Tag Archives: Innovations in Assessment

The Territory of Literature

books2016’s first issue of English Education offers the last article by the late George Hillocks Jr., “The Territory of Literature.” In it, Hillocks suggests improvements in how literature is taught.

Students, he says, are usually “taught that a plot is what happens in a story, that a setting is where a story takes place, and that there are certain points of view an author may take: first person, limited, omniscient, and so forth. . . . But all of these are normally treated by providing only simple definitions with no practice in interpreting any of them in any depth. Is it any wonder that kids cannot read thoughtfully?”

Too often, he says, English teachers move from one piece of literature to the next without leading students to compare and contrast the works. The result: reading one work contributes little to understanding or appreciating the next.

What solutions does Hillocks suggest?

One is to better teach how fiction can be categorized. “Such a typology should . . . provide insight into a wide variety of texts, and it should make it possible for students to recognize, in works new to them, what they have seen in works previously studied.”

Among the types he suggests teaching are the five outlined by Northrop Frye:

  • Mythic, in which the hero is “superior in kind both to other men and to the environment of other men” such as a story about Superman;
  • Romantic, in which the hero is more down to earth but still “superior in degree to other men and to his environment;”
  • High Mimetic, in which the hero is “superior to other men but not to his natural environment;”
  • Low Mimetic, in which the hero is “superior neither to other men nor to his environment, the hero is one of us;” and
  • Ironic, in which the hero is “inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves, so that we have the sense of looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity.”

Another way to improve literature lessons is to examine more closely the definition of plot. “The school idea of plot as the sequence of events in a story is totally inadequate in terms of gleaning any meaning from a work. We need to consider how events in conjunction with the characters involved give rise to emotional response from the reader.”

Because plot can be defined as the “synthesis of action, character, and thought,” any one of these three elements can be the focus of a plot, impacting the story’s structure.

“Plots of action result in material changes in the material circumstances of one or more main characters,” he writes. “Plots of character involve a series of events that result in changes in the values and moral character of the hero. [And] plots of thought focus on the thinking of the character and involve a thorough change in the character’s thinking through engagement with his or her surroundings.”

Another suggestion: lead students to examine the author’s moral outlook, emphasizing “the ability to infer the assumptions and values of the author and those of the narrator, which may not coincide. The narrators of Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ are quite different . . . Both are obsessive, perhaps, but about different things, one about revenge, the other about guilt and fear. Teachers can tell students the difference, but to become expert readers, students need practice in making such discriminations for themselves.”

He adds:

More important is the necessity to help students determine the extent to which a narrator is reliable or unreliable. In my experience, students have a strong tendency to accept whatever a narrator says without questioning the degree to which he or she represents the author’s thinking. But there are always clues to a narrator’s unreliability. Many characters make statements that are unreliable, with their unreliability evident in their misstatements, distortions of fact, and exaggerations. These cues . . . call upon the reader to reconstruct the text’s surface meaning.


Read all of George Hillocks Jr.’s suggestions in depth in “The Territory of Literature.”


Innovations in Assessment Chat

new and better assessment toolsA few weeks ago, NCTE held an online conversation about innovations in assessment. On the video, you can hear the questions and comments from moderator Darren Cambridge and his panel of education experts. What’s not evident in the video is an online chat room that ran concurrently, in which educators responded with some valuable thoughts.

Here are some highlights:

When asked to define “innovation” in assessment, participant Kathryn Mitchell Pierce replied, “I think innovation is when teachers have an opportunity to design experiences that help them get to know what their students are learning. . . . When an assessment experience helps us understand our students better, helps us understand our craft better, and helps our students grow DURING the assessment event, then I think we have innovation!”

Later, Cambridge asked teachers to describe innovations they had seen at the classroom level that deserved more attention. The question drew several noteworthy ideas.

Michael Rifenburg offered, “College-level writing teachers grading a student paper with the student present. And talking about how they came to the grade with the student sitting right there. I have never done it, but have thought about the pros and cons for quite a bit.”

Maria C posted, “I work at a school that has transitioned to a STEM school. As part of our model, we use problem-based learning in all of our classes. Students are posed a real-world problem, they research and propose a solution, and then propose their solutions to a panel of community members and experts. This allows us to integrate all of their literacy skills, as well as their collaborative and problem-solving skills. I think this demonstrates to our kids that the skills they are learning and practicing in school are not isolated, but rather must be practiced together to be meaningful.”

Cambridge himself chimed in, “One simple assessment practice that was perhaps innovative at the time I began using it in my own teaching was providing audio feedback to students. Students said they felt it was more personal—sometimes too personal!—and were more likely to respond to what I had said, whether or not they took my advice.”

Barbara 1 offered another activity: “Students pick out one sentence in the writing of another student and tell why that sentence works well. I’ve heard so many discussions branch out from the one sentence to a larger segment of the writing, but starting with one sentence provides a nonformidable beginning.”

Later, the conversation turned to the value of having students keep journals as an assessment tool, and participant Ali G offered this insight:

If the goal of assessment is to improve learning rather than “audit” learning, then the socioemotional aspects are essential. Journals are applicable for every subject area, and having students write/reflect on what they learned and point out their own connections and how it was relevant for them personally requires students to transfer knowledge, make connections, conceptualize important ideas, and reflect on their own learning, which is great for self-monitoring and metacognition.

The discussion around all these issues did not end when the chatroom closed. A week later, Rifenburg gave us this observation:

Darren’s second question has stuck with me since: can assessment be innovative if it only works for one classroom? In other words, does “innovation” necessarily involve malleability, the opportunity to transplant that assessment technique from one learning environment to the other?

I ventured an answer via Twitter and through the Blackboard Collaborate chat function. I answered “no” and suggested the opposite, that maybe innovation necessitates a grounding in the specific context.

I’m not in love with that answer, partially because I don’t know what “innovation” really means.
Almost 5 days later, I don’t have a better answer. But the important thing is that I am still thinking about it.



Connected Educator Month, The Challenge

homepageThroughout the month of October, NCTE has been a theme leader, covering “Innovations in Assessment“. Throughout the month, we have also been issuing a challenge: How can we re-envision assessments for accountability and equity?

In the debate over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act over the past year, many teacher groups have come out strongly in opposition to continued yearly standardized testing of all students, noting their often disastrous impact on the learning environment in schools and the inability for testing results to provide a complete picture of student learning. Many members of the public have also expressed their dissatisfaction with overtesting students, with families across the country (over 20% in New York) opting their children out of state tests this year. However, many civil rights organizations, natural and traditional allies of teachers, have vehemently opposed any reduction in testing or states’ accountability to act on the basis of the inequities that tests uncover. They argue that if we don’t test all students every year, we have no way of knowing whether students in certain communities or vulnerable or traditionally underserved groups—such as students in poverty, students of color, those with disabilities, or English language learners—are not learning what they need to know to be successful in adult life. Addressing these inequities is a crucial civil rights issue, and unless inequities are measured, they are easy for policymakers and district leaders to ignore.

Holding leaders accountable to their responsibility to ensure that ALL students have access to a high quality education and graduate with the skills they need to be successful in college, careers, and civic life was a driving force behind the debate about ESEA fifty years ago. Ensuring equity is a key civil rights issue. However, relying on yearly standardized testing as the sole measure of success is a deeply flawed approach to addressing the issue. Challenges in the current debate over reauthorization of ESEA reveals a lack of understanding about alternative ways to meet this imperative.

We invite you to join us in the challenge to envision what an accountability system of the future might look like, one that:

  • Engages the need for equity head on while also ensuring that evidence of student learning is gathered in ways that are consistent with good instructional practice
  • Mirrors the ways that educators themselves effectively use evidence to improve instruction
  • Measures the full range of important contributions to student learning and development, providing a more holistic view of student progress

It is also essential that any new system focuses on holding the whole educational system (including state policymakers) accountable for its results, not individual teachers or their students.

We’re inviting people with innovative ideas in this arena, particularly those who are already experimenting with new approaches, to share them through a series of online discussions during Connected Educators Month. NCTE will be continuing to explore this challenge beyond October, and we hope your contributions during CEM will launch deeper collaboration with us in the coming months. If you are interested in working with us on this issue but can’t commit to doing anything in October, please get in touch anyway. Have an approach to share? Let us know! Contact Darren Cambridge, NCTE director of policy research and development at dcambridge@ncte.org or +1-202-270-5224.

3 Ways to Support Formative Assessment

At NCTE, October is Connected Educator Month. We’ve been asking our members to reflect on innovations in assessment, and you have. Lisa Lienemann, an ELA teacher at Lockerman Middle School in Caroline County, MD offered the following tips for principals:

a tree of support


3 Important Ways Leaders Can Support the Formative Assessment Process


  1. Shift the Conversation

 In many places, the relationship between teachers and principals is still rooted in a punitive tradition — principals wield their pens in opposition to teacher efforts when what they see doesn’t fit the traditional boxes and molds. Formative assessment, when implemented as a process that informs teaching, is a complex approach that takes time to hone and polish. If principals want teachers to get good at it, they need to invite teachers to a new conversation, one that shifts the conversation from, “Here’s what I didn’t see. . . .” to “Why did you . . . ?” If what we want to see in our students is a growth mindset, don’t we need to encourage the same in our teachers?


  1. Let Them Get Messy

 Try. Experiment. Attempt. Jump in. Take a stab at it. Give it a go. These are some key messages leaders need to send to teachers. Teachers, as a rule, like things to be planned and outcomes to be predictable. They like the tried and true. In the 21st Century, we’ve got to let go of this a little. Advancement demands it, but unless leaders give them permission to use their classroom as one might a science lab, with a well thought-out experimentation plan and a means for analyzing and evaluating the results, teachers will continue teaching the way they always have. We already know that isn’t reaching kids at the levels it needs to and kids are becoming increasingly disaffected and disengaged from the learning process as school looks less and less like real life by the minute. Derail this train and put teachers on a new path by giving them permission to jump the tracks.


  1. Connect Efforts to Tools Already in Use

 Do you have a dusty evaluation tool in your toolbox that you’re not leveraging for teacher and student success? We did. In my district, the SLO [student learning objectives], a misunderstood and maligned creature, was seen mostly by teachers as a distasteful task that had to be completed before they started doing their real jobs. By bringing the SLO more directly into the light, key leaders understood its rationale better as a tool to encourage teacher growth and reflection, not as a caught’ya. Instead of reinventing the wheel, look around for tools already in use that might be reevaluated and reconsidered in light of the new conversation and approach.

Connected Educator Month, Week 4

banner-760Connected Educator Month kicked off October 1! As shared in an earlier post, NCTE is a theme leader on the topic of “Innovations in Assessment“. For the final week of CEM, October 23rd-31st, NCTE is focusing on “Artifacts and Analysis”.

You’d never take a picture of a garden on one day in February to make a sweeping assessment of its health over the course of an entire year. Rather, you’d use a variety of measures – soil samples, plant measurements at different times of year, samples of plants over the course of different seasons, analysis of weather patterns and their impacts on growth, etc. in order to create anything approaching an overall “picture” of how well that garden grows. We’ve spoken already about the need for multiple measures in any assessment system but this week we take a closer look at some of the particularly interesting comprehensive approaches currently in use. What does it take to implement these approaches school wide? What conditions must be met in order for such approaches to thrive? And as we conclude this month-long look at assessment, how might these compelling innovations be scaled so that they begin to shift the way we think about assessment on a national scale?

Please also join us as we participate in these activities all month long:

  • Innovations in Assessment: Read and React discussions will be occurring throughout the month of October. Join this discussion group on the National Center for Literacy Education’s network, the Literacy in Learning Exchange, to read and discuss research articles and studies from a variety of organizations on the topic of assessment. Join Community Facilitator and Professional Learning Specialist Lara Hebert in facilitated conversations around two articles each week. Topics include formative and summative assessment, standardized assessment, portfolios, standards-based grading, and more. Go to the Literacy in Learning Exchange to learn more.
  • Using Social Networks to Build and Share Collective Wisdom: #WhatWeHonor. When we begin to think about meaningful and equitable assessments, we inevitably think about those measures of learning that deserve as much and even more honor than standardized assessments because these measures can tell us more about student learning, growth, context, and ongoing needs. And different situations call for different tools and strategies. During the month of October, follow and contribute to the #WhatWeHonor conversations and sharing of assessment tools and artifacts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. Tag resources and blogs related to formative assessment; share your most tried-and-true rubrics, observation protocols, conferencing strategies, and more; post a video of your collaborative team discussing the power of looking at student work together; and make any other contributions you can think of that can change the conversation about assessment to focus on more than annual standardized testing.