The infamous question number four. We all shudder. “What if our students already know the material we are planning to teach?” Already know it!?!?!? How could they! How dare they! They’re only 12! But the sad truth is that once in a blue moon, or, let’s face it, perhaps even more often than that, we do encounter students who already know much of the material we’ve planned on teaching them.
Unfortunately, teachers (myself included!) tend to do one of two things to these students. We either A) turn them into TA’s for our class, acting as helpers to the rest of the students (some people just call that free labor), or B) we ignore that they are bored, doodling in the back of class or getting into trouble because who wants to read Run, Spot, Run when you’re reading Gone with the Wind level stuff…. and we give them high marks on the tests that they ace without trying, and we pray that they don’t loose interest in school before they get to a subject that will actually challenge them.
Ok. Enough ranting. So what do we do about these poor, brilliant cherubs?
We pre-assess them.
Question number 4: What do we do if they already know it?
Take time in your PLC this week to build a pre-assessment together. Pretty simple, but here are a few tips to get you going.
1. Decide if you want to do a whole-year pre-assessment that you would all give in August, or if you would rather build a pre-assessment for each unit.
Benefits of a whole-year pre-assessment:
- You can compare results from the beginning to the end of the year if you have your students take the pre-assessment again.
- You can (obviously) identify those skills or objectives that students are already generally familiar with and break those up into learning groups. The kids that already know those items can work on something else during that time. Or, you may notice you will need to spend some time catching students up on pre-recs you thought they came in with.
- You can pull similar questions from your final exam or your midterms. No need to reinvent the wheel. The kids won’t remember the questions when they get to the exam anyway.
- This also might force you to make your exam before November/April. It is best practice to know where you’re going, eh?
Benefits of a unit-by-unit pre-assessment:
- The pretest can be shorter and done as a “Do Now” the first class period of the unit.
- You can more directly target your instruction and personalize it for certain students.
- You can show the kids their progress really frequently. How cool to see where I was at the beginning of the unit compared to where I ended. (It merits some discussion in your PLC about whether or not you will show your students their scores on the pre-test. Some people argue this can be motivating, while others believe it can be depressing for students. I think it is all in how you use that information in conjunction with the kids. If you’re going to show them the scores, it’s better to involve them in tracking their progress).
2. Make a pre-test that every teacher in your subject and grade level could use. Ideally, you’d make the pre-assessment together, drawing on the strengths of each teacher in the group.
Possible types of pre-assessment
- Multiple choice or other objective test – This is good for data collection and comparison. It’s also a snap to grade.
- Try the activity or skill (ex. in PE have them actually try to throw a lacrosse ball. Where does the child go wrong? go right? Mark their work on the same rubric you’d use to grade them at the end of the lacrosse unit).
- Written Essay. English teachers, you know this one is a great tool. History, science, math, have you tried this? What if you had students write an essay explaining some steps to a lab, or how to do a certain problem?
- Self-Assessment 10-1 scale – I had students do this with our English skills at the beginning of one year. “How confident do you feel in your ability to write an analytical essay?” on a scale of 1-10. These are great for quick-and-dirty assessments, but they’re not so great in terms of validity. Kids can overrate or underrate their actual ability.
- Any more ideas? list ’em in the comment box!
3. Other tips you need to know about pre-assessments
- Pre-assessments are awesome formative assessments. As in, you need to use the data to inform what you do in class. Please don’t take time creating and giving a pre-assessment if you’re not going to look at and use the data.
- Use PLC time to go over the data together or to “assess” the essays or other evidence together. Look for trends in the students areas of strength and weakness. Are all sixth graders coming into science without any idea about what the circulatory system does when you expected that they have that mastered by 5th grade? That can lead to a great vertical alignment meeting. Has every student who entered 8th grade really mastered the organization of a 5 paragraph essay, but you’ve planned to start with that concept? Why waste your time? Skip over that and move on to the next skill. Are your students spread out in understanding, with a smattering of smarties and a dash of novices and a few moderates all mixed in? Plan out some learning stations that might be leveled in one concept based on skill.
- Give some sort of post-assessment. That can be an end of unit test, the exam, or another assessment, but cover the same skills and objectives as the pre-assessment. Then you’ll really have evidence of student learning. Did they learn what they were supposed to? This is the most satisfying part for teachers….its the, “YES! It worked!” part of your job that is so sweet. Enjoy it!
- Keep your pre-assessment short. You don’t have to test every skill multiple times. Just pick the ESSENTIALS. Like maybe the top 5. Otherwise you’ll be overwhelmed with data, and you won’t actually use the information well. Plus, you’ll be giving up a lot of time for something that has a diminishing rate of return in direct correlation to the longer it grows.
- Last tip. Do not put your pre-assessment in the grade book. It is not a summative grade and should not impact their final score in your class. (Unless, however, Juanita has passed every single item on your whole-year pretest, and you think it would be best for her to move into a higher level of Math. In that case, Juanita gets an A in the class and skips ahead to the stuff that will actually make her furrow her brow.)
Any other tips about pre-assessments or building them? I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions. Also, if you have any great examples of pre-assessments, I’d love for you to share. I’ll try to collect a few samples that I’ve made and attach them when I get a second. Happy PLC’ing.