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  • Erin Austin

The Top 5 Reasons to Allow Partner Assessments

By Erin E.H. Austin, NBCT

My final year at the first high school I ever taught at was tough. I had three different levels of French, and one of my classes had 43 students in it. (That’s not a typo.) I begged my principal for another section and argued that too many of the activities I did that were best for learning simply couldn’t be done with a class size that large. Never mind the fact that 43 juniors wouldn’t even fit inside my classroom! The rest of the conversation went something like this:

Principal: We are in a tough spot. You’re going to have to let some things go.

Me: Are you telling me I won’t be able to do what I know is best for kids?

Principal: You’re going to have to let some things go.

Brutal. At the time, I didn’t know how to create meaningful learning experiences that also worked within that context. Years later, I started a practice that wouldn’t have solved all the problems, but would have helped: I began allowing partner assessments.

Student Choice = Student Voice

For summative writing assessments, I often give a choice between taking it with a partner or using one teacher-created handout from the unit (e.g., a skeleton page for notes we took as a class). Some students prefer working alone, and they still can; others like interacting, and this allows for that. Choosing a partner doesn’t mean that it’s wide open, however. I work hard to make sure my practices and policies lead to grades that are reflective of actual language ability. I explain that partners have to have grades that “touch”. For example, a student who has a B- level of understanding can partner with another student with a B-, one with a B, or one with a C+. (Naturally, teachers can use discretion here depending on the students and circumstances.)

Choice Reflects Travel

When I first considered this idea, I pushed back against myself: “How will I know what each student can truly do on their own if I allow these supports?” But what’s my goal? Ultimately, my hope is for students to travel the globe and interact with diverse cultures, using language as an initial point of connection. What did my own travels look like? It was clear that there hasn’t been a single time I’ve traveled abroad and didn’t have support of some sort. Sometimes I travel with a friend or family member, and we navigate the language together. Other times, I have a pocket dictionary or an app on my phone. It’s a rare situation that someone would be without anything while traveling. By allowing a partner or teacher-approved notes, I am mirroring travel experiences.

Discussion Leads to Greater Learning

My attitude of, “Try it! You don’t have to stick with it if it fails” finally sold me on attempting partner assessments. So I tried it, and the results were better than I could’ve hoped for! During the assessment, I walked around the room and listened in. The discussion happening was exceptional. Students were picking apart grammatical concepts and structures, reviewing them together, re-teaching them to each other, and implementing them with greater accuracy. They also pushed each other to be more creative and to, as I always say, “showcase the range of what they know”. For example, one partner would say to the other, “We haven’t used a negative structure yet, so we should probably put one in.” Yes! Please do!

Supports Lessen Test Anxiety

I teach many high-anxiety IB students. As an adult, it can be almost laughable how much they work themselves up. Yet I still know what it’s like to be a teenager, and I understand those feelings are real. With the implementation of a partner option, I noticed that students whose anxiety was usually palpable suddenly started having more of a “We can do it! We got this!” attitude, and the self/group-talk was more fun and less stressful. I did not see that coming, but it was a welcomed side effect.

Teacher Workload Drops

I often think back to the class of 43 French 3 students I had all those years ago. If I had allowed partner assessments, it wouldn’t have solved the problem of physical space, nor would it have allowed me to do some of the activities I wanted to do. But if everyone in that class wanted to opt for a partner assessment, I’d have half the amount of grading to do on those assessments. That would have saved countless hours—not to mention sanity—and it would have gotten feedback to students quicker.

In the end, something I tried on a whim turned out to be one of my favorite classroom changes. It could have completely failed, and I would’ve moved on, but it was the rare gem that increased student learning while also being good for me.

Have you tried partner assessments? What positive results did you see? Post below in the comments!

Erin E.H. Austin is a National Board Certified French teacher in Fort Collins, the author of The Ultimate Guide to Selling Your Original World Language Resources, and the 2023 CCFLT Teacher of the Year. Follow her on Twitter @Erin-EH-Austin.

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