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TNLI: Action Research: Curriculum Implementation: Evidence of Understanding in an 8th Grade Classroom

Our Teacher Research: Past & Present

Helping all students achieve higher standards

Teacher preparation and new teacher induction   Ongoing teacher professional growth   Teacher networks
Teacher leadership in school change   Helping all students achieve higher standards      

Evidence of Understanding in an 8th Grade Classroom

by Matt Wayne

"How could they give an exam and know if you met standards are not?"
- Lou Jun Jao, 8th grade student.

Research Question
The question of how we know students are learning is at the heart of my action research. In my classroom, I try to practice on-going assessment to discover what my students are learning. On-going assessment means that I am continually checking students' understanding and what support they need. These assessments are not just end-of-teaching tests, but are done through observation, dialogues, traditional quizzes and tests, performance tasks and projects, and students' self-assessments gathered over time. The results of my assessments then inform my teaching so that I can provide instruction that will push the students' understanding. 

Contrast this to the most common way we ask students for evidence of their learning - tests. This reflects what Alfie Kohn describes as our propensity to do things "to" children rather than do things "with" children. As I reflected on how I assessed the students, I realized that I wanted to try to do it "with" them more. From this thinking, my action research question emerged: What happens when students participate in the process of providing evidence of their understanding?

Collecting Data
During our classic American short story unit, I challenged the students to provide evidence of their understanding of and thinking about their reading. After having worked together reading Edgar Allen Poe, I gave the students Poe stories to read on their own. We discussed as a class what the students needed to show as evidence for their understanding. These became our "standards" based on work we had done in the class throughout the year and New York City Performance Standard E5, the Literature Standard. The students decided that they would like focus on demonstrating literal understanding, analysis, and interpretation of the Poe stories. Once the students decided on the standards, they spent the next few days reading and working on their evidence of understanding the texts. Through observations, interviews and class discussion, I documented their efforts. 

Field Notes:
Class observations conducted every 10 minutes while the students worked on the project revealed:
  • Time on task was high. Students rose to the challenge of providing quality evidence of their understanding.
  • Students talked with each other a lot. Many sat together after reading to confirm their understanding of his challenging stories. (Some of my struggling readers used an abridged version of the text to help them understand.) 
  • Students could decide to work individually or in groups. 5 students worked individually. 5 pairs of students. 3 groups of three.
  • 10 students finished quickly and were satisfied with their first attempt. The rest changed what they were doing several times.
Student Evidence of Understanding:
These are the different ways in which the students provided evidence of their reading and understanding:
  • 1 poem 
  • 1 comic strip retelling of the story
  • 2 discussions of the students' reading process - how they figured out what happened in the story and what it meant.
  • 1 discussion of the students' response to the story.
  • 1 paragraph-by-paragraph annotation of the text.
  • 2 pictures of a scene with summary of the story and analysis of the scene.
  • 1 outline to a reading response.
  • 2 reading response essays.

Students then presented their evidence to the class and we discussed whether their work "met standards" or not. This provoked many interesting discussions about what is good evidence of understanding and the challenges of assessing our learning. Here is one piece of evidence we discussed along with student comments from our discussion.

Student Comments
Susan definitely understands Poe's style. She creates tension in her poem like he does in her story.

Susan said she wanted to capture the feeling of helplessness she had when reading. She does that here when the narrator falls down the pit.

Susan recognizes how the pit can be seen as a symbol for the emptiness in man's soul. 

Susan shows a good interpretation and analysis of the story, but lacks evidence of her literal understanding of the events of the story. However, the class questioned whether that evidence was necessary based on the depth of thought in her poem.


Policy Implications

Policy in Practice

Students should be active, not passive, in the on-going assessment of their learning. By being involved in the process, students were more focused on what they were supposed to be learning and what it meant to provide evidence of their understanding. Our discussion of evidence that met standards (e.g. Susan's poem) or not (e.g. an outline of a reading response), demonstrated a need to balance the freedom to assess in unique ways and the structure necessary for students to produce effective evidence. Finding this balance should be a part of the planning in our classrooms and schools. 

  • Provide students with meaningful opportunities in the classroom to assess their learning. 
  • Provide teachers with professional development to support their efforts at on-going assessment and involving the students in the process. 
Collaboratively develop as a school staff a variety of ongoing assessments. Student self-assessments and student created evidence of their learning and understanding should be incorporated. 
Reading is a social act. It is necessary for students to share their ideas and explore their thinking together if they are going to successfully interpret and analyze challenging texts. The number of students who spoke with each other about what happened in the Poe stories is an indication of how important this is. Also, the class agreed that the students who discussed their reading process and their thinking about the story were effective in demonstrating their understanding. 
  • Reexamine current assessment system of heavy reliance on standardized testing. 
  • Recognize multiple forms of evidence of understanding. 
  • Study school sites and systems that use multiple forms of evidence.
Participation in book clubs might be an acceptable form of evidence. Students could submit a videotape of their book club conversations to the district or to a panel of evaluators as evidence of their understanding.


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