Category: Assessment

Student Thinking Made Visible: Assessing Transferable Skills With Brief Performance Tasks

November 12, 2019 by

Working on Bridge Building TaskCompetency-based education emphasizes learning not only academic knowledge but also skills and dispositions. These include transferable learning skills such as problem solving and effective reasoning that enable people to perform effectively in different settings and apply knowledge and skills to different tasks. A session at the recent Aurora Institute Symposium introduced valuable strategies for assessing these skills. The tools and concepts they shared could also inform assessments of other lifelong learning skills.

The session was led by Director of Curriculum and Instruction Jeff Heyck-Williams and 5th-Grade Teacher Katie Mancino from Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC, a school in the EL Education network. They emphasized that teachers typically prioritize whatever will get assessed, so it’s important to assess lifelong learning skills.

Rubrics for Critical Thinking Skills

The rubrics presented for assessing problem solving, effective reasoning, and decision making serve the essential function of providing both students and teachers with a clear picture of what quality looks like. This enables teachers to plan instruction oriented toward deeper learning with these targets in mind.

The session focused on assessing problem-solving skills, defined as “The ability to identify the key questions in a problem, develop possible plans for solving, follow through on those plans, and evaluate both the success of the plan and the solution.” The corresponding rubric has five components: Identifies What Is Known, Defines the Problem, Generates Possible Solution Strategies, and Evaluates Solutions. The table below contains the rubric for one of these components; the full rubric is here.

Problem Solving Rubric for One Component

Three principles guided their rubric design process: (1) Rubrics define the construct that you want to teach and assess for students and teachers; (2) Each component on the rubric needs to be mutually exclusive but also narrow to a single dimension; and (3) The rubric should define a a continuum of growth from notice to expert.

Performance Tasks to Assess Critical Thinking

With the rubric in place, the question remains of what and how to assess. Two Rivers accomplishes this with brief performance tasks that are specific to the skill being assessed. EL Education believes teachers should experience the educational approach they plan to implement with students, so unsurprisingly we were led through a problem-solving performance task. In short, small groups were given two cups, some paper, rubber bands, paper clips, and blue tape. Brief, clear instructions launched groups into creating a bridge with a maximum span using the materials provided.

For this performance task, students at Two Rivers are assessed on how well they make their thinking visible, not how good their bridge is. This is done in writing on a handout, although teachers can scribe for students who need writing support. Before starting to build bridges, our first step was a “KWI” (Know, Want, Ideas) exercise in which we had to write about “What do you KNOW?,” “What do you WANT to know?,” and “What are some IDEAS you have about how to solve the problem?”

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Keeping Students at the Center with Culturally Relevant Performance Assessments

July 29, 2019 by

This post originally appeared at Next Generation Learning Challenges on June 4, 2019.

Student Presenting Performance AssessmentPerformance assessments provide a critical space for students to reflect on and share their personal stories and their identities as learners.

“All instruction is culturally responsive. The question is: To which culture is it currently oriented?”
—Gloria Ladson-Billings

At the heart of the shift toward more student-centered models of learning and assessment is an understanding that learning is socially embedded and that the broader communities that students exist within matter to their learning. Emerging findings from brain science reveal that students’ cultural contexts, in particular, are fundamental to their learning. These findings are not new. They are built upon a rich history of research highlighting how central culturally responsive pedagogy is to providing all students with a high-quality education.

One powerful means of bringing students’ culture into the classroom is through culturally relevant performance assessments. Performance assessments center students’ identity and experiences by asking them to show what they know and can do through multidisciplinary projects, presentations of their learning in front of a panel, and reflections on their educational trajectory. At their core, such assessments provide a critical space for students to reflect on and share their personal stories and their identities as learners.

Lessons From Hawai’i: Defining “Cultural Relevance”

Representatives from the Hawai’i education department and the Hawaiian-focused Charter School (HFCS) network recently shared the ways their state policy and the work of the HFCS school network work together to support culturally relevant assessments that center Native Hawaiian culture in schools across Hawai’i. During a fall 2018 convening in which leaders from HFCS came together with practitioners from districts across California to share lessons from their respective performance-assessment systems, one of the biggest questions that emerged was: What would it look like to employ culturally relevant performance assessments in diverse contexts in which there are many cultures with which students identify?

Charlene Hoe—founder of the Hakipu’u Learning Center in Hawai’i—responded that “culture” is defined by a student’s local context or history: It may include students’ personal racial or ethnic background but it is also defined by their neighborhood, their school, and their home. Making an assessment “culturally relevant” in diverse contexts means allowing students to draw connections between their learning and their direct, daily experiences with the world, and treating those experiences as an asset in the classroom.

Cultural Relevance in Diverse School Systems: Lessons From California

Given this understanding of cultural relevance, it is possible to understand how to design and implement culturally relevant performance assessments to serve diverse student populations. One such context is the California Performance Assessments Collaborative (CPAC), a Learning Policy Institute initiative. CPAC represents policymakers, researchers, and a professional learning community of districts, networks, and schools across the state of California working to study and advance the use of performance assessments. CPAC was founded to help build systems of assessment that more equitably serve all students within diverse student populations; this concern for equity has been a central organizing tenet of CPAC since its inception.

The work of CPAC is being led by school districts such as Los Angeles UnifiedOakland Unified, and Pasadena Unified, which are using performance assessments to operationalize their respective district profiles of college-, career-, and community-ready graduates. These district visions call for students to move beyond the mastery of academic-content knowledge to reflect on their learning, cultivate social-emotional skills, and become civically engaged within their communities.

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Recognizing Outstanding Student Achievement in Competency-Based Schools

July 8, 2019 by

Student in CornfieldCompetencyWorks recently received this inquiry from an administrator of a school that was working to deepen its competency-based learning practices:

One question we are thinking about is how to honor academic achievement and progress in proficiency-based grading/reporting. We are finding, for instance, that naming students to an “honor roll” for Quarter 1 is a difficult fit for a system that intentionally honors growth over time. Are there new or different ways of honoring academic achievement and progress that are emerging as schools transition to proficiency-based systems?

This is an important question that many people in the field are grappling with. The challenge is in part because “honor roll” feels like a vestige of the ranking and sorting mechanisms of traditional grading systems. At the same time, competency-based systems are developing ways for students to achieve and demonstrate deeper learning, as well as ways to recognize these achievements. The field doesn’t have a single way of approaching this, but there are some emerging strategies and ways of thinking about it.

The following quotation from Steve Lavoie, written while he was principal at Richmond Middle/High School in RSU2 in Maine, recognizes the tensions in transforming between traditional and competency-based practices. He wrote on CompetencyWorks,“Decide what issues are critical and that you’ll ‘go to the wall for.’ You will be faced with questions that tie to the traditional system. Expect them and decide ahead of time whether or not you are willing to ‘die on that hill’ prior to the question being asked. Questions relating to GPA, class rank, Top Ten, and honor roll should be anticipated. Your stakeholders may believe they are important components that should be retained. Issues like these feel like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole, but they are not critical issues that should interfere with the implementation of the big picture. They can be made to fit your program. Be prepared to give in on some issues but stand firm on the critical ones like your core belief that all students need to demonstrate proficiency on all standards required for graduation. That would be the hill to die on.”

In the CompetencyWorks Issue Brief, Progress and Proficiency: Redesigning Grading for Competency Education, Chris Sturgis wrote, “It’s unlikely that the need for ranking will ever be absolutely obsolete.
Highly selective colleges and those who want to attend them are going to want to be able to identify the ‘best students’ through some mechanism that recognizes distinction.” In the same issue brief, Brian Stack, principal at Sanborn Regional High School in New Hampshire, asks, “Why not instead set a bar that you will use to distinguish an ‘honor graduate,’ and any student who is able to reach (or exceed) that bar gets the distinction at graduation. From year to year, the number of honor graduates will change, but the standard never would. Every student would have the opportunity to be considered an honor graduate, provided they meet the requirements.”

Here are a few examples of schools that use honor rolls within CBE systems: (more…)

Shifting the English Department to Competency-Based Assessment

June 20, 2019 by

This is the third post in a series about the Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Beginning Approaching Competent ExtendingThe English department at Farmington High School has made major shifts toward competency-based curriculum and instruction, as described in the previous post. This has required parallel shifts in assessment, with greater use of formative assessment and competency-based grading.

“Much of the assessment we do is formative, and we treat that more like practice and skill development,” explained one of the four English teachers who have been making this shift. “So what I’ve found in my classroom is that the kids who might not love English class, or might struggle with it—now instead of seeing a 3 out of 10 on a writing assignment, they see on their rubric that they’re ‘approaching’ the competent level. That has allowed us to have those authentic conversations when we’re doing our conferencing, like ‘Hey, if you just fix these one or two things on the rubric, you can move up into that competent level.’”

“It causes a complete mind-shift, where students don’t just shut down after a couple weeks. Now they understand, ‘there’s no tricks to this—at first we’ll be practicing new skills, and then we’ll assess where you are at the end of the unit.’ And that’s really freeing for a lot of kids. It has kept them in the game. They keep getting a little bit better, and then they’re ready to show how they’ve improved.”

Another teacher said that shifting to formative assessment and competency-based grading is great for the teachers too. “It’s awesome, because you see the lightbulb go off the first time the kid comes up and they think they’re going to get yelled at or told that they’re doomed—and instead they’re amazed that they have the opportunity to improve a few things we discussed and then move up to the next level on the rubric. That’s been pretty awesome.” (more…)

In Real Life: How Can CBE Systems Ensure Learning Is Deep, Ongoing, and Integrated?

January 30, 2019 by

This article is the fourth in a nine-part “In Real Life” series based on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.” Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Long before she had GPS on her mobile phone, my mother would navigate for our family road trips using turn-by-turn directions printed out from the American Automobile Association. While my father drove, she would call out the next set of turns so that he always knew where he was headed and what to do when he got there.

In much the same way, growing numbers of educators across the country are building competency-based systems designed to help students navigate the learning journey ahead. Such systems define learning targets or competencies that serve as guideposts for what students should know and be able to do as they progress through their learning. Many systems also sequence competencies (although not always linearly) into instructional learning progressions and utilize technology to display students’ progress in real time.

The goal is transparency: students need not wonder what is expected of them, but instead have a clear roadmap for the knowledge, skills, and mindsets they are expected to master next.

At the same time, some question whether such transparency has a downside of reducing learning to a shallow check-list of tasks that students race through to complete. After all, if we improve highway visibility, won’t cars be prone to speeding? (more…)

How Can States Transition to Student-Centered Learning?

October 22, 2018 by

This post originally appeared at ExcelinEd’s EdFly blog on August 14, 2018 and has been updated to include links to the first three briefs.

The proliferation of innovative, personalized and mastery-based models in schools, districts and states across the country demonstrates that completely prohibitive policy barriers, thankfully, do not exist. Our work has shown us that most states already have policies in place, (e.g., waivers) that can help schools implement new models—though we have also seen these opportunities remain largely underutilized or misunderstood. (more…)

AASA Explores Competency-Based Education Grading

March 6, 2018 by

The focus of the February AASA Administrator is on what they refer to on the cover as “performance-based grading” with articles on secondary school grading, standards-based grading and college admissions, and an overview of Lindsay Unified’s change process (a short piece for those who don’t have time to read the book Beyond Reform). Each article is worth reading, and the piece on standards-based grading and college admissions will certainly be helpful for engaging parents who are worried. See article at CompetencyWorks on Grades, College Admissions, and Competency-Based Education 

However, I’m very troubled by trying to package the changes to personalized, competency-based systems under changes in grading. It’s simply not a good idea to try to shrink a system-wide change down into a change in grading. As I’ve argued before, we need to make the changes to grading after the “why” has been clarified, the communities have been engaged, and the infrastructure is put into place to support the grading changes. (See part 1 on the different grading strategies and part 2 on what needs to be in place for standards-based grading.) Just moving from A-F to 1-4 is only going to get you into trouble.

What are the principles guiding your grading system? It makes sense to me that districts establish guiding principles and then build the grading system around them. In the article by Matt Townsley from Solon High School in Iowa, the three principles guiding their grading system are: (more…)

Redesigning Systems of Assessments for Student-Centered Learning

February 21, 2018 by

This post originally appeared at iNACOL on January 24, 2018.

Assessment is essential for understanding what students know and for providing transparency and fairness when it comes to certifying mastery of knowledge and skills. Assessment can provide timely feedback to educators on where students are in their learning and to inform the supports that they need to succeed. It also plays an important role for educational leaders to evaluate the effectiveness of learning models, on achievement and for policymakers to understand the effectiveness of policies and use of public funding. In redesigning systems of assessments, state policymakers should consider what is needed to make assessment more meaningful and integrally-linked to student learning.

The challenge ahead for policymakers is to rethink assessment policies to enable student-centered teaching and learning. This will require creating balanced systems of assessments to: (more…)

Sign on to the 10 Principles of Building a High Quality System of Assessments

February 16, 2018 by

Today, Jobs for the Future, iNACOL, and other national organizations released the report 10 Principles of Building a High Quality System of Assessments. The report lays out “a vision for systems focused on continuous improvement and the full array of knowledge, skills, and behaviors needed for each student to succeed beyond high school, in the workplace, and throughout life.”

Please note: This isn’t just any old report. It’s also a call for action. If you agree with the 10 principles highlighted to the right, think about adding your organization to the vision outlined in this report.

5 Things I Learned While Scoring Micro-credentials

November 14, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Center for Collaborative Education on October 18, 2017.

How can we create learning experiences that respect adults as learners and support teacher driven professional development? That was the question educators in Rhode Island set out to answer as part of the Assessment for Learning Project. At the heart of the project was a set of performance assessment micro-credentials designed by teachers. I had the task of reviewing many of the 100 submissions we received and two things are now clear to me. First, writing a performance assessment micro-credential is a performance assessment in and of itself. Second, adults are not much different from younger students when it comes to assessment. I found being a reviewer to be fascinating! Here are some of the things I learned while scoring micro-credentials.


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