I’ve been teaching math for ten years. I have good classroom management, great relationships with the other staff in my building, and consistent communication with parents. I have learned along the way that having relationships with my students goes a long way when teaching a subject that most students at best dislike, and at worst, fear. Yet even with all this being the case, and as much as I know they want to do well, many of my students still struggle to perform well on tests.
I have seen students take good notes and ask questions during class, and I know they can solve a math problem with a slight nudge here and there. They can even talk about and explain the material to other students. This attitude in class should give them the confidence needed to get an A or B on a test… but alas, they keep getting Cs or lower.
This caused me to take a step back and to reflect. I kept telling my students that making mistakes was a good thing and that your brain grows when you work to fix them; I also let them know that everyone learns at a different pace and it’s important to keep putting in the effort because it will pay off even if you can’t see it now. But it also struck me that my assessment practices didn’t adhere to the growth mindset that I promoted to my students.
This year, as part of my TRC research investigation, I have been trying something different in my classroom: I have been using tiered assessments. Students get to choose the difficulty of the questions and thus the maximum grade that they can get on the test. I present students with about four topics each time we have an assessment, and every topic has three questions each at a different level of mastery or difficulty. For example, when solving linear equations, students need to understand how to distribute and make legal moves. As the tier level increases, so does the difficulty of the question.
I have found that this strategy shows me that the student really understands what they are doing and can explain it effectively. I consider the basic skills required and make a level 1 question; if only this question is answered, the max grade a student can get is a C. Students who are more confident in their abilities can choose to answer the level 1 and 2 questions for a B, or the level 2 and 3 questions for an A.
When I’m grading tests, I’m constantly asking myself, “Does the student understand this concept at an A, B, C, or D level? How much have they mastered this concept?” Using a 10-point rubric (shown here) allows me to easily input grades into the gradebook. Not only does this rubric communicate clearly to the student their level of mastery in each area, I’ve found this approach will cause students’ grades to work similarly to a GPA (unweighted) in high school/college: it shows me the average mastery of topics we have covered.
As the school year progresses, I’m continually reassessing the same topics. I take the level 3 question and make that the new level 2 question (changing the numbers a bit) because students have learned more and should be more comfortable with the more challenging questions. As a result, students can see very clearly that they have grown in specific areas as we get closer to June.
I asked my students if they like this type of test, and I’ve received mostly positive feedback. I had one student tell me that she doesn’t like them because she forgets that she doesn’t have to do all three problems; she only needs to do two on each page. In general, my students like the choice and freedom to do the problems they feel prepared for.
I love that I can challenge my stronger students on a deeper level while not excluding those students who have not mastered all the material yet. As the teacher, I can always push students to try a higher level question when I think they are slacking, so very rarely do I have students that finish with half the class time left. My struggling students can also build their confidence by trying a question that is harder when normally they wouldn’t. I’m still tweaking this system of assessments so that it is flexible enough to give students the confidence to try to challenging problems that show growth, while not punishing them for stretching themselves. I’m looking forward to gathering more data points throughout the year, and I anticipate using this new system in the future. More than ever before, my students are experiencing success on assessments
View the examples below to see how I graded some tiered assessments: