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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


Let’s Talk Strengths and Celebrations

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


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Finding Security in an Uncertain Time

Much has already been written, and even more is certain to come, about the times we are living in right now. It feels like a perfect storm of upheaval and uncertainty, about even the things we usually take most for granted—like the long-standing institutions of schools, sports, socializing, commerce, and moving around in the world. Read more


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Student Self-Instruction Grows Like a Garden

I have to admit, this blog post took a while to write. 

There were many fits and starts as I tried to find a topic that I felt might be relevant to discuss. Ultimately, I found it hard to write about assessment in isolation from the unfolding world events. So, I stopped writing and examined my recent experiences, both internal and external. Read more


Assessment Transformation in Unprecedented Times

Many are predicting larger-than-ever achievement disparities due to the deep inequities in our system that existed even before this pandemic. 

Achievement gaps are the symptom of educational system deficits that do not serve all students well, in particular our black, brown and indigenous children. Knowing this deepening disparity, our planning and design must be intentional, and dramatically different than anything we have done before. Our district and school leadership teams, collaborative teams, and individual teachers can set up the context that will ensure success for all of our students. I believe in educators. Read more


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Moving Forward to a New Better

In the mid-1940’s, as the end of World War II was near, Sir Winston Churchill was credited with saying, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”  

I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of educators could not have imagined being in a time of twin crises. One brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the second due to the unrest borne out of systemic racism resulting in the loss of black lives.  

So, the question facing us today is:

How can we recognize these current crises, respond to them, and extract the greatest good for our students and ourselves?

As I ponder this question from both instructional design and assessment lenses, I turn to the work I’ve been doing with schools and educators over the last six weeks. A common theme has emerged as I’ve heard colleagues express a desire to return to the “old normal.”  

This worries me as it devalues, on some levels, all of the new learning that has happened during this challenging time. I also don’t think we should be hoping for a “new normal,” as “normal” connotes some limitations as well. I hope instead that we are moving forward to a “new better.”

I believe this “new better” will cause us to embrace the best of what we knew prior to the crises, with the best of what we learned during the time classroom instruction was occurring remotely. I know there is deep concern about all of the learning loss that occurred, as well as challenges driven by how to best assess student progress.  

When it comes to academics some panic has been created in educators by reports that suggest a 30% loss in literacy, and 50% percent loss in mathematics has been the end result of schools closing in the spring, and remote learning being a poor substitute.  

It’s important that we recognize that students are where they are. Spending four weeks, or four months for that matter, on what educators think was missed, is not going to ensure that students learn at high levels, nor will it make up for the lost time. Instead, there is a need to focus on what’s important for the current year and provide small group sessions to address students’ needs.  

I have been advocating that the return to school should focus on the foundational skills of literacy and numeracy, and also SEL (social-emotional learning), as educators determine the baseline levels of their returning students and plan for their growth during the 2020-21 school year.  

I believe educators should also prepare for the struggles associated with breaking some habits that students may have acquired during their additional time at home which may not be in tune with school success. Our students have been away from the routines that are necessary for success in school. Think about this from your own perspective. During your time away from school, has it been easier for you to sleep in, have a second cup of coffee, or only have to dress the upper half of your body for Zoom meetings? We need to extend grace to our students, display empathy for them as they struggle to return to successful school routines, and to ourselves, as we return to work habits that align with successful teaching and leading.  

When it comes to assessing, the same important question has always been there whether instruction was being delivered remotely or face to face:

Did they learn what I taught?

Educators need to use assessments to gather evidence and focus on feedback and learning rather than accountability and grading. By focusing on the formative aspects of assessment and using the results to guide students and teachers in making improvements, there’s a greater likelihood of closing gaps.  

Formative assessment (assessing to gather evidence, not numbers) drives the next steps for teachers and students. It’s the same process whether remote or face to face. Teachers are experts at this checking for understanding with students present. In a remote learning world, teachers need to be similarly collecting regular evidence of student learning before simply moving forward. There may be an adjustment in the remote world. Simple checks for understanding could include choral response or head nodding. It can be as simple as “if what I just said is correct, make a ‘C’ with your hand; if it was incorrect, show that with an ‘X.’”  

As an aside—when it comes to talking about these gaps, I think we also need to remember that when it comes to the current crisis, it’s a global phenomenon, so the question needs to be asked:

“Who are our students behind?”

In other words, if we’re comparing everything now to a non-crisis-filled school year, that point is both self-explanatory and irrelevant. If we’re comparing ourselves to other countries, they are in the same boat. Let’s focus on the current school year, get our students back to the positive thinking and learning habits they are all capable of, and build their skills anew.  

Let me conclude by mentioning another common colloquialism. You’ll all be familiar with the notion of “trying to put the genie back in the bottle.” This refers to the attempt to revert a situation to how it formerly existed by containing, limiting, or repressing information, ideas, or advancements that have become commonplace or public knowledge.  

During the time of remote learning, there were some tremendous new insights gained by colleagues about our sector of education. It has been shared with me that parent engagement increased in many jurisdictions as a result of Zoom (or other program) meetings, telephone calls, and letters home.

In a return to any form of “normal,” are you prepared to abandon this increased contact so we can return to the very stifling, sterile parent-teacher night?

Other colleagues have shared with me the surprise of finding previously identified reluctant learners or introverts who have shined during this time. They have produced high-quality work unseen prior to the move to remote learning. Are we going to forget that and return those students to instruction that did not work for them or result in their best learning indicators?  

I believe a move to “go back to,” when we’ve gained some deep insights, as these two of many examples offer, would be the equivalent of educational malpractice. Instead, it’s time to accept that the genie is out, that we’ve learned some valuable things, and that we should move forward to a new better.