Friday, June 02, 2017

Assessment in Social Studies

Why do we need a new way to assess progress in Social Studies?

It may not come as a surprise but most teachers loathe marking. Being a part of student success, monitoring progress, providing feedback -- that's not so bad, but actually giving up late afternoons, early mornings, evenings and weekends to work through piles of student papers and projects can be a real killer. Marking is the new smoking.

I don't claim to have figured out how to provide valid student assessment without putting in some actual time with student work, but I want to clear that the work I am paying attention to is actually indicative of success and that my efforts at marking and evaluation are of some benefit to students and not just something I have to do.

To compensate for the arduous nature of marking, many teachers have adapted some strategies to shorten the tasks and "thin-slice" their reporting of student progress. Recently, I have worked with BCTF staff and another teacher to develop a workshop on assessment. The video above might horrify teachers, but there are recognizable elements in Mr. D's approach to assessment that we have seen in ourselves and in our colleagues over the years. Who hasn't found shortcuts?

While I continue to search for my own valid shortcuts, I have put some thought into how Social Studies courses and assessment schemes could align better with competency-based curriculum and prove better bang-for-the-buck when it comes to assessing what students are actually learning. Here are some reasons some change is necessary:
  1. Students (and teachers) often don’t actually know what a grade means. Does a C+ signify an average job on some learning outcomes or failure at some and mastery of others? Do accumulated scores of 8/10, 10/10, 1/10. and 9/10 indicate a C+? Simply adding up scores does not always tell the story of what a student has learned or how they have progressed. Teachers are often confident that It should be straightforward for students to see the connection between what they do, how they are assessed, how they are graded, and what to do when they don’t succeed. Many schemes allow or even encourage students to do the bare minimum in order to get to the next level -- setting 50% as a pass is often a poor indication of competency. Students should be meeting expectations in all areas that are key indicators of success -- if it is important, it is an expectation.
  2. The idea of separating work habits from assessment of learning has obscured the fact that habits & study skills, social conditions for learning, and personal achievement are hopelessly intertwined. Students need a way to move beyond the cards they are dealt. This requires an assessment practice that respects personal stories and allows students to “contract” for advancement. Assessment should be more like swimming lessons: areas of progress that students can track, with feedback that is useful for their next attempt. Assessment should focus on performance and aim for objectivity, but we can’t be oblivious to the differentiated abilities and backgrounds of students, nor the need for elegance, nuance, and equity.
  3. It is not enough to simply assess content (whether factual recall or deeper understanding), nor is it any better to focus solely on the new (and partially developed) competencies. Similarly, schemes based on abstract or subjective standards make collection of meaningful data difficult. Something holistic and yet specific and clear is needed. We should be assessing both “competence” (ability to perform certain tasks) and “capacity” (ability to manage and complete many tasks).
So what would a new assessment scheme look like?  Rather than explain it I have mapped it out in this rather convoluted graphic. It is also posted at my New BC Curriculum site. Feel free to contact me if you want it explained further.