I have two adult children who have spent multiple years immersed in post-secondary education. Their experiences in this phase of schooling have impacted my own thinking about many aspects of assessment. Most recently, I have been thinking about the purpose assessment holds in communicating the importance and relevance of what is being learned.
In my assessment work, I have long considered relevance as part of strong assessment design. Humans simply perform better when experiences matter to them; when the tasks they are engaged in hold strong meaning in terms of interest and aspiration. Considering authentic audiences and engaging purposes when crafting assessment experiences is part of effective assessment architecture.
However, my concept of relevance expanded when my eldest child entered medicine. In this professional college, assessment is a large part of her daily experience. She is assessed on her understanding of anatomy and pathology, as well as her skill in engaging with patients and colleagues and analyzing diagnostic information. Her assessment experiences connect directly to the work she will be engaged in after graduation, and this makes total sense. However, even understanding the logic of this alignment between assessment design and real-life experience, the notion of relevance became even more clear to both of us following her first term in the college.
“Feedback is honesty. Don’t just tell me ‘good job’ when I didn’t.” —Middle years student
My colleagues and I work with systems across North America who are undergoing assessment reform. Educators and leaders alike are asking themselves how to shift their assessment practices, when to do it, and what it will entail. The questions generated in a single coaching session illuminate the complexity of this shift. Teachers are wondering how assessment should be designed, which symbol (if any) to attach to products and performances, and how to respond to assessment evidence in ways that will advance learning. This work is both significant and challenging, and no one is taking it lightly. However, in the quest to “get it right,” adults often forget a key source of wisdom and insight available to us every single day. Perhaps we see this source as a receptor of our refined assessment system, rather than as a collaborative partner in its design. Whatever the reason, maybe it is time we turned to this source—our students—and consulted them on decisions we are making.
Documenting Learning over Time: Portfolios and Data Notebooks
Portfolios and data notebooks have been around a long time. I remember bringing home scrapbooks in June, after another year of elementary school, filled with glued-in samples of worksheets and drawings—artifacts of a year spent learning. I recall, many years later, opening my portfolio during a final summative conference in a university studio art class, and pulling out samples of work that represented the skills and knowledge I had developed throughout the course. Even more years later, after I had taught for some time, I recollect asking my students to chart their skills in recalling French vocabulary on multiple bar graph templates I had handed out at the beginning of a unit. These graphs were then placed in a dossier for reference. Each of these examples speaks to the act of documenting learning by collecting artifacts and data in a single place where they can be easily accessed and serve their intended purpose.
What is interesting about each of the examples above is that the intended purpose varied in each context. My elementary scrapbook was simply a collection of artifacts representing skills we had been developing or things I had chosen to create. It served as a kind of curated (largely by my teacher) album that I could share with my parents and then place in a box in our basement. My art portfolio was a catalyst for reflection and evaluation at the end of my studio art class. The individual pieces contained within served as a way to make a case for my growth and development in critical artistic skills. Sadly, this portfolio has also been relegated to my basement, gathering dust. I still feel tremendous emotional attachment to the artwork within but it has served its purpose. The data sets I invited my students to create in French class served the purpose of documenting growth and supporting conversations about how my students might improve further. The data the learners collected and graphed was intended to be a temporary “current state,” with new data added each time they attempted new strategies and spent time practicing.
The years we spend in educational contexts represent a vast array of experiences. Children and youth spend a tremendous proportion of their days in classrooms and schools (face-to-face or virtual) and the learning they experience is certainly worthy of documentation. Their educational stories deserve representation. The great thing about data notebooks and portfolios is that we can document the learning journey and we can use the documentation as a catalyst for reflection, analysis, goal setting, and growth. We now know that these collections of artifacts and data can serve a purpose beyond becoming an album or a capstone collection that sits in a basement—they can begin new learning conversations. Read more
When I am working with teacher groups to analyze student work, our first area of focus is always student strengths. By identifying areas of celebration from the outset, we nurture optimism and hope in teachers, which they can then pass on to learners.
I have seen the power of this approach, and this is why I would love to show it to you in this blog post. By making time to focus on strengths and celebrations, I am explicitly acknowledging the progress educators are demonstrating—and make no mistake, we are doing some amazing things in education right now! Read more
The vital position education holds in the future of a society is rarely debated. However, the nature of this position is a constant source of discourse.
Why is education important? How does it support the values and beliefs of a community? What goals guide it? Who decides these goals and what purpose do they hold for the learners and the communities in which they find themselves? Read more
Okay, I will admit it…the title of this blog post is a little misleading.
Assessment is something that deserves thoughtful and extended consideration. “Quick” has the potential to move teachers and students from valid and reliable assessment to assessment that is surface-level.
However, I also know that when educators decide to shift assessment paradigms and adjust daily practices, looking at the whole assessment topic can seem daunting, and knowing where to start can feel out of our reach. Read more
What exactly does a strong critique of someone else’s work look like? How is it the same and different from a critique of one’s own work?
When do readers identify the main idea of a text? Which processes lead to the identification of a main idea?
What does a good data analysis look and sound like? What are the critical components of a strong analysis?
These are just some of the questions I have witnessed teacher teams wrestle with in the last few weeks of collaborative assessment work. The answers to these questions and others like them serve as the bridge between teacher assessment design work and student ownership of learning goals. When we explore goals in explicit ways, we can begin to imagine how we might explain complex skills like critiquing, identifying main idea, and analyzing data to our learners. We have to make these concepts tangible and accessible if we are going to nurture student investment and hope.
I have long believed that if assessment doesn’t immediately impact learning in the classroom, it has fallen short of both its purpose and its potential. In my own practice, I think of it this way: If I figure out what my learner strengths and needs are, I am compelled to use that information to refine my planning, my instruction, and my feedback. To ignore assessment data would be unacceptable. So, the question becomes, how might we use strengths to address needs and optimize learning? Read more
“How did the simple act of identifying strengths first in your students’ writing make you feel today?”
This was the question I posed to the eight teachers sitting around the table, after our fourth grade professional learning community (PLC) team had spent half an hour analyzing (not scoring) student writing artifacts. Read more
Let us talk about shopping for shoes. I am not one of those people who meanders through shoe stores, struggling to narrow down my choices (no judgment for those who do—that is just not me). Rather, I am a very pragmatic shoe purchaser. I have specific kinds of shoes I favor, and I am clear about my shoes size. So when I head into a store, I get what I need and get out. Read more