Another Brick in the Wall: Practice and Formative Assessment

I remember good days and bad days from my first year teaching AP World History. But the thing I remember most was when a student told me about how she felt when she took the practice test at another school, administered by a different teacher. 

"He was giving them all these reminders about things that I didn't even understand," she told me, just before the guilt of not preparing her made all my other worries that day seem insignificant. I had to address the problem students faced with the AP exam.

The Problem

The problem is often the same year after year: students don't do well on the essays. So we have them write more essays. Practice. Practice. Practice. And the results remain the same. Maybe the achievement levels are a little higher but nothing considerable. I think we shifted 1s to 2s with the added practice approach, but not many 2s to 3s or 3s to 4s or 5s. 

Last year, we started chunking the skills practice. It yielded the highest achievement gain since I started. In four years, we had assigned fewer reading pages in the book, reduced lecture-based instruction, increased targeted skills practice and assessment, and the passing rate had doubled. Now, it's time to take it to the next level because we're not even close to the national average. 

The name of the game, this year, is assessment design, frequent practice, and targeting skills based on last year's results and this year's needs. 

Looking at the Data

My PLC partner and I met this past summer to review student work samples released by College Board. We looked at the student work to determine what a 7 out of 9 looks like, what a 5 out of 9 looks like, and so on. (1) We came to the conclusion that our students needed regular practice writing thesis statements according to the CCOT and comparative essay requirements. (2) We also concluded that requiring specific examples to support explanations must become a routine in our classrooms. 

Some of you might be wondering what a CCOT essay is. Don't worry about it. I won't even tell my students what it is until they've been practicing the essential elements for a while under more conversational labels.

Note-Taking and Summarizing 

My solution to the anxiety some students have to navigate when they hear "thesis statement," is the one-sentence summary. The students take a lot of notes, whether it's from reading activities, discussions, image analysis, or the occasional lecture, so they need a summarization piece that brings together their note-taking while practicing writing better sentences. It's also import that the summaries can be shared out regularly and more publicly. The answer was The Wall. 

The tack wall in the back of the room has been converted into our color-coded, one-sentence summary space. So far, students have been required to summarize their notes in response to a question based on the curriculum framework. We use red paper for political issues, blue for social, and green for economic. 

The Wall is my main formative assessment piece. It's designed to allow for many levels of knowledge demonstration. It has allowed us to merge a simple classroom routine with a critical formative assessment. 

Clear Expectations

The first assessment expectation was to write complete sentences with specific examples to support main points. This was preceded by activities that practiced analyzing for context and point of view.

Students are then asked to mark a few posts with a plus sign if they're okay with it or a delta sign if they think it needs to be changed. This helps guide our discussion about where the class is in terms of meeting the expectations.

The next AP essay expectation will be to have them summarize by including one thing that has changed throughout the period of study and one that has stayed the same. That's the CCOT part (continuity and change over time). Since the date range is required for the exam thesis statement, I will have them write it in the summary sentence, as well. But no mention of thesis statements will occur in my class until 
they're good at writing them. 


This assessment is for feedback, only. To provide this feedback to students as quickly as possible, I take pictures of a sample of the posts that represent a range of achievement and write commentary under each picture on our classroom activity blog,

Since the wall posts are anonymous, the students are encouraged to read all of them and the feedback to further focus understanding of the expectations. The next step is to have them comment on the strengths and weaknesses, provide examples to substantiate the statements, or find themes to organize the evidence they've collected.   

The Underlying Goal

The key is to build the skills one piece at a time, brick by brick, as our athletic department says. It's also important to leave out unfamiliar jargon. They don't need confusing labels to learn how to do things. Once their confidence and proficiency levels are high, I will teach them the labels, which will probably fix any thesis-statement baggage they bring to class. 

We will probably only write about three essays all year. That's one more than last year. I know that this might sound counter intuitive, but I am tired of doing the same thing with minimal results. Plus, I don't subscribe to the belief that we prepare students for college by throwing college-sized workloads at them. 

If you don't buy any of this, check out what the kids say about AP World History classes on Twitter #apworldhistory or #apworld. You can see the progression with some from complaining and stressing about workload to giving up and just wanting to get through the test to say it's done, not really caring much about the results. Is that really the culture we want to nurture in our academic programs?

Thanks for reading. Please leave comments, suggestions, disagreements, and, most importantly, stories.