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raphy class. I was a first year teacher, and was just learning how to accommodate for the diverse needs of learners. My students had completed their high-stakes tests a few days earlier, and with several weeks left in the school year, I decided to give them a project which brought together many of the concepts, understandings, and knowledge covered through- out the year. This project involved the creation of a new country to demonstrate their un- derstanding of the five themes of geography (location, place, human-environment interac- tion, movement, and region). I decided to let them choose the type of project they would complete, an example of interest-based differentiation. The students had a lot of freedom, but there were clear expectations and specific requirements. After 10 days of hard work (and constant checkpoints on my part), they presented their projects to the class. To my surprise, my struggling learner gave an exceptional presentation. He far surpassed my expectations based on an entire year’s worth of evidence from more traditional assessments (unit tests, quizzes, homework, etc.).

When I finally had time to reflect on the blur that was my first year of teaching, I realized that this young man performed so well because I actually allowed him to express his knowledge in way that was most efficient for him. That is, he chose to use his leadership skills to create his own country, identify the problems that country might have (economic, geographical, etc.), and then provide solutions to these problems. Not only did he show a strong grasp of the ma- jor understandings and themes of the course, but he also alluded to many facts that our state standards identified as “essential.” The bottom line is that he was clearly learning and retaining a good deal of information, but he wasn’t provided an opportunity to connect this information to bigger ideas, or demonstrate this knowledge in a way that was most efficient for him. It is amazing the capabilities our students have when they to work in areas of strength!

Concern #3: “I already gauge student progress on a continual basis with district- designed benchmark tests.”

More often than not, the use of benchmark tests does not lead to responsive teaching, at least not in an ongoing, formative way. Benchmark tests, by definition, are a summary of stu- dent learning up to a certain point. They are not formative assessments that guide teachers’ instructional decisions, and help students realize their strengths and weaknesses on a day- to-day basis. Further, benchmark assessments are usually tied directly to state or national standards, and not classroom instruction. The use of these yardstick assessments almost al- ways presents teachers with one choice: either a student will qualify for remediation, or he or she will continue down a path of learning towards the end-of-year assessment. Even if some students are remediated based on the results of benchmark tests, what happens to students with a strong grasp of the content? Are students’ needs for enrichment being met as well, or will they not be challenged because they already meet standards? Teaching is not a guess-

Virginia Educational Leadership

Vol. 7 No. 1

Spring 2010

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