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Formative or Per-formative: Using Student Evidence of Learning in the Right Ways

If your classroom was to become (or currently is) a picture for a social media post, how many likes would it get? How many retweets?

In truth, to how many of you would that even matter? What if your principal or superintendent suddenly broadcasts a message saying, “Everyone, stop what you’re doing and take a picture of your learning environment right now!” Would you be eager to share or completely mortified? I can admit, at various moments throughout my career, I have been on both ends of that continuum…and everyplace in between! Read more


Documenting Learning over Time: Portfolios and Data Notebooks

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


Connect the Dots

I apologize for using a rather trite metaphor for the title of this blog, particularly since I never really cared for the dot-to-dot pages that would occasionally appear in my coloring books as a child.  I never saw the purpose. I could tell what the picture was going to be and I didn’t need to scour the page to find the next number to make it appear.

As an educator the idea of connecting things has become much more profound to me. Watching the students in my English classes make connections between what we were reading and what was happening in the world were some of my favorite teacher moments. The flip side of that was also enlightening to me. As a principal of a school with many different academic support programs for students I remember a conversation with a student who told me that she didn’t “do reading” when she went to a classroom to work with a teacher who was supporting English Learners, even though I had just been in that room and seen a lesson that was explicitly planned to connect to the general education classroom. The student didn’t see the connection and that was the problem. Read more


The 4×2 of Student Self-Reflection

The story self-reflection within the context of my own career is a good news/bad news story. First, the good news. While there is much I’m not proud of when I reflect on the early part of my career – especially from an assessment and grading perspective (e.g. zeros, no reassessment) – the one thing I did do is have my students engage in some self-reflection.

The bad news? Well, I didn’t engage my students in self-reflection very often and when I did, it was awful; I didn’t know what I was doing, there was no structure to it, and it, more often than not, ended up being a waste of time.

Self-reflection is essential to the development of our students’ metacognitive awareness that allows them to plan, monitor, and assess their learning and themselves, as learners (Clark, 2012; Jones, 2007). Metacognition entails both the knowledge and regulation of one’s cognition (Pintrich, 2002). Through the processes of self-judgment and self-reaction (Zimmerman, 2011), self-reflection plays an essential role in the cyclical process of metacognitive awareness before, during, and after the learning. Read more


Uncovering Implicit Bias in Assessment, Feedback and Grading

Education is a noble profession. It is a profession that aims to cultivate diverse thinkers and aspires to nurture personal growth. It is a profession that can lift humanity’s spirits and help humankind strive to be the best version of itself—the “great equalizer of the conditions of men,” as Horace Mann famously stated in the 19th century. However, even with great people, a worthy goal, and an admirable vision, the opposite can often be the case.

Unfortunately, education can also be the great unequalizer, where personal biases can inform practice and policy development, stifle student growth, enforce discriminatory policies, and even socially isolate students. According to some researchers, implicit educator biases may contribute to a racial achievement gap; precisely, the negative impact of teacher assumptions on students’ ability based on race, culture, or values (van den Bergh et al. 2010). Unknown to an educator, these personal biases may create imagery of an ideal student, which is often seen through a white privilege lens because of society’s tendency toward whiteness, distorting our interactions with students of color.

Without social awareness and continuous self-monitoring, educators may let their implicit bias become an influential factor in their pedagogy, influencing everything from assessment to grading. This blog will discuss how personal biases can appear in our teaching and learning practices if educators are not diligent. I will focus on three of the more considerable teaching and learning modes: assessment, feedback, and grading.

Assessment Bias

Without attention, teachers may create assessments that reflect their values and experiences and ignore those of their students. The teacher may use language that they are more familiar with in their queries or create prompts influenced by their personal experiences. Ultimately students may find it hard to relate to the questions—potentially leaving some students unable to perform to the best of their abilities. For assessments to be less biased, a teacher must consider all backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, and identities to ensure that their lived experience isn’t the only one represented on an assessment.

By being more introspective when developing assessments, teachers can lessen the chance they produce a personally irrelevant assessment for their students. The impact of this irrelevancy could be low student performance, disinterest in the task, and even apathy toward school.

To help teachers be more aware of their biases when creating assessments, they can ask themselves the following questions as they develop questions:

  1. Does the assessment give the sense that the teacher has unwavering support and is a partner in a student’s success?
  2. Are the questions seeking to understand the student or judge them?
  3. Does the teacher draw on the students’ life situations, interests, and curiosities when creating problems/prompts? – Adapted from Tomlinson (2015).

Microaggressions in Feedback 

Suppose we ignore our implicit biases when speaking with students. In that case, we run the risk of putting both parties into what social psychologist Albert Bandura calls “a downward course of mutual discouragement” (Bandura 1997, 234). A student’s reaction to deficit-based feedback may result in the teacher reacting in kind. Once this cycle starts, a student’s self-belief is now at risk.

Microaggressions and subtle discriminations can exist in the feedback process, and when they do, they may severely limit feedback acceptance.

Teachers can limit bias in their feedback to use the student’s thinking to grow the student. For example, let’s look at the following examples:

Example A

Feedback that Uses Teacher Thinking: You didn’t include [these details] about [person] in your essay. Try [these words].

Feedback that Uses Student Thinking: Tell me more about these words [here]. I am interested to know why you think [this word] didn’t work instead? Oh, okay, that would work. You should add what you just said to your paragraph, and it was perfect.

Example B

Feedback that Uses Teacher Thinking: When I write, I try and think about [detail]. Remember when I taught you the three-step process? No? The one that is in your textbook? That’s the most effective process.

Feedback that Uses Student Thinking: What did you think about when you wrote [this]? Seems like that interests you? Yeah, I can see you are passionate about [that]. What are the first three things you did when you wrote [this]? That is an interesting place to start. Could I convince you to start here? No? Okay, that makes sense. Have to make this work for you.

Example C

Feedback that Uses Teacher Thinking: In this graph, I would start [here] because this information is important. Has anyone heard of the [rhyme name] to remember the key features of a graph? No? Oh, this helped me a lot.

Feedback that Uses Student Thinking: In this graph, what information did you think was essential for you to begin this problem? I’m surprised to hear you say that because yesterday you said something different, what changed? Interesting, I saw you smile as you were talking. Why? Yeah, I agree you are getting this concept more. Are you using any strategies to help you learn this? Yes. Well, [that strategy] is undoubtedly helping you.

These scenarios are fictional, but the point here is teachers should always be aware of their language. Otherwise, they can inadvertently make the student feel like an unequal and devalued student in the class and even the school. In short, words matter.

Race Bias in Grading Practices

Teachers must judge student performance fairly and accurately. It is our professional duty. Inaccurate judgments have the potential not only to alter grades but could negatively affect teacher-student relationships, distort a student’s self-concept, or reduce opportunities to learn (Cohen and Steele 2002). One factor that can lead to a misrepresentation of a grade is teacher race and ethnicity bias. A student’s racial or ethnic group, socioeconomic class, or gender can substantially bias a teacher’s judgment of student performance. Any internalized racial biases can activate stereotypes and lead teachers to utilize discriminatory performance evaluations (Wood and Graham 2010).

For example, several studies found substantial differences in students’ performance judgments from various racial subgroups when the teacher subconsciously subscribed to the general stereotype that African American and Latino students generally don’t perform as well as their White and Asian counterparts (Ready and Wright 2011).

Different minority statuses can affect teacher perceptions in performance evaluation, leading to inaccurate grades, potentially harming students’ perception of their academic experience. (Ogbu and Simons 1998). In other words, students may feel like school is insignificant, unsupportive, or even harmful.

To help lessen the likelihood that implicit personal bias influences the grading process, teachers can democratize the grading process. They can use learning evidence instead of points and employ a modal interpretation of gradebook scores instead of averages. They can use a skills-focused curriculum instead of a content-focused one. Perhaps most important, they can involve the student in the grading process by infusing more self-evaluation moments into their instruction.

School leaders should explore ways to evaluate pedagogical practices through a racial and equity lens and observe classroom interactions between teachers and students. School leaders should also continue training on white privilege and its influence over the status quo, and teachers should evaluate student performance to judge its fairness and accuracy.

The Work Ahead

Although we may feel like we are objective and rational people, we all have biases.  We all have values, beliefs, and assumptions that help us make sense of what is happening in our lives and guide our interactions with others. For the most part, these values, beliefs, and assumptions guide us in positive and productive directions, but the interplay between these same values and social interactions can produce implicit biases that distort our decisions, perspectives, and actions. We must notice, monitor, and manage these distortions to achieve a goal of racial equity in school and life. If we don’t, we are at risk of our unconscious biases harming our pedagogy, our relationships with students, and our perception of their needs.

 

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman & Co, Publishers.

Cohen, G. L., & Steele, C. M. (2002). A barrier of mistrust: How negative stereotypes affect cross-race mentoring. In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (pp. 303–327). San Diego, CA: Academic.

Ogbu, J. U., & Simons, H. D. (1998). Voluntary and involuntary minorities: A cultural-ecological theory of school performance with some implications for education. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 29(2), 155-188.

Ready, D.D., & Wright, D. L. (2011). Accuracy and Inaccuracy in Teachers’ Perceptions of Young Children’s Cognitive Abilities: The Role of Child Background and Classroom Context. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831210374874

Tenenbaum, H. R., & Ruck, M. D. (2007). Are teachers’ expectations different for racial minorities than for European American students? A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2), 253–273.

“Teaching Up” – Carol Ann Tomlinson: Teaching for Excellence in Academically Diverse Classrooms (2015).

van den Bergh, L., Denessen, E., Hornstra, L., Voeten, M., & Holland, R.W., (2010). The implicit prejudiced attitudes of teachers: Relations to teacher expectations and the ethnic achievement gap. American Educational Research Journal, 47, 497–527.

Wood, D., & Graham, S. (2010). “Why race matters: social context and achievement motivation in African American youth.” In Urdan, T. and Karabenick, S. (Eds.) The Decade Ahead: Applications and Contexts of Motivation and Achievement (Advances in Motivation and Achievement, Vol. 16 Part B) (pp. 175-209). Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley.


Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About! Using Academic Conversations to Assess Student Understanding

“Something to Talk About,” recorded by Bonnie Raitt in 1990, happens to be one of my favorite songs. While listening to it the other day, I began to think about the lyrics in a different context: meaningful assessment of student conversations. Tapping into student discourse is one of the most informative means of examining student thinking, particularly with students who might be culturally or language diverse. According to Zaretta Hammond, “One of the most important tools for a culturally responsive teacher is instructional conversation. The ability to form, express and exchange of ideas are best taught through dialogue, questioning, and the sharing of ideas.” (Hammond, 2015, p.149).

There is seemingly vast potential for educators to gather authentic evidence through the observation of academic conversations. Teachers can gain valuable insights into their students’ conceptual understanding and the language skills they demonstrate in real-time, authentic conversations. But as I reflect on the various assessment practices that I typically observe, I wonder if we are capitalizing on this powerful source of information? Are educators assessing the quality of rigorous academic conversations and providing support when needed to enhance that quality? Read more


Data as a Flashlight: Using the Evidence to Guide the Journey (Yours and Theirs)

My granddaughter was struggling with the latest topic in her grade 3 math class and her recent assessment result validated that she did not fully understand the learning target of patterns and the equations that supported them. Determining patterns is not always an easy process as this example would indicate:

2, 6, 3, 9, 6, 18, 15…

With a big test coming up, my daughter-in-law reached out to me to help get my granddaughter past the block and gain some confidence in her ability to master the concept. We connected online a few times over the days before the test and worked through a lot of questions and strategies. As she grasped the concepts and different ways to get to the solution, I could see her confidence soar. By the time we concluded all of the practice and she routinely got every solution, she was excited to demonstrate her skills on the assessment. As I write this post it’s been well over a week since the assessment was completed and my granddaughter has not received any feedback.  Read more


New Year….New Me! Revisiting Assessments in 2021

It was with excitement and enthusiasm that I welcomed 2021 until the unthinkable happened and angry citizens stormed the United States Capitol. Frankly, 2020 was a year like no other so I could not imagine 2021 starting off in this way. The list of events that transpired throughout the year making it the most unprecedented included epic fires, social injustices, a pandemic with no clear end in sight and a divisive election among many others.  While everyone experiences the new year transition differently, I chose to focus on deep, intentional reflection, both personally and professionally. 

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Seeing Possibility: Using Learning Progressions to Help Students Climb toward Mastery

Over these past few months, I have come to embrace one distinct truth: things are predictably unpredictable right now.  From the method of instructional delivery, to student access and opportunity to receive academic and emotional support, the dynamics around how we are able to “do school” this year have presented themselves as anything other than consistent and reliable.  Read more


High-Stakes Testing in A Remote Teaching World

While it may be the last thing on many teachers’ minds right now, states are likely making decisions about how to proceed with high-stakes testing for this upcoming spring. 

In their most recent journal, Kappan (2020) published “This Spring, Test only to Assess,” an article that really resonated with me, and aligned with many of the things I’m hearing teachers are worried about for their students. Read more