Photo: Jessica Christian/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris

Even simple quizzes aren’t immune to the challenges brought on by the pandemic.

Some teachers are finding it difficult to replicate in-person assessments in an online classroom during distance learning.

Now, many California teachers are putting more focus on a range of different techniques for both routine and standardized tests, from more frequent check-ins and break-out groups to gauge understanding, to open-note tests, and even using webcams and software to prevent cheating.

When California schools shut their buildings in March to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, most school districts waived grading requirements for the remainder of the term. But this fall, nearly all schools have reinstated their grading systems, renewing the need for assessments that can measure learning losses or gains during the pandemic.

For Brian Shay, a high school math teacher at Canyon Crest Academy in San Dieguito Union High School District, it has been much more difficult to know what students are retaining in an online setting compared with his in-person classes.

“Normally, in class, I would say show me a thumbs up or down, or other kinds of temperature checks like that, but it’s a lot harder to do that in Google Meet when half my class keeps their camera off,” Shay said.

This year, he’s leaning more on what’s known as formative assessments, an ongoing process of gathering evidence of students’ learning progress. The information gleaned from the shorter, more frequent checks is used to guide instruction while giving students regular feedback throughout their learning process, rather than a single large test at the end of a teaching unit or a standardized test at the end of the year that compares students across a grade level.

Throughout the week, Shay asks students to complete “exit tickets,” meaning a short set of problems to check for understanding. And every Friday, his students take a 50-minute test focused on the content taught that week. After grading the assignments for credit and participation, Shay will then use the results to inform what he focuses on the following week.

“Every day I have some kind of way of seeing what they did that day and need to work on. I like that, just to have a clear idea of what you learned today,” Shay said. “I might actually use that when we go back to normal teaching.”

Across California, teachers in all grades and subjects are coming up with ways to measure and record student progress. Some will have students show answers to a question on a whiteboard and hold it up on the screen, or relying more on tools like polls and Google forms to replace paper quizzes.

Online, students have access to calculators, Wikipedia and other materials that can be used to quickly look up answers. That has led many teachers to move away from simply asking for the correct answer on a test, and instead assign more value to participation in class discussions, explanation of answers and project-based work.

But many districts are also still requiring benchmarks and other standardized assessments. That’s created new challenges for teachers like Thomas Courtney, who teaches fifth grade in San Diego Unified.

“The assessments are not reliable,” he said. “I just gave a phonics skills test to a student online, and this is a strong student, but she couldn’t hear anything. It makes you think how often does this happen? Are parents helping kids? Is our data skewed?”

Formative and traditional assessments have been used long before distance learning. But as school buildings remain closed during the pandemic, state education leaders have recognized that the online setting will bring new challenges, especially for students still struggling to connect with their teachers online.

“As we approach the testing period soon, there are many questions about how we will do this for students who don’t have adequate devices and connectivity,” California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said during a public briefing on Thursday. He later suggested that teachers should use a “restorative approach, rather than a punishing approach” to testing and grading during the pandemic.

In Fresno Unified, teachers and administrators are rethinking their assessment practices, a process that started before the pandemic. And that became a more immediate focus after schools closed in March and the district began working on a distance learning plan for fall, said Andrew Scherrer, executive director for equity and access at Fresno Unified.

This year, every Fresno Unified school is using the same assessment tool for reading and math, called iReady, which allows teachers to deliver adaptive lessons and tests and includes data on how students are progressing.

“When Covid hit so unexpectedly in March, we were able to pivot quickly to say let’s use this system since we already have it and it’s online,” Scherrer said

Even with the new system, one question that frequently comes up is how to prevent cheating when teachers can’t be in the same room as their students?

“A lot of discussions are being had around if you should force a camera on or not, or when you’re giving a test does it have to be asynchronous or synchronous?” Scherrer said. “And I’ll be honest, I don’t think anyone has the answer to that yet.”

Shay, the math teacher in San Dieguito, will often post a PDF of a problem set and ask students to keep their cameras on during Friday tests. Students keep the webcams pointed at themselves with the mic on, so he can see if someone is in the background or if they are trying to look up answers online. He also creates new tests rather than recycling old ones that could be posted online.

The process takes work and Shay admits it’s not his ideal solution — students could still be working on something else or sneak answers if they really wanted to, he said. But he’s let go of those worries to some extent in his new classroom environment and finding other strategies, like asking students to explain their reasoning more often.

“Don’t just tell me it’s false. Why is it false? That’s really just as important to me,” he said.

Some experts say that trying to catch or prevent cheating is the wrong approach. Restructuring assessments themselves can reduce the need for proctoring or other cheating prevention tools, said Barbara Jones, a senior professional learning specialist at WestEd, a nonpartisan research agency focused on equity and learning in schools.

“If it’s a high-stakes test where you get rewarded or have serious negative consequences, there is a lot of incentive to cheat,” Jones said. “But if the rewards and consequences are to improve your learning and there is no stigma around not knowing, then it kind of takes away that whole question.”

Courtney’s strategy has been to incorporate more emphasis on honesty, digital literacy and what it looks like to have integrity online into his daily lessons. “Most of my students are really internalizing that, and I hope it is a wake-up call for everybody,” Courtney said.

Some schools are going a step further with digital proctoring software that can track a student’s behavior online during tests, listen for background noise, or even track eye movements to make sure they are on task. For example, ProctorU, a popular automated proctoring tool for colleges, recommends one of its services for K-12 assessments that monitors exam sessions, uses artificial intelligence to flag suspicious behavior and notifies teachers if cheating is suspected.

But privacy advocates and other practitioners say these kinds of systems can invade student’s privacy and that being watched online can have harmful effects on a student’s emotional wellness.

“A lot of districts are dealing with this issue of loss of control, so they’re doubling down on rules and devising new ways to monitor kids instead of trying to build those trusting relationships and turning it over to students to be responsible for their own assessment,” Jones said. “If the focus is on learning, why is (monitoring) needed?”

During the pandemic, Jones has been helping school districts get familiar with formative assessment strategies. Key to the approach, she said, is students participating in their own assessments and working with a teacher to identify areas they need more practice in.

“The daily practice of students and teachers working together to using evidence that informs the next steps is so important for online learning,” Jones said. “Now more than ever students need to take on that lift. We can’t see our students as much, so we will focus on listening to them.”

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