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Virtual Teacher Series: Testing

Oct 13, 2020

In various live Q&A sessions I do with groups of teachers in my programs, whether that’s the weekly Q&A in Flipped Classroom Formula or either of the monthly Q&A sessions I do for Sustainable Psych Teacher or my Insider’s Group, one of the most asked questions and top concerns teachers have had in preparing for and implementing their blended or virtual classrooms this year has been…

Testing.

Welcome to week two of the 5-part Virtual Teacher Series where we at Teach On A Mission™ hope to shine a light of positivity on all the hard work being done by teachers to prepare the virtual aspects of their classrooms, as well as offer some encouragement and strategies for those teachers.

This week we are focusing on, you guessed it, testing in the virtual classroom.  (If you haven't yet, now would be a good time to go check out week one's post here).

Testing in the traditional classroom is a pain in and of itself.  It’s one that teachers have prepared for and collaborated together on for years now, so it’s no longer such a pain (hopefully).  But then COVID-19 came along with stay-at-home orders, blended learning schedules, virtual classrooms, and not seeing our students in person, and it totally threw a wrench in learning, let alone assessing that learning.

No matter what you believe about testing in education, assessing students' mastery of standards is imperative.  We could spend much of this post talking about to what degree students should or shouldn’t be tested, but we’ll leave that for the non-educator lawmakers… oooo, did I say that out loud?  Hmm, I guess I did.

Back to the point.

Mastery of standards is important.  It’s evidence of learning.  And as the educators, we must somehow measure if our students have, in fact, mastered the standards.

But how do we do that in a classroom that is either entirely or some variation of virtual, with all or some of our students not in our physical presence?

The testing issue is bigger than just the logistics though - it’s not just hard because we have to figure out how to administer a test to students in class and out of class.  In fact, if you know your tools, or your school has provided you with a reliable one or two, then this is probably the easier part of the testing issue.

Step one in addressing a problem is calling it out.

So let’s do that.  Let’s flesh out exactly what the issue is here with testing, what the biggest concerns are, so we can move forward in finding solutions. 

Before we go down the dark abyss that is discussing students cheating, because yes, it’s an issue, but first and foremost let’s think of our students of humans before we think of them as cheaters.  And, a quick reminder, part of thinking of them as human is recognizing that shortcuts and taking the easier road is in fact human nature.  I’m not saying cheating should  be condoned or permitted, but let’s not spend a ton of our precious time being consumed by a topic that, when it comes down to it, we have little control over. 

Let’s choose, instead, to think of how to be fair, equitable, and sustainable in our testing practices.  Each of which, in some way, addresses the big issue of cheating.

Fairness

It’s no shock to teachers that this year has taken most of what we know and are comfortable with and turned it upside down.  Yea, yea, we know this.

But think about what that looks like for many of our students.  Set aside judgement around the fact that many of our students (I’m particularly thinking of the older ones) who benefited, even if minimally, from the daily presence of a building and group of adults who were acting in their best interest, academically and as a whole.  Sometimes we may get a little judgey about how much they need us, but just look at how many students are floundering, no matter the reason, right now.  

We don’t need a big experimental research study to show us that schools, for the most part, as they were, were incredibly successful in keeping kids on track in a way that led them on a path to adulthood.  It was a consistent location they attended, with expectations for their behavior, with adults outside of their families that spoke value and encouragement into their lives.

We could argue for days on how effective each individual school or teacher is in contributing to this impact, but that’s another dark abyss that I’ll choose to ignore for the moment.

Look at time alone.  The time a student spends on their studies, for the average student that  is, has probably decreased anywhere from 25 to 50% or more.  For some, especially on our  asynchronous days that all but disappeared.

And for those who are putting in the time and work, it’s still not the same school experience. So my question is this… if school is so different, can we administer the same tests and it be fair?

Are the ways we are testing truly fair to our students?

I don’t think there’s an easy yes or no answer to this question.  But it’s something we should consider when we go to assess students this year.

Is it fair that in years past you’ve done a really incredible demonstration or lab or discussion of a topic that drove it home for students year after year, and they proved their mastery on the test because of it… is it fair that you don’t get to do that for your students this year, and yet they are assessed the same way as students in years’ past?

Now, hang on just a sec, because I’m not saying we need to just not assess kids or redo all of our tests in general.  In fact, I think the fairness component of the testing issue of virtual learning is something that those non-educator -background-lawmakers I keep snarkishly referring to should be considering more than individual classroom teachers do.

 Alas, it’s a concern-  are our tests fair given the education our students are currently receiving?

Equity

Equity is not the same as fair.  Kind of like the saying that fair isn’t always equal and equal isn’t always fair.

There are SO MANY equity concerns with virtual education that this one little blog won’t ever be  able to scratch the surface of, but let me bring one scenario to your attention (it may be one that you’re currently living).

Many schools/teachers have students in their face-to-face classrooms (maybe blended, maybe not) as well as students attending the same classroom virtually.  This means that when the teacher gives a quiz or test, her in-class students and virtual students are taking the same test at the same time in two totally different settings.

Well, of course they are.  That’s just how the cookie crumbles, right?!?

Yes, but then those students get grades for their test performance that is weighted the exact same for two very different experiences.  Students at home have a much less controlled environment than the students inside the classroom when they are testing.

The issue being that the equal weight of the grade is not fair, or equitable.  Or is it?

Let’s say that we solve this problem by somehow differentiating the type of class a student is taking so that in the long run, employers and colleges know what kind of experience the student had in order to earn that grade… a B in an in-person class could mean way more than an A in a virtual classroom.  Sounds good, right?

I hope you sense through the computer right now that I’m trying to play devil’s advocate. If that last paragraph resonated with you, I want to challenge you right now.  If the last paragraph made you tilt your head a bit, wondering, “hey that doesn’t exactly seem fair,” then you’re right where I’m headed.

A child who is at home, attending your classroom virtually doesn’t necessarily have it all that much easier in taking your tests.  Sure, they could cheat like the devil himself, but remember concern number one, fairness?  Is it comparing apples to apples when we consider the experience of an in-person student and a virtual one?

Just a minute ago we were rather clear minded around the fact that, NO, the virtual experience is nowhere near the experience of a student physically in school.

Not to mention, the reasons behind the student staying home are very much outside of their control.  So how is it equitable to weigh their experience in your class any differently than a student who does have the opportunity to attend school?

Sustainability

Lastly, let’s consider you.  Yes, you, the teacher, are a very important part of the equation to this issue we’re discussing - as is the case in most educational issues even though we act like you’re not.

No matter what solution we come upon for any issue in education, it has to be one that allows you to continue in your position, having impact on students for years to come, not just right now.

Just flippantly deciding, “We’ll just have to remake our tests to be all written responses,” for instance, is not a small decision that impacts no one in the name of making tests more fair or equitable for students.

Too often, when we search for solutions in education, we fall back on the hard work and dedication of teachers.  The hard work and dedication of our teachers can not be our default response.  We have a 5-year average career expectancy for teachers to prove that it can no longer be our default response.

We have to first exhaust all other options, even when abysmal budgets and less than supportive stakeholders are working against us.

I don’t pretend to know what those solutions can be or will look like in each scenario that needs some creative problem solving.  But rather than relying on teachers as the solution, bring them to the table to help problem-solve first, and then exhaust all other options.

Possible Solutions for Testing 

I’ll state this again… I don’t pretend to know all the solutions for all problems in education.  In fact, the solutions I lay out in this post are not all that earth-shattering, but what I would rather you take away is the order in which I present them.  

My hope is that when a school (or individual teacher) goes to address large issues inside of the life that is educating students in 2020, particularly testing, that they think big (doesn’t have to be expensive) first.  Please consider these solutions in the order they are presented as the ideal solutions to the concerns of testing in virtual classrooms. 

Lockdown Screens

Five years ago, the ability to lockdown a student’s computer while they were taking a test online was a futuristic idea.  Heck, online testing as a reliable measurement of students’ mastery was still rather outlandish.  

Today, both are absolutely necessary.

Using a program to lock down students' screens while they take a test should be the first line of defense when it comes to striving for equitable testing practices.

The program I used and loved in my classroom was actually created by a former colleague of mine, and I encourage you to check it out not only for testing security,  but for many school- or district-wide tech needs.  It’s called Abre, and I think you’ll be intrigued by the product itself and the company’s mission in supporting schools.

Now, is locking down kids’ screens an end-all-be-all solution to making testing equitable?  

HA!  Certainly not.

BUT, it is a very important part of the conversation when you talk to parents about the meaning of their child’s grade compared to others, or just the honest meaning behind any students’ grade.  It can be even close to, well, a true measurement of the mastery of standards because the software you use keeps them as honest as possible.

Declare Open Note with Strict Time Limits 

Another option you could use that does two things, 1) prevents you from reinventing each and every one of your tests, and 2) allows for more equity when you don’t have a software available that lockdowns students’ screens, is declaring your tests (for EVERYONE) to be open note with very strict time limits.

Now, you can’t just declare this and go for it.  You have to train them up a bit.  Let your students know the  parameters of the test -  let them know how hard it is because it’s an assessment after all, and that they won’t have time to look up every single question so they better know MOST of their stuff in order to finish in time.  

Also let them know, particularly your online students that you will not accept a test that takes longer than the allotted time.  This one will be tricky, but I would encourage you to stick to your guns as much as possible here as long as you’ve communicated in crystal clear fashion to students and parents about the time limits.

If you use Google Form (Quizzes) for your assessments, I encourage you to check out  the add-on Form Limiter.  It’s a tool I reference in the Virtual Teacher Toolkit you can grab below and that I found out about from our Virtual Teacher Feature this week, Adriana.  We’ll get to the feature at the bottom of this post.

Change the Test

A last resort would be to change your tests to be ones that are better measurements of students' mastery in a virtual environment which by nature makes them more difficult and time consuming to grade.

So not only would you (and hopefully your team who likes to divide and conquer) spend time recreating and tweaking the test out front, you would then be spending more time grading on the backend.

It’s just not sustainable, especially amongst all the other changes. 

And, here's the kicker, and my final remark about testing… is it really worth all your time and effort to make these changes?

I’m not being negative here.  Rather, I’m encouraging you to spend your incredibly valuable time and educator insight on topics that are more meaningful.

And I still say and wholeheartedly mean this statement even in the midst of students cheating.

If you’ve done your part, whether that’s getting the lockdown program, or training them up on taking open note tests with strict time limits, or remade great  tests given this year’s school environment… then so freaking be it.

If they cheat, they cheat.  If their grades don’t mean the exact same thing (when do they ever?  And isn’t it just playing the game of school and scores anyway?), then so be it.  I’ll choose to spend my time doing what I can to make valuable and equitable experiences  for my students, regardless of their  less-than-honest habits. 

In all of these topics and concerns we have in virtual classrooms, I want to offer a resource in addition to these weekly blog posts (you can check out week one’s post here)  that I hope you find encouraging  and overall centering.  The resource I have for you is a Virtual Teacher Toolkit which includes inspiring quote printables and screensavers, a Virtual Teacher Tool Comparison Chart, and even a Digital Interactive Notebook template made by yours truly.  Grab it by completing the fields below and I’ll send it your way. 

Now for my favorite part of this series…

The Virtual Teacher Feature

I’m so excited to introduce you to Adriana Targa, this week’s Virtual Teacher Feature.  In her tenth year of teaching, Adriana is a high school science teacher at Lincoln International Academy in Managua, Nicaragua.  She’s teaching fully remote so far this school year, teaching Honors Biology, Chemistry and AP Biology.

Her weekly schedule with students includes a few asynchronous days where students are doing work independently which usually includes flipped videos she’s made for students who take guided notes as they watch in EdPuzzle, or completing a variety of assignments like an interactive Google Slides, Kami, or an at home lab or project.

Students attend their synchronous lessons via Zoom, where they start the lesson with a bell ringer activity and then they spend a majority of their time in review and remediation of assignments or quizzes that students have struggled with or otherwise need some assistance.  A more recent tool Adriana has started using is Peardeck, allowing her to make slides interactive during their Zoom live sessions.  She has also had students divide into break out rooms on their live Zoom sessions, where they complete an escape room, solve task cards, or many other activities she’s adapted for remote learning.  

The main platforms Adriana uses in her high school science classes are Google Classroom and Google Site.  This is a newer combo pack many teachers are using recently, and I have to say, I’m totally impressed with the intention and creativity behind it all.

Google Classroom is where she’ll post lesson plans, the class Zoom link, general info, and all assignments. The stream is also very helpful for announcements.

Google sites, then, is her class webpage, used mostly for parent communication, but also where she houses all of her flipped videos so that there’s ONE place for students to find her videos, in order, with no ads or other videos to distract them.

When asked to describe her biggest struggle with teaching remotely, guess what she answered… EXAMS!  Imagine that :)  It’s as if we did that on purpose - wink.

I’ve actually talked to Adriana about this on a Facebook live directly before, and she was the one who introduced me to Google’s Form Limiter app!  Thanks for that, girl :).

Although the tool is very helpful, as Adriana describes, she’s fully aware that she’ll never be able to fully prevent cheating, and (at least I hope) is in a good mental space of accepting that.

Now for the redeeming qualities, or the slight upside of teaching virtually, Adriana explains,

“I have become a technology wizard. I’m now a google certified teacher and I manage a huge variety of google apps and other tech apps so I can now proudly say my class is definitely tech integrated and a 21st century classroom. This has changed my teaching style for the better. “

I love this so much.  Her answer reminds me of a recent post we’ve written about finding the silver lining in all this craziness.  Find it here.  

Finally when asked to share her best advice for other virtual teachers, here’s what she said.

“The first week or two it seems like a lot of work but it gets easier.  Much easier and stick with the things that work, try new things and if it doesn’t work then it’s ok. Give yourself time to breath and forgive yourself if you don’t make an awesome lesson one day.”

And I’ll leave it at that, because no matter how many tips or tools or strategies we have to offer, my biggest hope in all that we do here at Teach On A Mission is to let you know you’re not alone and that you are completely capable simply because you’re here.

If you haven’t yet, be sure to hop over and check out Part One of our Virtual Teacher Series including our awesome Virtual Teacher Feature.

Finally, what would  this series be if we didn’t have something tangible to offer you (I mean, outside of teachers getting to talk shop and share encouragement, of course).  To give you further encouragement and hopefully a bit of peace of mind in having a template and semblance of organization, grab the Virtual Teacher Toolkit (including the Digital Interactive Notebook template pictured above) by completing the fields below.  In doing so, you will be subscribed to our email list, which I email once per week when we release a blog post.  If you’re already subscribed, still fill it out, you’ll remain subscribed, I'll just then be able to email you the toolkit.

Stay tuned for next week’s post.  It’s on a topic that I’m pretty passionate about and I’m super excited to share it with you.  Any guesses on what it could be?  Join us on social media and let us know your guesses.

   

Until next time,

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