We spoke recently with teacher Ruth Schackmann about how she uses student data to inform her teaching. Schackmann teaches middle school English language arts in Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District (Texas) and often works with high-risk student populations.
What are your core beliefs about education?
My guiding principle is to care for the student holistically, not just academically. As my 8th graders go off to high school, I send a document to the high school that has every 8th grader’s name on it. It includes notes about all of their strengths and their needs. It feels so good to be able to share that information and deliver it to the high school teachers.
How do you define or think about assessment?
I think about assessment in two ways. I need to be able to assess in the minute, in an instant. But I can’t make good decisions if I haven’t collected layers of data previous to that. What were a student’s test scores in 5th, 6th, 7th grade? What is a student’s learning style and who are his or her friends in the class?
Assessment is often thought of as separate from instruction. In your experience, how can assessments support effective instruction?
There will never be one assessment; we need to have a constant conversation about all kinds of student data. I had a great conversation with a science teacher recently. He was talking about the pace of the science curriculum and mentioned the Earth Sciences class. I told him that, according to the assessment data, a third of the students in that class could only answer fact and opinion questions. He said he had never thought to look at assessment data from other classes to understand why his students struggled with certain kinds of science questions.
We also have the opportunity to do progress monitoring. Our principal has asked us to work on this, and we know that it’s all integrated. We’re going to start working together and looking for gaps where assessments indicate need.
When and how does the best learning occur in your classroom and how do you know it?
The best learning happens in my classroom when a student takes responsibility for exactly what I’ve asked. This doesn’t happen until they’ve understood what I have asked of them. When they get to the place that they can compose their own answers, and self-correct, I know they are getting it.
You mentioned students self-correcting. How does that happen?
Students learn Costa’s Levels of Questioning. We spend time learning the levels, reading texts, writing their own questions and evaluating the questions everyone wrote. When they are comfortable with the levels, they are fearless about throwing away inadequate questions.
When students can look at a multiple-choice question test and identify the levels, they understand what is expected of them to answer the questions. Texas state assessments usually ask Level Three questions that require critical thinking and looking for answers outside of the text. On one of these questions, if a student originally thought the answer required text evidence, they rethink their approach to answering the question.
When they write, they use the components of leveled questions to create the thesis, body paragraphs and conclusion. The same three elements students use to write effectively—claim, evidence and reason—are perfect for analyzing a text. Students understand what they are seeing in published writing because they grasp these ideas in their own writing.
How do you know you’re seeing rigor?
When I see students voluntarily asking and answering next-level questions, I know they have internalized rigorous thinking. Rigor is implicit in the design of leveled questions, so all of the lessons gain rigor. Secondarily, when students self-evaluate, according to the rubric, or if they ask for evidence to support an opinion, I know they are working critically.
Keep checking back for more Teacher Voices featured on our blog. How do you use student data to inform your teaching? Tell us on Twitter (@Assess2Learn).