Communication Breakdown (Rethinking Assessment Ideas)

My first post of 2017, good golly where did January go?!?

Our school uses an LMS through FinalSite, a company that manages our school home pages. It is a pretty typical looking LMS. I populate each class with my students so that when they log on to their student portal they see each class they are in (as long as their teacher uses the LMS) and they can see calendars, they can download assignments, they see their HW and upcoming responsibilities, etc. My hope is that students check in pretty regularly (daily is a pipe dream, I fear) at least on Sunday night to scope out their upcoming week. In addition to populating this calendar – usually about a week in advance, but I sometimes lag a touch, I keep a spot on one of my side chalkboards where i highlight upcoming highlights. I lagged on that recently as well. As I hinted earlier, January has been a bit of a blur for reasons I cannot pinpoint. Anyway, last Monday I had a rare Monday test scheduled for my AP Calculus BC gang. Their class met right after lunch and a couple of students came in during lunch and asked if the rumor that they heard was true. The rumor they were referring to was a rumor that they had a test that day. I mentioned that this had been on their calendar for well over a week and confirmed that, yes, this ‘rumor’ was true. Kids got on their phones to notify classmates and they frantically started flipping through their text book.

I kept my calm and I assured them that they would be fine. they had been doing their work (I said optimistically) and that last minute cramming rarely has much positive impact. Most of the class performed reasonably well – one perfect score and one student who only missed one point out of a group of fourteen – but the average was lower than usual and one student in particular was way off of his usual mark. The frustration got me thinking about a number of things and I want to use this space to think out loud about these issues.

First, I worry about communication in this increasingly digital environment. I used to print off weekly calendars and hand them out at the beginning of each week. Some kids would lose them, some would carefully put them in their folders, some would cram them in their backpack never to be seen again. Mostly, kids seemed to know what was coming up or at least kept it a bit of a secret when they were surprised by an assignment or an assessment. Now, I print almost nothing. I post on the LMS. I keep the reminder chalkboard. I send out email reminders through the LMS. I send some occasional emails from my school account with attachments for notes or suggested extra work. I hear repeatedly from students who did not know I had sent an email or that I had posted to the LMS. This makes me wonder how much of the blame lies on me for moving away from printed reminders. I mean, if 14 out of 14 students did not know that there was a test on Monday then part of the blame falls on my shoulders. But, and this is important, something is odd in the student culture around my class if 14 out of 14 students failed to register this fact in a planner or take a look ahead at their upcoming week before reporting to school on Monday. I do want to take a moment here to compliment my students in their reaction to this event. Not a single one complained about unfairness, not a single one said to me that this was my fault, and when they received their grades back not a single student voiced their unhappiness about the situation. It would have been so so easy to point the finger at me and none of them did. This is a credit to their character and willingness to take responsibility. A number of them did ask to take advantage of my policy for reassessing, but no more than usual really.

So, I am questioning my role in communication and the avenues I choose to take advantage of. The other question this raises for me is my attitude about announcements for assessment. I know that many of my colleagues, both in my building and out in the world, have as part of their practice unannounced assessments. I have never done this and it is mostly because I find myself overly sensitive to charges of increasing/causing student stress. I always make sure that there are at least three school days between announcing and administering an assessment. In the case of major unit tests, I want to have at least one weekend between announcing and administering the test. But this incident has me questioning this commitment. Am I seeing a more true reading of student mastery of material if I check in periodically when they do not know that I will do so? Am I bypassing the stress of test and quiz preparation if I just drop a quiz or test in their lap when they show up for class? How do I setup a situation where an unannounced assessment is not such a big deal for the student?

As always, I am seeking wisdom here. If you have made a practice of unannounced assessments, how do you handle that? How do the students respond? If not, is your reasoning similar to mine? How do you communicate calendars to your students? Teachers here use either our school LMS, Google Classroom, Facebook, or old fashioned paper. What are the habits at your school? What really works? Drop me a line here or over one twitter where I remain @mrdardy