Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Facepalm! Assessment Questions from the Past

Facepalm!  Assessment Questions from the Past

Quick Quiz -- two multiple choice questions for you to answer --

  1. How many American troops died at the battle in Lexington?
a. Five b. Six   c. Seven        d. Eight

2. What signal did Paul Revere ask the spy to send?
a. The Bat Signal
             b. One lantern if by sea, two lanterns if by land
c. One lantern if by land, two lanterns if by sea
d. One lantern if Lexington, two lanterns if by Concord

True confession -- those are really, mortifyingly bad test questions from a test I wrote in MY class, circa 2007.



Somebody smack Me-From-2007 on the head and tell me why the heck a kid should know those things. What’s the point of memorizing those facts?

Embarrassingly enough, I don’t even know the answer to #1 anymore -- and I USED TO think it was so important that kids needed TESTS and GRADES on it!!! And now I don’t even know the answer.

(I can’t believe I just owned up to those bad test questions to all these people, digitally. Not only do you know the lousy tests I gave, but now it’s on the internet. Gulp.)

I read something once (in Bruce Lesh’s brilliant book Why Won’t You Just Tell Us The Answers? p.10)) that has stuck in my head for years. He is a Social Studies teacher who tried to learn a little about how other content areas taught. He says:
Doing math is not about having the teacher give students an answer, require them to memorize it, and then regurgitate the answer on an assessment. In math classes, students are taught whole, prime, positive, and negative numbers. Most important (or frustrating, depending on how you felt about math class), they are taught to “show their work”. Math is about understanding general principles that guide the behavior of numbers and then applying those principles in a variety of scenarios  to generate mathematical solutions to problems. To reach this end, students learn the tools, mind-set, and habits of thinking mathematically so that they can then apply those skills to problems. Math had a lot to offer my investigation of how to better interest my students in the past.

Can you imagine how silly that would be? Can you imagine giving kids the following list of values and saying “Now, you have a test on these on Friday.” I may write the question in different ways, but these are the values you need to remember.
  1. 77
  2. x=3
  3. y=234
  4. 42

But have you ever done the same thing in Social Studies -- and NOT FELT SILLY ENOUGH? Have you given your kids a list of terms, names, and concepts and then had them essentially identify or match those terms with their definitions or descriptors?

Scroll up and look at my bad questions again. Don’t worry. I still have my face in my hands so I don’t have to watch you do it. Did you notice that they are just as bad as the math example above? You can guess what the study guide looked like --something like, “Know how many people died at Lexington” and “what was the signal for Paul Revere”

Who cares? Knowing how many people who died in the battle of Lexington is the same as know that x=2. No one cares if you know the answer -- if you don’t know HOW to think about the content. I can’t THINK of a reason why anyone would need to know either of those things.

Seriously. Facts don't mean anything if people don't use them for something more than trivia. I don't think that facts without skills have a lot of purpose.

Neither does the state. Or the district.

The truth of the matter is, the days of teaching only low-level, recall is over, if it ever really was a thing to begin with.

If we really think about it, we DO want kids to think civically, historically, economically, geographically. That’s what I want from the kid who votes and serves on a jury. That’s also what I want from the person who fixes my car, works at my grocery store, does my pest control, cleans my teeth, or maintains my parks.

Our assessments*, as maddening as they are, are not just facts, dates, vocab lists, and battle winners.  Our assessments ask kids to analyze, compare, explain, connect, and interpret. They ask kids to THINK about our country, our world, and our governments.

*By “our assessments” I mean the state EOCs (for 7th grade Civics and 11th grade US History) as well as the DD-EOCs (district-developed exams for all other SS courses)

Those tests follow the 20-60-20 rule. The percentages are rough, not exact. What’s the 20-60-20 rule?
  • Twenty percent of the questions are Level 1, low level complexity (recall questions, hopefully about something bigger-picture than “how many people died at Lexington”)
  • Sixty percent of the questions are Level 2, moderate level complexity (describe, explain, compare, classify etc.)
  • Twenty percent of the questions are Level 3, high complexity level questions (evaluate, use evidence, draw conclusions, etc)

So how do we help our kids transition from questions like my lousy ones above to these moderate and high level complexity?

We introduce more Level 2 (moderate complexity) and Level 3 (high complexity) questions into our teaching and our classroom assessments.

It’s tough, I know.

But if we want our kids to be historic, civic, geographic, and economic thinkers, as well as successful test takers, we need to help them think at those higher levels and we need to have them practice using those types of questions.

Check out this cheat-sheet below of ideas for teaching and assessing at each level. Then, practice using questions and teaching activities from each level -- shoot for (eventually) the 20-60-20 proportions...

Recall and Reproduction
(DOK 1)
Skills and Concepts/Basic Reasoning
(DOK 2)
Strategic Thinking/Complex Reasoning
(DOK 3)
·         Identify who, what, when, where, and why
·         Recall facts, terms, concepts, trends, generalizations and theories
·         Use a variety of tools
·         Recognize or identify specific information contained in graphics
·         Identify specific information in maps, charts, tables, graphs or drawings
·         Describe or explain how or why
·         Give an example
·         Describe and explain issues and problems, purposes, patterns, sources, reasons, cause and effect, multiple causation, significance or impact, relationships, points of view or processes
·         Compare/contrast people, places, events, purposes, and concepts
·         Classify, sort items into meaningful categories
·         Convert information from one form to another
·         Use concepts to solve problems
·         Use evidence to justify
·         Propose and evaluate solutions to problems
·         Recognize and explain misconceptions
·         Cite evidence and develop a logical argument for concepts
·         Reason and draw conclusions
·         Disseminate among plausible answers
·         Analyze similarities and differences in issues and problems
·         Apply concepts to new situations
·         Make connections

Lisa Simpson (of The Simpsons, the-still-running-in-its-26th-year TV show) once said, “Grade me, look at me, evaluate and rank me! Oh I’m good, good, good, and oh so smart! Grade me!”

I’m pretty sure that she would love these new style of assessment questions. But the rest of our kids? Not so much.

We have training coming 10/22 on this topic for 6-12 grade SS teachers. Stay tuned. And turn up the complexity in your class.

Need to mock me for my bad questions? Have thoughts on higher complexity assessments? As always, email me at

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