into three different categories: social-economic, cultural-intellectual, and political-diplomatic.  Looking at the report from this past year I can see that my students scored above the global mean in all three categories but the smallest margin is in the cultural-intellectual category.  This could suggest that the textbook we use is weak in addressing this aspect of learning and it could also suggest that I need to do a better job teaching and supplementing this area of learning.  Good information to have; however, the information would be better to have DURING the school year so I could adjust my teaching to address these learning needs.

Continuous improvement is more than reflecting after the fact, it also means that information needs to be accessible to teachers and students DURING the teaching and learning process so adjustments can be made and improvements can be targeted.  This diagnostic approach, aka formative assessment, is essential and applications such as Naiku can be tailored for teachers and students to facilitate this process.

School districts and administrative personnel should support this effort and politicians would better serve citizens with policies and resources which focus on formative assessment approaches rather than high-stakes summative assessment results.

[1] Excerpted from Lake Wobegon Days, Keillor, 1985

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