Q: What’s the difference between a good student and a poor student?
A: The poor student listens in class, takes notes and studies furiously before the test to remember everything – and forgets everything the minute the test is handed out to the student. The good student listens in class, takes notes and studies furiously before the test to remember everything – and forgets everything the minute the test is handed back in to the teacher.
This classic joke reflects what is a sad reality for many of our students, but also cuts to the heart of the whole assessment question. What is it exactly that we are testing, and why? Of course, what we assess and how we assess it is perhaps the most profound expression of what we value, what we want our students to know, and how we want our students to know it.
In one of my first positions in which I was tasked with teacher supervision I found myself in an awkward spot. Until then I had been a teacher, a colleague to those I was now responsible for supervising. The general tone in the school was relatively laissez-faire – teachers were allowed the freedom to do their own thing. I was expected to tighten up some of that looseness, but uncomfortable asserting authority with colleagues. I chose in my first year to engage in what I would now call data collection – I asked all the teachers to submit to me copies of their assignments, homework, classroom worksheets, and tests. It did not take long for me to get an initial snapshot of what was happening in each teacher’s classroom – verbatim responses, massive memorization, concrete understanding, application of learned material, deep processing, grammatical skills, cross-discipline integration, vocabulary, and more. It did not tell me how the students were faring, but it did let me know what the teachers were focusing on. That then gave me the opportunity to open up discussions with the teachers about their goals and expectations, and begin the richer conversations of what we were doing individually, as a faculty and as a school.
While what and how we assess reflects – or should reflect – what we value in our teaching, the results of our assessments tell us both how our students, and we, are doing. The fact that we teach it does not mean that the students have learned it, and dissonance between what we think we are teaching and what our students can demonstrate that they have learned, is a red flag calling for attention, for both students and teachers.
This issue of Jewish Educational Leadership opens with some broad thinking by Shirah Weinberg Hecht on both our goals and how we evaluate our success in achieving them. Laya Salomon brings the discussion to the level of the classroom, exploring a variety of non-traditional assessment approaches. Steve Bailey shares the results of a project which taught, and assessed, core competencies in Jewish knowledge, and Vardit Ringvald examines assessment in Hebrew language instruction.
There are many schools in which assessment (and academic standards) in Jewish studies is downplayed and grade inflation is de rigueur. This is linked to a mindset which understands that specific content in Jewish studies is less important than giving the students positive feelings associated with Jewish learning – and why ruin that with the parts of school that students most dislike – homework, tests, grades. We present to you the results of a brief survey we conducted of schools and teachers and the attitudes towards academic standards in Jewish studies.
Our Applications section opens with Sharon Freundel, whose school moved to a radically different reporting system to parents, and Sally Mayer, who introduced a “review and drill” routine into a Talmud class which may not have been popular with students but which yielded significant results. Aliza Libman Baronofsky uses art to assess a Humash class and Estelle P. Harris describes a tracking system used to follow student progress in Humash skills. David Leibtag explores assessing affective goals, and Rivky Krestt shares her experience working with rubrics. We round out this section with a gallery of assessments developed and used by alumni of the Pardes Education Program.
Levi Cooper opens the Features section, where he presents fascinating research on the different uses of assessments in traditional yeshivot. Finally, our Perspectives article is written by Jan Morrison, an educational trainer, researcher and consultant, who has worked extensively with public, private and Jewish day schools.