This week was filled with diverse experiences. I attended and presented at a conference and engaged in an online interview, sharing my school district’s eight-year journey into standards-based assessment. I spoke with a colleague in another country to brainstorm ways to move past road blocks in assessment reform and I worked with new teachers to refine their assessment practices. Finally, I planned a future session on data engagement and reflection between Board of Education members, in-school administrators, and district office personnel.
I mention these extremely diverse experiences because each one provoked deeper and deeper thinking about education, assessment, and what it means to adjust our approaches over time. As a result of this pondering, I crafted a list of things I have personally come to understand, through my own experiences, about trying to shift assessment beliefs and practices within a system. I hope others see themselves and their own context somewhere in this list and I hope it serves as encouragement to continue to strive for what is supportive of children…even if it sometimes feels like more trouble than it is worth. If you are at the beginning or even in the middle of a changing assessment paradigm:
- Keep students front and center – This is not earth-shattering advice, until push comes to shove and hard decisions have to be made. This is when we ask ourselves over and over which option is best for students. For example, when we were debating the value of assigning zeroes for missed work, we had to revisit our vision of education and excellence for all students and make decisions based on the needs of our learners in both the short and long term. In this case, we decided it was essential to support student learning, both academically and behaviorally, which meant we would not give zeroes for missed work but would, instead, address essential learning and hold learners responsible for that learning. It was during discussions like this that the needs of students deeply challenged and then grounded our practices.
- Start in the right place – One of the best things we did around assessment reform was mostly a lucky decision because we didn’t know what was best at the time: We did not redesign our report cards first. I cannot tell you how many times I thank our lucky stars we made that decision. Now I understand that changing the report card first would be like focusing only on the light on a lighthouse: yes, the light is what the world sees but without a strong lighthouse to support it, the light doesn’t stand a chance during a storm and may not point in the right direction in the end. So, we focused on the standards first, and then designed our assessments in true Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005) fashion. This meant that when we finally did craft our report cards, the format didn’t drive our assessment and instructional decisions. Rather, they were reflective of the assessment and learning we had so consciously designed.
- Know that sometimes the small things are the big things – Fullen (2013) reminds us that, “What matters most is progress in the daily work itself and paying attention to small wins and setbacks on a daily basis—this is the essence of change management.” (p. 22) In my experience, the small things really matter. In fact, they are indicators of progress and areas for continued reflection. Often it is tempting to ignore those little feelings of discomfort with a new practice; we move ahead, and hope things will work themselves out. Sometimes this is the case, but more often, these small discomforts signal a practice that needs further examination. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t quite right yet. When teams get together often to reflect, the opportunity to have discussions around these discomforts ensures the small things don’t become big things. In the same way, those small, daily moments of success, engagement and learning must be celebrated by teams. Individual risk-taking and success must be acknowledged in addition to school or system-wide growth. It is teachers, every day, in classrooms, who are making the difference and this should be celebrated.
- Invite students to share your story – If your assessment practices are fair, relevant, hopeful, and consistent, students are the best people to share the news. In our first years of change, all schools hosted family evenings and the most successful were those where students either spoke or were videotaped sharing the story of how assessment and learning were better meeting their needs. The most powerful voices amid educational change should be those of the learners themselves.
- Give change time – I know we are all in a hurry and we want what is best for students right now, but rushing something as big as assessment reform is a mistake. I cannot imagine how a system could truly hope to make the giant shift in a year. A great deal can be accomplished in that time but it takes years to develop a philosophical belief system, reflect on the standards, design assessments together, craft learning plans, engage families and other stakeholders, redesign reporting systems, and most importantly, support teachers and students through the entire process. Faster is not always better. In my case, it is year eight of this journey and we are still refining our reporting systems and formative assessment processes. It takes time.
- Be prepared to revisit and refine – We didn’t get everything right the first time…or the second. We continuously revise and refine rubrics, planning supports, data sets, re-assessment protocols, and so on. In fact, we have even re-done our elementary reports cards once since we started. People change, circumstances change, and understanding changes. Getting too attached to things can stifle our ability to truly reflect and respond. Which leads to my next point…
- Ask all stakeholders to be part of the conversations – It is much easier to stand behind a decision when a diverse group of people is standing beside you. Furthermore, the more diverse the perspectives we seek, the greater our chance for a decision that makes sense. As the kid who didn’t like working in groups in school, I can understand the temptation to control everything. But people figure out a hierarchy pretty quickly and when they feel shut out of decisions or feedback they may find themselves resisting the implementation approach itself rather than the ideas within it.
- Keep track of emergent questions – Questions that come from teachers, students, parents, and other stakeholders are important questions. They indicate areas that need attention. They indicate complexity. And they are a great way to be proactive in our approaches to challenges. Listen well and record what you hear. Questions are definitely one of the greatest contributing factors to any and all refinement we have chosen to do over the years.
- Look for inspiration and guidance outside your system – Sometimes we just need to hear that change can happen. Sometimes we need someone outside our system to cheer us on and paint a picture of hope. I found some of my greatest inspiration at conferences and on Twitter. I spoke with friends in other districts and read many books. DuFour (2015) explains, “This collective analysis and professional dialogue is the crux, the very essence of the work.” (p. 187) It helped me to remember that the work was happening in many places; we weren’t alone. I had to step outside my own context over and over to realign and move forward. It kept me fresh and reflective, which helped me be more productive within my district.
- Be prepared for unexpected impacts – I imagine a change in our assessment paradigm like the cogs inside a watch; you move one tiny thing and everything shifts a little. It helps to remember that everything is connected. You cannot change your standards without changing assessment. You cannot change assessment without changing learning. You cannot change learning without changing people and systems. Everything is impacted by everything else. This sounds scary but it is good news. Sometimes, by changing the littlest things, we can set in motion even greater impacts. It helps to be ready for it because then we can build momentum. When you start on this journey, stay open to possibility. Changing assessment paradigms is not a checklist. It is not once-and-done. It is richly complex and wonderfully expansive.
The past eight years have been challenging to be sure. Assessment reform has up-ended what I thought I knew about teaching and learning. That being said, I wouldn’t ask for anything different. Pink (2009) reminds us that, “…the richest experiences in our lives…[are] when we’re listening to our own voice—doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in service of a cause larger than ourselves.” (p. 145) That sounds about right.
DuFour, R. (2015). In Praise of American Educators. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Fullen, M. (2012). Stratosphere. Toronto: Pearson Canada, Inc.
Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Penguin Group.
Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.