Friday, July 02, 2010

thoughts on assessment

What kinds of values do I hope to encounter as I explore assessment?

fair, balanced, and reasonable measurement
balance of skills, knowledge, habits, means (process/path), and ends (outcome/goal)
strong orientation towards development of student identity
building self-governance, self-reliance, and responsibility in students
building community without coercion, interdependence not dependence
rigorous learning related to relevant and meaningful learning outcomes
respect for student inquiry and constructivist learning
creativity and diversity (multiple modes of knowing)
learning that is embodied, holistic, and well-rounded

What kind of assessment structures do I currently use in Social Studies?

1. Verifications of learning outcomes -- usually open-notes quizzes or assignments. These require the students to have made sense of some connected learning outcomes, most commonly through some notes or gathered evidence that answer focus questions and more detailed content questions. This tool is formative in that students are required to revise their work and responses if they have not met expectations on the first attempt (≥67%), and can also use other methods and formats to express their learning. It is “for/as learning” in that the assessment activity is a chance to reflect critically on the evidence gathered by students and prepares them for other learning outcomes and assessments in the course. It is also integrated (formative/summative/progressive), as their best mark for each verification is recorded, and their lowest verification score is dropped.

2. Projects -- usually long-term unit assignments and creative demonstrations of learning. Assessed with a rubric (usually one for students, one for teacher). I give a basic set of options for completion, often with use of exemplars, and sometimes with expected outcomes and products (e.g. a piece or writing or a class presentation). This tool is formative in that students are requested to revise their project if they have not met expectations on the first attempt, and can also use other methods and formats to devise their projects and express their learning.

3. Unit Tests -- summative assessments, usually closed notes, but sometimes taking the form of an assignment. Students not satisfied with (or missing) their first attempt are given an alternate test to complete (e.g. re-write), and can repeat this as many times as they like

The message is that i am interested in having students show what they have learned, by the methods I have designed or by the methods they have designed (by choice, i.e. if they have not met expectations or they wish to pursue another mode of expression).

I don’t give unalterable zeroes -- I have null scores that students can turn into a mark ≥67% any time within the current term. These scores turn into zeros if the student refuses all opportunities to meet expectations and reasonably address the learning outcomes. Why? Students can demonstrate they have learned something interesting or important any time it makes sense for them to do so. They get to decide when they are ready and they can decide what it is (if anything) they have learned.

I have due dates, but I do not have late penalties. The due dates usually coincide with natural breaks between topics, and often involve some class sharing (non-marks motivation). The due dates apply to unit projects, of which the number is few and the intake manageable.

What kinds of learning activities and formative assessment tools are used within these structures?

In no particular order, and probably incomplete: notes & written questions, exercises & problems, essays, maps, reports, presentations, timelines, readings, debates, webs & clusters, library work, posters, tests, portfolios, graphs, diagrams & drawing, scales & rubrics (teacher, student peer), journals, arts-based interpretations, group projects & groupwork (e.g. charts), video logs, field work, blogs, student-teacher conferences, digital mashups, direct questioning

How committed am I to this scheme?

I have set some core assessment values in front of me for 15 years, and every change I have made has been an attempt to draw closer to a system that embodies these values, more-or-less. I usually look at minor changes whenever they make sense, and I try to keep major practices in place for at least two years. I am currently one year in to a major set of changes, probably the fifth time I have done this. My values are, of course, the result of my own identity trajectory and an attempt at authenticity, but they also form an external horizon of significance, partly derived from the strong influences by the circle of friends and colleagues who have modeled successful pedagogy for me, and by the authors that have attended to my imagination.

How are students affected by my assessment practice?

The changes I've made to assessment over time affect students differently. Mainly, my concern has been how to find out if the students actually know or understand what is expected (learning outcomes and broader curriculum). Self-motivated students usually find a way to excel in any assessment context. Struggling and at-risk students have difficulty in almost every context as well. The rest will usually rise to the expectations that are set for them, but may often try to get through by minimally meeting expectations. I have developed structures now for helping (1) the weaker students meet expectations, (2) for ensuring that students in the middle are in fact meeting expectations and addressing the learning outcomes, and also (3) for any student to have a means to exceed expectations. These are all structures in addition to the regular assessment that establishes student achievement in my courses, and they involve the use of formative work, rubrics regarding expectations, alternate assessment, and multiple attempts. Some “quick research” on this semester’s classes reveals the following observations.

(1) within two weeks of the course’s end, about eight students of my current eighty-three were at risk of failing the course or term. Two of these would probably not thrive in any sound assessment regime within a regular academic stream, and six have some very clear and realistic means available to them to get through. These six would not have passed under the assessment scheme I have used in the past, and they will probably do and learn more under my present scheme. As of the semester end, the two did indeed fail, and the six ALL were motivated to complete some missing work, address some weaker learning outcomes, and fulfill some expectations regarding demonstration of understanding.

(2) I have a much clearer view of what students know -- as far as marks it has meant that most students are "repelled" from a mark in the 60s -- either they fall below this (no work handed in, no catch-up, no re-writes, etc.) or they have latched on to the support structures I've provided, found a way to meet the learning outcomes, and are getting 67% or better. It has definitely focused who I need to spend time with for certain purposes -- help for some, deeper learning for others.

(3) this is relatively untapped -- I've had only a handful of students try this out during this school year. Most students getting marks in the 80s or 90s are usually quite content and did not pursue more.

Success for all? 81 of 83 passed with an average mark of 75% (11 C-s, 10 Cs, 9 C+s, 30 Bs, 21 As). There are so many reasons why this is the way it is, but it appears to me an improvement on my classes from a few years ago, with no loss of “learning” as far as I can tell (i.e. I’m not “easing up” on expectations, if anything they are higher). The two that failed will be supported in an alternate program that meets their significant needs.
What was my previous assessment policy?

Same tools and similar structures, but they were used less “formatively” -- no requirement to meet expectations, less second chances, and 2 days dues, 2 days late (assignments due over two classes, then accepted for two more classes with 20% deduction). I used a series of technology solutions for dealing with missed or below-expectations work, and I did not allow rewrites on unit tests.

Why did I change it?

1. I saw other teachers using methods with their class and achieving similar goals more successfully
my understanding of multi-modal literacy convinced me that students needed a variety of ways to demonstrate learning that were authentic and elegant

2. the changes helped me draw closer to some of my values such as self-governance and non-coercion
the reading and research I have done on the inquiry method and role of student identity in engaged learning, as well as my work on ecosystem theory in education

3. my method did nothing for the students most at risk, it was superfluous to the high achievers, and it did not challenge the students in-between to wake up and try to really succeed at something

4. some students would “muddle through” and aim for the bare minimum in order to achieve 50%; the message sent was that mediocrity was encouraged and rewarded

What assessment tools or practices have I used through-out my career (sacred cows)?

open-notes assessments (test what they know as “larger selfs” not confined to a brain)
some form of self-assessment on major projects (what did you get out of it?)
some basic acknowledgement that student identity is the curriculum (the medium is the message)
reality timelines: the closer to the original assessment event, the more detailed and objective the marking and feedback
strong role for fairness: I want students’ final marks to reflect the degree to which they seized the opportunity to learn
not interested in marking for the sake of marking, e.g. collecting notes to check for completion or assigning new homework to see if they’ll work at home and then checking it off
students are ultimately responsible for their own learning

What should I probably do more of?

I’d like to use more co-creation of assessment tools, criteria, and timeline with students. I need to create shorter, tighter assessments more closely tied to focus questions, some of which need to be generated by students (inquiry-method). I’d also like to ensure that students know in advance how the assessment relates to marks, and to wean students from being motivated by marks and replacing this with intrinsic rewards and self-determined indicators of success.

What do I make of the current (e.g. SD57) emphasis on Assessment for Learning and some of the associated pressures on policy & practice?

1. I’ve come across some very good ideas, many of which I think I use in one way or another, and have used increasingly with time (e.g. more use of formative assessment, more use of multiple attempts to demonstrate learning based on student’s self-developed approach, more use of self-assessment).

2. Most of what I’ve read on assessment in the last six years seems to me to be educationally sound with some exceptions in the area of using coercion to follow up on assessment results and the “guide on the side vs sage on the stage” metaphor. Some of the very best and most successful teachers I know, and have ever known, are story-tellers with spartan assessment techniques.

3. A general skepticism that “AFL” proponents have not fully grasped context -- the realities of the classroom, the limits of a teacher’s work environment, and the nature of our public education configuration in B.C. preclude certain idealistic, trend-based, or expensive practices. For example, the district plan for student success speaks about focused support in every classroom and with every teacher to address the “knowing/doing gap.” How have they determined what teachers know, whether it is relevant or important for them to know this, and what is gained or lost in a shift in practice related to what should be known. I’m not convinced of the problem that needs fixing.

4. “AFL” has been blended with PLCs, SPSS, Continuous Improvement models, and Data-driven Decision-making as part of a then/now mashup, a shift from the bad old ways to the good new ways. Combining educational theories like this is incredibly complicated and often contradictory and seems to be done in order to convince practitioners that coordination exists when none is needed nor asked for. Criticizing specific past practices (with relevant evidence) can be beneficial, but to sweep away “the old way” is not respectful of what has worked well in the past nor does it reflect the incredible diversity that exists among current pedagogy.

5. To the extent that “AFL” has been a “conversation” I applaud the implication of respect for teacher autonomy; I also fear that when these conversations have been invitation-only, many teachers voices’ have not been heard, and yet the “conversation” seems to be the first step towards policy language. First it is a popular theory, then it is saturates the district “offerings,” then it becomes a recommendation, then an expectation. I appreciate that to date the plan to implement assessment strategies has been to provide opportunities (e.g. learning grants) as opposed to the use of directives.

6. Our district plan for student success makes some assumptions that a particular approach to “AFL” is the best way to achieve it’s goals and that teachers and administrators should make the “paradigm shift.” This does not seem congruent with the “AFL” strategy of allowing learners to be actively involved. In other words, if we expect students to construct their learning, we should expect teachers to do the same in regards to assessment. Assimilating an externally-determined teaching philosophy, even if the goals are the same as our own, takes away from teachers’ ownership of professional learning and bypasses a key step in the inquiry process.

What are my views on adopting school-wide assessment policies, non-binding or otherwise?

I believe, generally, that a compromise or “median” position does not serve a school well as it excludes the creative and robust theory and practice that exists on either side of the median. Compromises work best when a single solution is needed to address a single problem but multiple solutions exist. What we are facing in our school is not a single problem, but a set of conditions (most of which are not problematic) to which an appropriate response is a variety of approaches, each matched to a condition. To state this for my own practice, I believe, with thought and evidence to back it up, that what I do is successful, intelligent, fair, non-coercive, and focused on student learning. I can think of ways to move this “forward” as they say, but to align with an unnecessary compromise that might erode what I am developing is a “move backward.” Many aspects of an assessment discussion will benefit from cross-curricular collaboration, but much of it needs to be worked out with my Social Studies and classroom context. I can govern myself and be a teacher for my students, but it is not just for me to impose norms on the unwilling or take something that is individual in nature and apply it to a perceived community without appreciating difference or context.

What would be my recommendation for staff regarding assessment?

Continue articulating to each other and to students how and why you structure assessment the way you do. Be willing to adjust, change, experiment, and take risks with assessment. Probably the most difficult and important person you have to convince for permission to change is yourself. Beware of global solutions to hypothetical problems. Avoid sameness for the sake of being the same (this is frightening); it is more interesting to differentiate in all areas (including assessment) and look for internal consistencies. Trade a discussion about zeros and penalties for a more productive and transformative discussion about assessment values and what we intend for our students.

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