Assessment in the Remote Teaching Arena

As I am writing this, we are scheduled to return to school in a hybrid approach for 2020-2021. Significantly, it appears that at least 20% of families will be opting for an all-remote experience to begin the school year. Additionally, it certainly seems at least possible that Governor Murphy could either require a remote start to the year, or we could be forced to use the all-remote plan after a few weeks if the rate of infection increases with back-to-school. 

by Timothy B. Monahan

Teacher and Technology & Innovation Specialist at Ridgewood High School (NJ)

On a personal level, I accept that I have very little control or influence on the numerous reopening issues at hand. With this in mind, I have been focusing most of my attention on remote teaching for 2020-2021. More specifically, one question has driven me: “How can I implement a package of meaningful, reasonable assessments that resemble what I would normally give in-person under observation to deter violations of academic integrity?” 

The Challenges of Remote Learning

Frankly, I have enough trouble enforcing academic integrity when I am present in the classroom, so remote assessment presents quite a challenge for me. Formative assessment and remote learning go hand in hand, as I am sure many educators found last spring. Summative assessment can be much trickier, especially if your course is not tied to essay responses or is tied to a rigorous AP exam. Unfortunately, in my case, I teach a course where students are expected to succeed on two extremely rigorous AP Exams in May. Therefore, abandoning the traditional (summative) modes of assessment that motivate and validate student learning is not an option if I intend to achieve my district’s mandate for high student achievement. 

Since last March, I have been planning ways to preserve rigorous, traditional summative assessment in a remote learning environment. Naturally, academic integrity is a monumental hurdle. As it stands, it appears that we will need to solve this question for at least the approximately 20% of students opting for all-remote learning. Obviously, there remains a distinct possibility that we could need a plan for all our students if and when we go to the all-remote schedule. 

I am not only a teacher; I am also a member of my district’s Technology & Innovation Specialist team (formerly called Tech Coaches). Naturally, we spent hundreds of crisis hours in 2020 cataloging and pushing platforms & strategies for remote learning to our colleagues. I focused on screening everything out there for the most valuable strategies for high school classes. Fortunately, our team has been doing this type of in-house professional development work for many years prior to 2020, a major credit to the Ridgewood Public Schools! 

Formative vs. Summative: Rethinking Assessment in the Remote Arena

We don’t advocate our teachers to merely lecture in a Zoom or Google Meet. Our district philosophy is based on a standards based approach, with formative and summative assessment being implemented to both engage students and check for learning at various intervals. While our approach in the 2020 crisis provided a teacher option to teach synchronous (live) or asynchronous (flipped lessons due at 8pm each night), heading into the 2020-2021 we have adopted a much more synchronous approach. This coming year, we will lean heavily on formative assessment during or after synchronous lessons. It seems likely that many teachers will start each remote period with the full-class meeting before breaking-out into smaller rooms on Google Meet or Zoom to accomplish an objective. The teacher can bounce group-to-group virtually, or even have groups record their break-outs to promote focus on the group objective. For example, in the course I teach, the group objective will vary between going over a problem assigned for homework previously, or solving a new problem in real time.

Other teachers will have their students discuss or debate a topic, or maybe even produce work digitally. The possibilities are confined to the virtual setting, but remain limitless! At the end of the period, the teacher can then bring the whole class back together to debrief and complete a formative assessment which is a “check for learning.” There are dozens of ways our teachers can push formative assessment, and our Technology and Innovation Specialist team will continue to work with teachers individually to build-out their remote courses.To accomplish this, our teachers will likely use an interactive platform, such as Pear Deck, for direct, synchronous instruction with formative assessment embedded. Our teachers also craft their own formative assessments in Google Forms and the Skyward SMS to supplement direct instruction. Furthermore, in our district we recently completed Summer Professional Development to craft Standards Based Assessment & Rubrics to lean on during remote instruction. As it pertains to rubrics, I strongly advocate teachers use the Google Classroom Rubric functionality.

Good news: we seem to have figured-out synchronous teaching and formative assessment during the unexpected 2020 Crisis. While it wasn’t easy, hopefully you agree that teachers have remote instruction and formative assessment under control. But what about summative assessment? Remember, those are the traditional unit tests that check for long-term learning. Those are invaluable in education, too, because they check to make sure students are retaining and building upon the skills they learn day-to-day. 

We’re not talking about the old-days of rote memorization here, because that went out of fashion with the advent of Google. No, summative assessment is where the student demonstrates the ability to analyze, critique, or solve complex problems by applying thinking skills to a relevant (“real world”) scenario. I used to tell parents on Back-to-School Night that summative assessment in my World History course would never be “How tall is the Great Pyramid of Giza?” but something closer to, “What does our knowledge of the methods required to construct pyramids in Egypt indicate about the structure of the government and economy of the Old Kingdom period of Ancient Egyptian civilization?” 

Keep in mind that concluding formative assessment means multiple choice while summative assessment means essay is a common mistake. While the second question could certainly work as a free-response question, both those questions about Ancient Egypt can be multiple choice stems. One way I differentiate between formative and summative assessment is to lean on my experience as a sports coach. Formative assessment is like evaluating how my players did on specific skills in the drills we execute during practice. Summative assessment is how well they put all the skills together during scrimmages or games. 

How to Preserve Traditional Formative Assessment in the Remote Arena

Normally, my course features 10 different unit exams that cover several clusters of content standards each. These are my traditional summative assessments. Based on professional collaboration with teachers of the same course at other schools, there is absolutely nothing revolutionary about what I do. However, with the 2020 Crisis, traditional summative assessment got immediately marginalized out of despair over security. Many teachers, including me, opted to replace traditional summative assessment with project-based assessment where academic integrity was not an issue. Also, this allowed the students a chance to socialize virtually during the darkest days of the quarantine. However, that was March 2020, a point where my students had already completed 9 of the 10 traditional summative assessments. I don’t have the luxury of abandoning traditional summative assessment for the entirety of 2020-2021, and there is no guarantee I’ll be able to pull-it-off in the physical classroom with so many opting for all-remote.

What I will be doing in my classroom is a variation of what my neighbor was subjected to as he finished a graduate program last spring. It goes something like this: 

Step 1: The teacher must first decide how to best digitize his/her traditional assessment for remote access. (e.g.: Google Doc, Google Form, Skyward, etc. etc.) 

Step 2: Where practical, teachers are encouraged to make several versions of each assessment by scrambling questions, slightly changing numbers/wording to reduce the temptation and ease for students to violate academic integrity. 

Step 3: On the day of the summative assessment, the teacher will assign students to individual break-out rooms (e.g. Google Meet). During testing, the teacher can choose to have every room open (but muted) as a tab in Chrome or to bounce room-to-room to check in. 

Step 4: Students will be instructed as to the teacher expectations in advance. For example, “all students must put their phones away.” Here are the expectations I plan to push to my students:

  • You must locate yourself in a quiet area/room of their house where you will not be interrupted during the assessment. 
  • All students must have their cameras & volume on (teacher will check for each), and must refrain from communicating with anyone else present in their home during the testing period.
  • All students must share their screen to ensure no unauthorized tabs are open and to provide a record of the session. (Note: in my district we have a GoGaurdian license and I’ll have this running, but it only works on district issued Chromebooks, and many use personal devices. So I’m doing this for the Mac Book users.)
  • Each students’ testing session will be recorded and archived by the teacher only (not the student). In the event of any issues, the recording will be scrutinized for irregularities.
  • All of the above are considered an extension of the school Academic Integrity Policy.

Step 5: Stress the expectation that academic integrity extends firmly into the remote arena. Do this early (on your syllabus and first day of class), seek administrative support to reinforce this value, and make sure to hold students accountable. The best deterrent for cheating is vigilance. I know that during in-person assessments, I often have a bad habit of grading work at my desk, despite my better judgement telling me I should spend the entire period vigilantly patrolling the classroom. In the remote arena, this is even more important. I am planning in advance to spend the entire period closely watching the test-takers, and doing nothing else.

I should also mention that some teachers might also want to incorporate the approach used by the College Board for the 2020 AP Exams. In that case, the students were allowed to access their notes, but strictly forbidden from communicating with each other during the exam period. Upon release of the exams, it became apparent that the College Board had re-designed the format of the exams to be very difficult to complete in the allotted time, presumably scoring the exams on a greater curve to compensate. This format not only assesses student mastery of the content by further emphasizing the time constraint, but it also discourages cheating because sorting out the answers to different versions of the exam would potentially take-up valuable time. Notably, teachers who have multiple sections of a course (e.g. I usually have 4-5 sections of one AP course) face the challenge of preventing inter-section breaches of exam security (screen shots, etc.) However, that issue transcends remote learning vs. in-person learning, and remains elusive. 

While the particular approach described here is what I am planning to adopt and use for this September, I am not suggesting everyone adopt this approach. In fact, not every teacher will need or want to implement this type of plan for the 2020-2021 school year. However, as I said earlier, something I am specifically trying to accomplish is overall preparedness for two extremely rigorous AP exams in May 2021. I have to believe this approach gives me the best chance to replicate the annual student achievement I have been able to obtain with in-person instruction. 

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