I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and shout, “Go!” It sounds like I am standing in the middle of FedEx Field and the Washington Redskins just won the Super Bowl. But it’s not cheering I am hearing—it is students helping students. It may be the sweetest thing I have ever heard. I look to my left and I hear a student say, “Tell me the steps you went through to solve that.” I walk to my right and I hear, “Are you sure that’s what the next step is?” I keep walking around and I keep hearing students challenging each other, playing devil’s advocate in math. I think this is actually working! I remember when a college professor of mine said something that would change the way I think about everything around me. He quoted Thomas Jefferson by saying, “’There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people.’ An unfortunate practice that still occurs in classrooms today.” The fine line between equitable teaching and fair teaching is danced upon daily. Treating everyone equally while leveling the playing field is a challenge all teachers face. It may sound like you are doing the right thing if you are giving every student the same options, opportunities, or advantages. But is that what they all need? To me, teachers who teach the same thing to everyone and the same way to everyone are creating a learning environment that is not conducive to every student in the room. To teach equitably, one must look to the needs of each individual student.
Our goal as educators should be to veer from an equal learning experience toward an equitable learning experience. Our job is to make sure all students have a fair, and possibly unequal, learning experience. Ensuring that each student has a fair opportunity to succeed means that one student’s path may look very different from another’s.
I have been restructuring my assessment practices in class lately because I tend to see the same students failing repeatedly. I came to the conclusion that maybe it isn’t them, but that my assessments aren’t up to par with what they need. When I started asking some of the students why they believed they got the grade they did, I got some interesting responses:
“I thought the quiz was on something else.”
“I didn’t have room to write my answers.”
“I don’t remember covering that material.”
“I couldn’t memorize all the steps.”
“I didn’t get some of the questions.”
None of these responses were positive in nature. I began to wonder: How might I change students’ perceptions of assessment and raise their confidence in the classroom?
Recently, I have been focusing on how to assess students in math, particularly students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), while maintaining equity in the classroom. In the past, I have modified the actual test in various ways. I have changed the number of questions, written tests in native languages, even written quizzes below grade level just to build confidence. I wanted to do something else. I started thinking of ways to keep all the tests the same, while changing the format for all students.
I spoke to Sarah Barnes, an Inclusion Specialist within the High Tech High organization, to brainstorm ideas about what to do. She suggested a two-tiered testing system as a method to build students’ confidence and improve testing outcomes. Now that I have tried it myself, I agree that a two-tiered testing approach benefits all the students in the class.
The two-tiered approach is a chaotic means to a positive end. In the first tier, a group test, students are working together. If this is going as planned, prepare yourself for a lot of talking—the more, the better. At first I kept telling students to quiet down but I soon learned to sit back and listen. I overheard students explaining the steps to a problem, asking questions or double-checking someone else’s work. That’s when I realized that I was the one who needed to be quiet, not them. For the next hour or so, I circulated around the room mediating debates about problems that some students had no clue how to address at the beginning of class. I saw students running from group to group, helping those who needed it most. Most important, the students I was targeting were all very involved and engaged. The students who carried the social weight of an IEP became stronger and walked a bit taller. This approach gave them a forum to have something explained a bit differently than the way I had in the past. It also gave them a chance to shine. If there was something they knew how to do, they wanted to prove it to their peers, and they did.
When it came time to end tier one, the group test, the students were excited. I worried that this method was already a bust because they were so eager to move on. I brought the class back together for a short review of the material and a quick discussion on their thoughts about the first tier of the test. I asked why they were so ready for it to be over. The responses were not at all what I expected. Students raised their hands and one after another said that they were ready for the test and asked if I could give it out already. They didn’t hate the first tier; they were eager to take the individual test, which was the second tier. Most of the students said they found the first tier to be very helpful and that they felt well prepared for tier two.
Once I passed out the second test, it was so quiet in the room you could hear the students thinking. The instructional aides and I looked at each other with huge smiles. The same several students who usually doodle or have their heads down were actually working on the test and doing so with conviction!
I know this all sounds like a story from some Teacher Wonderland where everything works out as planned, if not better. But this actually works—I’ve used two-tiered testing five times now (four math tests and one science test), and each time my students have had great success. The class average on assessments using this method has been higher than on earlier tests this year. Most striking, though, is that students with IEPs are averaging 82% on two-tiered assessments, as opposed to 54% on this year’s previous assessments. I have also found an exciting common trend: the students who earn a D or an F do so, not because of a lack of understanding, but because of careless mistakes. These students can follow the steps from start to finish, but careless mistakes (e.g., adding instead of subtracting, poor handwriting, adding a negative sign for no reason) are pulling them down. They understand the concepts and just need help on simple arithmetic, and that is a simple fix.
Since administering a two-tiered testing system, I have been hearing very different comments from students about testing:
“Is this grade real?”
“Can we do a group test again?”
“I loved helping other people!”
“No offense, but they taught it better than you Mr. S.”
“This is the best I’ve ever done on a test by myself.”
The last statement was the one that made me realize that this is really working. The student who said this has an IEP with a goal for completing multi-step problems. His excitement about his own work showed me that while this method of assessment benefits many students, it might be particularly meaningful for those who need to build their confidence the most. I am confident that it will continue to be a reliable assessment tool to ensure equity and success for all of my students.
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