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The power of stealth assessment

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Voice of the Educator

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It’s no secret that today’s schools are full of assessments — so much so that one of the main goals of the new Every Student Succeeds Act is to “reduce the burden of testing while maintaining annual information for students and parents.” One way to gather data without giving yet another test is to use what researchers Valerie Shute and Matthew Ventura call “stealth assessment.” They originally applied the term to video games, but to me it’s any method of unobtrusively monitoring students’ knowledge, skills and attributes. Here’s how stealth assessment has helped me learn things about my students that I would never see on a test.

I teach sixth-grade life science and eighth-grade earth science at Andover Middle School in Kansas. My class sizes range from 20–29 kids, but I often combine classes with my sixth-grade science colleague, so we work together with 40 to 60 kids at one time.

Each child comes with different learning styles and learning abilities. This year, I have two students with autism, one student who uses a cochlear implant, several students with significant learning disorders, and a large number of students with ADHD.

To help me connect with these large groups of diverse students, for the past four years I have used an audio system that allows me to address the full class or talk to and listen to small groups through pods placed around the room. This setup gives every student the chance to shine, and allows me to be in more than one place at a time.

I have had groups of one to eight use the pods depending on what outcome I am wanting. My favorite part is being able to work with one group and while listening to another group across the room discuss a topic. I feel this experience really gives me a true, uncorrupted view of what my students are thinking and discussing. Students naturally want to share; they just might not want to share with the whole class. I can discover what my students know and don’t know just by listening in.

For example, while working on our Cell Project this week, I clicked into a pod and heard two partners discussing cell walls. One student was trying to say that animals have cell walls; the other student, who is very shy, was trying to explain that cell walls are only in plants. I was able to click into their conversation, give the student who was correct positive reinforcement, and help the other student by reminding them how cell walls work like Legos — all while I happened to be at another table working with another group holding an organelle. Being able to listen in and respond in seconds made the world of difference for these students.

I also love to catch my students shining. This year I have a student who is an introvert and a perfectionist, who has had to frequently move from school to school. When she speaks, even if she is standing right next to me, I have to ask her to repeat herself because her voice is so quiet. In a traditional classroom, her personality and her voice would be lost. But by listening in to her small-group work, I have been able to really help her see that she has wonderful ideas and a high level of understanding.

Earlier this year, I had one of my students with autism tell another student in his group, “I remember this idea. Mrs. Friend told me she was proud of me in the black thing (pod) when I got it.” This was a student who took charge of his learning, but without the pod I might have missed that chance to tell him he “got” that concept. From that day on, he has worked harder for me than he has in any of his other classes.

With our age group of kids, many want to be seen, but maybe not heard. Many kids are just scared to raise their hand and answer or voice their opinions. It’s my job to make sure they feel very comfortable in my classroom. Students like knowing that they are being heard, and with my stealth assessment system, I know that my chances of hearing them increase exponentially.

Andrea Friend teaches sixth- and eighth-grade science at Andover Middle School in Kansas. She has used Lightspeed’s Flexcat system for four of the 11 years she has taught.

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