Tasks and Assessments

More Awesome, Please

Either I’m a glutton for punishment, or there’s just too much awesome on the Internet and I can’t help myself. Whichever is true, I want to build something, and I need your help to do it. Here’s what I propose:

Let’s do for assessment what Dan Meyer, Andrew Stadel, Fawn Nguyen, and countless others are doing for rich, engaging tasks.

Here’s what I mean. As a math teacher, there are two things I need more than anything else: awesome tasks and awesome assessments. And maybe it’s because I just joined the party, but it seems like people are absolutely killing the task-creation side of the equation right now. The number of people creating tasks, as well as the number and quality of the tasks they’re creating, is exploding. And with some recent changes, Dan’s 101qs.com appears to be morphing into a place where entire tasks can go to live. I hope I’m right. If I am, the proliferation of creators and their creations will only accelerate.

But that’s only half of the equation. I need more than great tasks. I also need great assessments. I firmly believe that the quality of my courses will rise or fall with the quality of my assessments.

Why is my AP Calculus course stronger than my Precalculus course? The assessments my Calculus students take (throughout the year, as well as in May) are better than the ones I give my students in Precalculus.

Why am I stoked about the Common Core? It’s not because the standards are better than my state’s old standards (which they are). It’s because the assessments promise to be worlds better than the CST (fellow Californians know what I mean).

Weak assessments allow me to teach a weak course and get away with it.

But awesome assessments force the issue. If students aren’t doing some serious learning, we’re going to know. And it’s going to be uncomfortable. And we’re going to have to get better.

So Let’s Get Better (By Sharing Like Crazy)

So what if we all started sharing more of our assessments? What if they had a place to live, with room for rubrics and commentary and comments and suggestions for improvements and whatever else will make it easier to share and steal and tweak.

Let’s share the ones we think are fantastic (like this one from Daniel Schneider) so others can learn from our best moments. Let’s share the ones we’re embarrassed by so others can tell us why they’re terrible and how to make them better. Let’s share the ones we’re not sure about, so others can tell us what works and what doesn’t, what to keep and what to throw away.

Let’s start sharing. And giving feedback. And revising. And making our classrooms better by making our assessments better.


Are you in? If so, head down to the comments, hit me up on twitter (@mjfenton), or drop me an email (mjfentonatgmaildotcom). And by all means, let’s all use our megaphones to get others involved.

I’m next to nothing without you guys. But together… This could be exciting.

Comments 25

  1. Also – I think you did a great job articulating what I feel too. There are a lot of people developing amazing mathematical tasks, but we need to pair them with amazing mathematical assessments.

  2. Daniel,

    Thanks for the links. I’ve added two new blogs to my Reader list. Looking forward to sharing more in the days ahead. I feel like there’s so much good stuff out there that we would do well to bring it together somehow. I suppose we’ll see if anyone else agrees in the next few days. 🙂

    At any rate, thanks for the great post, the comments, and the links.

  3. So good of you to throw this out there, Michael. With Common Core lurking on the horizon, it makes even more sense for us to share best assessments. This honestly is the bulk of my plan for this summer because every time I hand out one of my [small] standards-based quiz, I tell myself, “You can ask better questions than these.” But I’m trying not to beat myself up too much because I’m doing SBG for the first time with 2 of my 3 classes and reminding myself that small incremental steps are important, just keep heading in the right direction though.

    While we’re on assessments, I have to share that I’m surprised to see (from all the CCSS workshops that I attend) how worried teachers seem to get when they see the sample pilot questions from Smarter Balanced. Yet I feel just the opposite. I credit my confidence (hopefully not false) to working hard to bring many of Dan’s 3-acts and white-boarding tasks to my kids which naturally put them in a learning environment that encourages many of the 8 math practices.

    If solid assessments do come out in our near future, then maybe when we say that someone is teaching to the test, it might actually be a compliment.

    Thank you, Michael.

  4. Weird! SHUT UP! I was just talking on the phone with Lisa Henry today about tmc13 and having a workshop on the.bread and butter, pencil and paper assessments.

    You’re in my mind!

    Where we create an archive of good questions and why we think they’re good… Questions that ask for written explanations, ask kids to think backwards, ask kids to come up with something on their own, really tests their understanding of ideas and connections (as I think we’re all fine with coming up with the standard procedural questions).

    Maybe we have a two week period where we encourage everyone to make a blog post with three to ten of their favorite questions (and why)? I bet people would do it, but only if you can come up with a clever name. ALL ABOUT ASSESSMENTS, or AHOY ASSESSMENTS!, or BRIGITTA!


  5. I should also have said I don’t feel comfortable putting all my assessmentsts online because I reuse them (or parts of them). That is why I suspect most of us don’t talk about them on our blogs.

    Do that’s something worth thinking about it you’re planning something massive.

  6. We’ll have to work on those names. 🙂 But I love the idea about inviting people to share (over a not-super-long period of time) some of their favorite questions.

    Ultimately, I am thinking of something more massive. I don’t know how to do it, though, which is why I wrote the post, to see who else was interested and what our collected skills and passions and abilities looked like.

    As for posting assessments online and reusing parts or all of them, I wonder if we should keep it semi-locked/private/whatever, so that only confirmed teachers (not sure how we confirm) can access the materials. I figure there is enough insight in the community to figure out a way to make it happen.

  7. I feel exactly the same when giving my Algebra 1 students (the first course I’ve tried to shift to SBG) their assessments. My current assessments are so heavy on procedural knowledge (in my ninth year teaching I don’t think I’m allowed to blame my “educational upbringing” any more; at some point I need to grow beyond what I experienced as a student). They very rarely include some conceptual questions, but almost no application and very little “explain your reasoning.”

    My goal is to create assessments for each topic that address conceptual, procedural, and application, and require students to justify their thinking in words, pictures, etc. But there’s no way I’ll be able to do this for all of my classes without some help (hence the impassioned and somewhat self-serving post above). Hopefully I’ll strike a balance between patience with myself (baby steps, not beating myself up) and collaboration with others.

    As always, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I’m honored to have your voice in the conversation here (and still amazed that my experiment in blogging has turned out to be more than just a monologue).

  8. Love this!

    In my mind it is like becoming a better writer from reading good literature. One thing I love doing is reading through the Exeter problems. They have a knack for wording problems in natural yet stretching ways. I suggest checking those out.

  9. Assessment drives instruction! I could not agree more that the significance of the common core is its assessments. The sample questions are what makes teachers nervous, not the content standards.
    People have been asking me for a 1-stop curriculum; a place where rich and robust tasks are compiled by standards. I think this needs to be done for assessments, too, but few have been thinking that far in advance. You are ahead of the curve on this.
    I would love to conspire with you. @MathProjects.

  10. Great comment about becoming a better writer by reading well. I think something similar definitely applies to writing math assessments. And as far as becoming a better writer through writing… I think that applies as well, especially if we’re writing and commenting and revising together.

  11. Brilliant. The beauty with the sites of Dan, Andrew and Fawn is that they are clean.
    From Dan we get one picture (or video) that makes you ask questions.
    From Andrew we get one picture prefaced with the question, ‘Guess how much?’
    From Fawn we get one picture coupled with the question, ‘How many X in step Y?’

    To match that beauty in a site about assessment is a daunting yet honourable task.
    It excites me almost enough to say WEIRD! and SHUT UP! But the fact that Sam and Lisa also have their minds on this makes me even more excited.

    Let me throw out some names: All titles followed by (A Math Assessment Archive)?
    Answers May Vary
    Kiss My Assessment
    Mark This! (or Assess This!)
    Get Your Assessment Handed To You
    Head Up Your Assessment

    Actually, any A$$ Idiom might work here so I’ll stop.

    Following on Twitter.
    Thanks Michael.


  12. Michael, as a fellow California educator, I agree that the CCSS assessments “promise to be worlds better than the CST” primarily because they will finally test students’ conceptual understanding, ability to apply the mathematics, and their ability to explain their mathematical reasoning. Clearly the CST failed to do that. I think that a place to start for all educators is to include questions where students have to explain their reasoning (which may be preaching to the choir if you like math enough to read math blogs). Students also need to understand how to solve problems in multiple ways and explain how those multiple representations are interconnected.

    I also agree with what Fawn said. If you’ve been getting your kids to critically think about mathematics beyond just sets of procedures as well as having them explain themselves on a daily basis, the new CCSS will actually be your time to shine and will likely validate all of the work you’ve been putting in that there was no way to assess. Like Fawn said, if the test truly is a measure of how well a person is ready to be a productive member of society or how prepared he or she is for college, then by all means, teach to the test!

    Sam also makes a good point, maybe we wouldn’t share the actual assessments but a generic example of the structure we use.

    Currently some of the push back I have had, which has its point, is “Why should I teach that way when I have the same/better test scores as _________ who is doing what you are talking about?” So yes, that is my frustration that will hopefully soon be alleviated.

    Thanks Michael.

  13. Hi Michael,
    One thing a few teachers built last year was a Phsyics Problem Database. The idea was that you’d be able to upload problems, tag and comment about them, and then be able to search the problems by tag, author etc. You’d then be able to add the problem you choose to a “cart” and then, output the problems in a format of your choosing.

    We’ve got a working model at database2.globalphysicsdept.org/public, but we haven’t really put it all that many problems, partly because the school year hit and we got to busy to really market it. We also had plans to do a lot more with the database, like being able to upload images of student solutions, and support commentary on those solutions, etc.

    We also talked about how there isn’t any reason we couldn’t add math problems to this database.

    I’d be happy to talk with you further if you are interested.

  14. Hey Michael,

    Great idea. Have you checked out opusmath.com? It’s currently a bank of items aligned to common core 7-8, but promising to grow. They’ve pulled items from Illustrative math, MAP, and Exeter and allow for uploads from users. They also track downloads and votes on each problem and use that number to resort the problems on the page. Users can select items they want to use and export an assignment to google docs. Most of these would probably be considered tasks, depending on your distinction between “task” and “assessment.” For me, that distinction is not always clear.

  15. Paul, thanks for the comment. (You may be the first person I *know* who I’ve connected with on blogs and Twitter.)

    Someone pointed me to opusmath.com earlier today. It looks like an impressive site. I look forward to taking a closer look this weekend and next week. (Spring break!)

    After my initial glance at the site, I don’t know if it currently provides a space for the kind of reflective conversation I want to have regarding my own and other teachers’ assessments. The thumbs up/down is a great feature, but I want a space where we can not only share and rate and borrow and use assessments, but where we can share what we’ve made in order for others to help us make it better. (Though the sharing/stealing/using is high on the list as well.)

    I’m not sure if that makes a lot of sense, or if opusmath.com does (or could one day) provide that, or if teachers are really interested in that part of this whole process. One of my issues is that I haven’t worked out entirely in my head what I want to exist, so it’s hard to know if it already does exist, or if it would even be possible to create.

    Thanks again for your comments!

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  17. My district has been working towards implanting the CC math standards fully by next year. It has been a long process and fortunately we were able to get a grant for grades 6-12 to collaboratively work. There are a lot of ideas and materials out there, but I have found teacher blogs to be some of the best resources. We have also been trying to move from just the procedural to the conceptual assessments and its been a tough process. Even though we’ve been heading that direction for over 3 years, we still have a long way to go. We started writing common formative and summarize assessments before common core was adopted by our state (Illinois), and I feel that we are constantly rewriting finally moving towards more conceptual (justifying and explaining). I love the idea of sharing parts or all of the assessments. I’m not a blogger and have limit technology experience outside of Smartboard and word documents. I teach 8th grade math and a section of Algebra. Let me know if something gets set up and I would be more than happy to share some of the ones we created…

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