Tracking Six Students through the Assessment Schoolyear

How are students affected by the periodic assessments required by the Denver Public School district?  Will the tests improve their academic interest or depress it?  Will the tests prove to be a motivator or a discouragement?  Will students be anxious about the assessments or ignore them?  How will the tests affect the daily life of students at school?

To address these questions, I will profile here six students in my class—two each from grades four, five, and six—and then attempt to describe them throughout the schoolyear as they undertake these periodic assessments.  I have chosen the students with some attention to diversity according to ability and gender as well as grade because I believe the answers to the questions above will vary considerably based on student differences.  In particular, my hypothesis is that regular assessments have little affect on the motivation or performance of students who are confident and competent at their expected grade level of performance.  Those who are insecure, perform less well, and have had less success academically through their school careers appear to me to be those whose academic success and self-confidence is further eroded by regular assessments.   However, it will be my aim here to be as objective as possible in tracking the academic and personal successes of the six students whom I describe hereafter.

All names have been changed to protect the privacy of these individuals.

Melissa is a sixth grader who has returned to my class after a year of fifth grade in another public school setting.  Before that she was a shy fourth grader in my class, a rather uncertain girl who learned to calculate the four basic operations with some difficulty, but finished the year with a nascent understanding of long division.  She was a halting reader just approaching the grade level standard at the end of fourth grade.  She loved to write in her journal and wrote several simple reports, but her grammar and composition mechanics were weak.  This year she returned to the class enthusiastically and caught on reasonably well to a review of squaring with several other sixth graders, who remembered how to calculate the binomial square vaguely.  She tried to show me a new strategy she had learned for solving large multiplication problems in her fifth grade class, but she couldn’t remember exactly how they had done it and the answers didn’t seem to come out right.  In her first serious efforts at solving large multiplication problems, she had trouble with all the parts of the algorithm, but was able to come to an accurate solution about one in three problems.  Her cursive writing is legible, but immature; her reading appears to still be slightly behind grade level.  In the first three weeks of the year she has been working enthusiastically with two other sixth grade girls on a report about the arctic fox, following their lead as they progress through the simple research steps they have learned for writing reports.  She has worked successfully with another sixth grader to practice the introductory squaring lesson.  Her journal is full of positive remarks about how much she likes being back in my class, known as Room 203.

Jonas is a sixth grader who is now in his third year in Room 203.  He is quick to understand math and geometry concepts, an excellent reader who doesn’t read books unless they are assigned, a fluid writer who enjoys writing reports and stories, and an avid pencil artist who loves to draw flames, hot rods, dragons, and arresting symbols.   He started the year with a review of the Pythagorean Theorem and is eager for more advanced math lessons.  His computation skills in all operations with whole numbers are accurate and fast.  He reads and comprehends considerably beyond grade level; his writing mechanics are good, his compositions hasty, but usually interesting.  During his first three weeks, he has been consolidating his popularity base with the other sixth grade boys and also mentoring the younger boys because I have given him that responsibility.  He is generally kind and considerate of others, but easily distracted from academic endeavors by the social hub-bub of the classroom community.  Handsome and popular and smart, he often simply “loafs,” but at the same time, he welcomes new lessons.

Fifth grader Amanda came back to school with zest as a fifth grader.  Within the first week she had repeated all of the challenging work she had done the last two months of her fourth grade, symbolizing a poem that she illustrated, drawing several equivalence proofs of geometric figures, dividing by one- and then two-digit divisors, with a little help remembering the latter.  She mentored a fourth grader kindly and enthusiastically, showing her how to do many classroom exercises that Amanda had enjoyed.  She was excited when I introduced “The Littles” series to her and has already read three of the books, which suggests that her reading competence is not at grade level, perhaps six months behind the standard.  Her journal writing is legible and careful; her thinking simple and short.  Her first spelling list was challenging for her:  “writin” and “libary” persisted throughout the spelling exercises.  She sparkled accuracy with 20 subtraction problems that required borrowing.  She is eager for new lessons, but likes to be guided towards work that has clear beginnings and ends, while many others in the class are eager for open-ended projects like writing reports.

A second fifth grader is Louis, who prides himself on being “ahead” in math.  Conceptually he does seem to understand the four operations and can apply them to problem-solving successfully.  However, speed and accuracy still elude him.  He has difficulty finding and keeping focus on any work project he begins in the classroom.  Highly social and eager for friendships, he works best when a friend is there to keep him on task.  I try to present new lessons to him and a friend so that there will be follow-up work for understanding.  He enjoys acting as a leader and has recently been working hard at learning all about the microscope in the classroom so that he can help others use it.  It is a struggle for Louis to do any sustained writing although he has many ideas that he wants to talk about.  Spelling is a big challenge, too.  He is excited about decimal division now, but still having trouble with speed and accuracy in large multiplication.  At times he seems very confident, but usually there is a real undercurrent of self-doubt that encumbers his work aspirations.  Am I good at this?  Am I advanced?  Should I be?  Could I be?

Mason is a fourth grader, Louis’s partner for the first three weeks.  Louis has taken pride in showing Mason around, doing science experiments with him, learning about the microscope so that they could both become “experts,” and generally counting himself as Mason’s “best friend.”  Mason is a bright confident fourth grader who appears to love reading a good book and taking on new challenges in any area.  I introduced the pair to the first work of squaring the binomial in a figurative way; and after school I heard Mason chattering enthusiastically to his mom about the lesson and how it worked.  He has been the one to return to the work and practice it in other iterations, with Louis sometimes looking on.  Mason is going to be ready for everything I can find time to teach him. His handwriting is small; perhaps composition is a real challenge for him.

Rosalee, the second fourth grader I have chosen to study, lacks the self-confidence that Mason so clearly wears.  Among her journal entries during the first week were statements that “I’m not good in math,” and “I want to learn more math.”   She was eager to try division with a single-digit divisor, and with considerable help from myself and a friend, began to fathom the patterns we were using.  She was delighted with homework that involved addition problems and demonstrated that she was good at carrying.  She is reading magazines rather than books, but her past records say that she reads on grade level.  Her writing is childish, but legible.  She had no idea how to take a note from non-fiction material and found the idea of organizing notes into groups quite a puzzle.  She has promised in her journal that soon she is going to write a “store” with her friend Eliza.  Sometimes she looks hopeful and confident, such as the day she danced in with her finished addition homework.  At other times she looks nervous and uncertain, appearing to wonder if she will be able to learn at this new level of challenge.

And so there are six:  Melissa the partially confident, but eager sixth grader; Jonas, the bright confident loafer; Amanda the motivated, but average achiever; Louis, the fifth grader with high aspirations and a touch of self-doubt; Mason, the bright and confident fourth grader; and Rosalee, the quaking fourth grader who wants to do well, but is not sure that she can.

Next Tuesday these six students will begin a week of Benchmark Tests, the first series of district assessment tests designed to measure students’ academic skills.  This “benchmark” is the measure at the beginning of the school year.  The professed purpose of this series of assessments is to give teachers more information about the gaps that exist in their students’ education that should be hastily filled this year.

There will be four hours of testing in four days.  How will those hours of testing affect the rest of the school week and the students’ opportunity to learn in it?  How will the assessments affect the students?

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