TEACHING STANDARDS 4&5: Insights on "Content Knowledge" and "Assessment"


UEA’s Educators Taking the Lead initiative is designed to support member success in the new educator evaluation process by focusing on effective teaching practices and instructional quality. April 2014’s focus is Standard 4: Content Knowledge (PDF) and Standard 5: Assessment (PDF).

Standard 4: Content Knowledge

The teacher understands the central concepts, tools of inquiry and structures of the discipline.

By Signe Balluff, UEA State Evaluation Lead and 4th-grade teacher

I am sure we can all think of a time when someone has remarked how easy it is to be a teacher. If you are like me, you probably bit your tongue, sat on your hands, and tried to let the comment be. The fact is that teaching is a unique profession. Not only do we need to know what we are teaching, we need to know how it relates to what others are teaching in other grades (vertical alignment). You can probably think of a time when you were asked a question and you did not know how to answer because it is not what you are currently teaching. I experience that every day when my 12th-grader says he is having trouble in chemistry. I teach rocks and minerals. Well, I do know that salt is on the periodic table of elements somewhere.

Knowing what we teach is critical. With the new Utah core standards, the responsibility to know that content became even more important. For me, as I tried to implement the math core with no support the first year, I relied on the internet and those who had taught Common Core math previously. I knew how to divide, but now I had to learn different ways to divide. I had to learn how to teach my students to think about division in many different ways. I do not think this would have worked very well if I had not understood how division works to begin with. This is a simple example, but I believe we all have experienced the paradigm shift that had to occur to be successful with a more deeply interwoven content.

Another example that comes to mind is one that has to do with teaching science. I have read the core for my grade and understand what I am supposed to teach. I know what students are supposed to learn. However, my experience teaching science, rocks and fossils is limited. Because I know I need a deeper understanding of the content, I have taken district courses, courses offered through other institutions and I have met with a variety of teachers both in my school and other schools who have helped me understand how to teach the content so that the students are excited and responsive to the material. I would have never thought to use ice water and magic shell to show how igneous rocks are formed. I had to learn that from my colleague next door. The kids love it and are excited about the content.

The Utah Effective Teaching Standards indicate that an emerging teacher knows the content that is taught; an effective teacher knows the content and gives accurate information; and a highly effective teacher pursues opportunities to learn new developments in order to deepen content understanding. This relates perfectly to Standard 8: Reflection and Continuous Growth because content is always changing and we must always be learning and reflecting on the current set of standards.

Standard 5: Assessment

The teacher uses multiple methods of assessment to engage learners in their own growth, monitor learner progress, guide planning and instruction, and determine whether the outcomes described in content standards have been met.

Dessie Olson, UEA State Evaluation Lead and Teacher Specialist

Assessment is an interesting term and runs the risk of being misinterpreted because of the emphasis placed on it today. We regularly hear about acuity, interim, SAGE and other types of common assessments meant to measure student growth over time. Conversely, for many teachers teaching outside of tested subject areas, these are new terms with which they are increasingly becoming familiar as they grapple with how they will show student growth.

For many, our school or district climate promotes assessment so much that it interferes with valuable instructional time, and we may think we do not need to provide any additional assessments for our students. However, I’d like to challenge you to think of assessment beyond a student growth tool or another test, and think of it in terms of managing and monitoring student learning. Let me explain.

As I examined my teaching practice while going through the National Board certification process, I realized I used assessment as a way to rank how students performed rather than using it to inform me of what students learned. For example, I would design an assignment, activity, quiz or test for students, grade it, and then move on to whatever I planned next, regardless of how students performed. This is the typical pattern of what I experienced in most classrooms as a learner, so I adapted this pattern when I became a teacher. Yet, when I had to identify and provide evidence for how I manage and monitor student learning during my National Board certification process (effectively demonstrate Standard 5), I discovered that whatever I planned for my students not only should be, but needed to be, based on their learning needs. So, how do we use assessments to find out what students’ learning needs are and what does that look like in one’s teaching practice?

Meeting Standard 5 is imbedded in our everyday practices, and we can find out all kinds of things about our students’ learning needs through our daily interactions with them. For example, before beginning a new topic, we identify what knowledge and skills students already have so we can plan for timely and appropriately challenging instructional choices. When students struggle with a question during whole class discussion, we’re informed we have to rephrase the question or ask a different set of questions to scaffold student thinking.

We provide many opportunities for students to achieve a learning goal, and we allow them to demonstrate their learning in multiple ways and multiple times so we can continuously glean information about their strengths and needs. We are careful to understand the specific purpose for each activity or assignment we ask students to engage with, and we are very clear in our minds as to what skills and knowledge we will be looking for students to demonstrate within those tasks, so that we know if we need to reteach, review or move on.

We understand that not everything must be graded to inform us on student learning needs, and for those assignments that are, we provide students constructive feedback, both oral and written, in a way that students can understand. In essence, we decide what we need to teach, how we need to teach it, and when we need to teach it based on how our class is progressing as a whole, but we are also mindful of planning for students who need extra support and for those students who are ready for more challenge.

When we are meeting Standard 5, we let our students’ learning needs guide and inform our instructional choices. If we are going to help our students achieve the learning goals we set, we must meet them where they are cognitively, not where we think they are. Using assessments as a way to manage and monitor student learning will help us do just that.

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