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Response: Assessments for Today's Students

(This is the first post in a two-part series)

David asks:

Schools are expecting students to do more problem solving, in response to Common Core assessments. Businesses complain graduates are not creative. In response, schools have students engage in innovative design projects. Most parents, though, grew up on letter grades and lessons out of textbooks. They don't see the value in rubrics and performance assessments. How do we assess these projects so students and parents appreciate and understand what and how well students have done?


More teachers are trying to move away from the traditional grading practices of percentages, A-to-F, zero if work isn't turned in, etc.  Instead, they are trying out alternatives like performance-based assessments, joint teacher/student created rubrics, standards-based grading and more...

People are sometimes afraid of the unknown, and making this kind of switch can often be concerning to students and parents alike.

This two-part series will explore the advantages and disadvantages of making this kind of transition, and how it could be made to work better for everybody.

Today, Kristina Doubet, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Thomas Guskey, Thom Markham and Nancy Sulla contribute their thoughts. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Kristina and Heather on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. Next week, I'll be posting a second conversation I had with contributors to Part Two in this series.

You might also be interested in previous posts on assessment that have appeared in this column, and you can find them at Student Assessment.

In addition, you might find this post of additional resources useful: A Collection Of "The Best" Lists On Assessment

Response From Kristina Doubet

Kristina J. Doubet, Ph.D. is the co-author (with Jessica A. Hockett, Ph.D.) of Differentiation in Middle and High School: Strategies to Engage All Learners (ASCD), which provides multiple methods to enact the principles described above.  She works with practicing teachers across the nation and abroad - and with pre-service teachers at James Madison University - to help build classroom practices that work for all learners. Visit her website at www.kristinadoubet.com or follow her on Twitter @DIY_Diff:

While it is true that today's (and tomorrow's) graduates must be able to creatively problem solve, it is also true that schools' conceptions of these terms do not always match those of the workplace.  "Creative" by business standards means thinking outside of the box and discovering novel solutions to problems. Too often in school,  "creative" projects are those that appear fun, but exercise very little intellectual muscle.  Couple that with where the work for such projects is often completed - at home - and there is good reason for parents to be concerned about what we in school have deemed "performance assessment."

A true performance assessment asks students to apply important understanding, knowledge, and skills to new and authentic situations in order to demonstrate that they are able to transfer what they have learned (McTighe & Wiggins, 2014).  That means that any performance task - and its associated rubric - should be inextricably linked to the learning goals it is designed to assess.  All stakeholders (students parents, teachers, administrators, community members) should be able to look at a performance-task description and rubric and be crystal clear about what principles, knowledge and skills students are exercising as they transfer their learning to new, real-world scenarios. 

For example, one elementary school teacher asked her students to take on the role of a zoo expert to design an exhibit/home that mimicked a researched animal's natural habitat.  The rubric for the task included items such as "reflects accurate research" and "includes all aspects of habitat that support the animal's basic needs." This task and rubric stressed transferable skills and important connections rather than how "pretty" the project looked or how well a student could repeat information. 

Likewise, an eighth-grade government teacher asked his students to assume the role of a US senator or representative serving on a committee and, in that role, to research and compile a briefing on the benefits and drawbacks of the Electoral College system (in response to constituents concerns about its efficacy).  The briefing's rubric included items such as the "inclusion of key terminology in proper context," "analysis of credible sources," and the "communication power of visual depictions of different voting scenarios."  Such indicators of success mirror those that would mark success in the real world.

The tasks described above also moved the locus of student work back to the classroom.  Both teachers realized that when they sent projects home, parents often did more work on them than did students. Conversely, students without support or resources at home may be unfairly penalized when their products lack the "pizzazz" of other classmates' well-funded projects. Further, the class time spent on "meaty" performance tasks such as those described above pays off as it reinforces learning even as it assesses it.

Bottom line: We will decrease parents concerns as we increase the defensibility of what and how we assign performance tasks. It must be clear that our assessments are valid reflections of both important student learning and real world competence.

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Response From Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher, blogger, and author of such books as DIY for Project Based Learning for ELA and HistoryDIY for PBL for Math and Science, and Writing Behind Every Door: Teaching Common Core Writing in the Content Areas.  Heather believes curriculum design should tell a story, and hopes teachers play a role in 21st Century lesson development.  She is passionate about educational technology and its role in helping students communicate all subjects.   

While I believe that we have a duty to communicate fully our rationale and process to our stakeholders, I don't believe that it is our job to make them agree with every change in how we evolve implementation.  The fact is that while some parents might understand that their students must be taught differently than they themselves were taught, others might not understand that need.  Do what you can, but then let it go.  The fact is that the parents can teach their children using the methods that they understand while we might go about it another way.  It all supports one another, and that's perhaps the argument to use.  We attack the challenges differently and, thus, reach more from our varied pool of clientele.

Having said that, there are strategies to use that can help parents understand that we aren't just ideologists, and that we actually can track individual students' learning.  For example:

* When having kids work in groups (a practice some parents do not fully understand or agree with) make sure that all submissions are color-coded so that you, the teacher, are aware of which kid did what.  That way, no one kid can be relied on to do all the work (a common complaint) and no kid can hide his or her lack of participation. 

* Make sure you develop a transparent and weekly agenda of lessons that aren't just handed out to students, but are visible to parents as well.  It can be a simply heading of a Day of the week with 2-3 bullets of goals underneath it.  I color code it as well.  Any line item listed under a day that is red means that assignment due on that day. 

* Don't just grade at the end of a unit, but throughout the journey.  Develop concrete scores that indicate progress based on skills or standards.  For those of you with digital portals to grading programs, name your assignments and include a brief description when prompted.  Describe what the assignment's purpose is.

* Distribute checklists or letters about upcoming units to the families.  Have them sign them and returned to you.  These informative letters about units-to-come help parents understand the method to your madness.

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Response From Thomas Guskey

Thomas R. Guskey is Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Kentucky. His work focuses education reform policy, professional learning and teacher change, student assessment and grading. His most recent books include On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting (2015), Reaching the Highest Standard in Professional Learning: Data (with P. Roy & V. Von Frank, 2014), and Answers to Essential Questions about Standards, Assessments, Grading, and Reporting (with L. Jung, 2013):

Educators today struggle in their efforts to change parents' and students' attitudes about grading.  They want parents to see grades as a means of communication between teachers and families, and not as the currency students need to advance in school and life.  They want students to focus more on learning and less on simply what it takes to get a high grade.

To achieve this change, some educators use logic and reason.  They expect parents to be moved by quotes from informed authorities and the results of selected research studies.  Others rely on emotional appeals, hoping to persuade parents with sincere "I believe" statements about new approaches to grading and reporting.  Unfortunately, neither of these approaches consistently yields significant change in parents' or students' attitudes about grading.

The reason these approaches don't work is they run counter to many parents' and students' personal experiences with grading.  These personal experiences shape their attitudes and beliefs.  To change attitudes, therefore, we must first change the experience.

Most parents' experiences with grading were in classrooms where their performance was judged in comparison to classmates.  Grades were not determined by how well they mastered clearly articulated learning targets or standards, but on how their performance compared to other students.  A grade of 'C' didn't mean you are at step 3 in a 5-step process to mastery.  It meant your performance is "average" or "ranks in the middle of the class."  Grades communicated little about what students actually learned or were able to do.

In our programs, we don't try to change directly the attitudes shaped by these experiences.  Instead, we change the experience.  We introduce new standards-based report cards by sending home two report cards.  The first is a traditional report card that lists a single grade for every subject area or course.  It looks much like the report card most parents received when they were in school.  The second is the new, standards-based report card that includes grades based on how well students have achieved specific learning standards.  It offers separate grades for performance in different aspects of each subject or course.  Instead of a single grade for language arts, for example, students receive separate grades for reading, writing, listening, speaking, and language.  Important student behaviors related to homework completion, cooperation, respect, punctuality, participation, etc. are reported separately as well.

After comparing the report cards, side-by-side, for at least two grading periods, we survey parents to ask which report card they prefer.  Invariably, nearly all parents prefer the standards-based report card.  Why?  It's simply better.  It gives parents the detailed information they need to follow and help improve their child's performance in school.  It offers students valuable feedback regarding their progress on explicit learning targets.  As a result, parents and students often become our strongest advocates for change.

Experience shapes attitudes and beliefs.  If you focus on changing the experience so both parents and student see clearly the advantages of new grading and reporting procedures, change in their attitudes will almost certainly follow.

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Response From Thom Markham

Thom Markham, founder and CEO of PBL Global, is a respected international school consultant who has assisted over 250 schools and nearly 5000 teachers across five continents in implementing project based learning, 21st century competencies, and successful inquiry-based systems of teaching and learning. He is the author of the recently published Redefining Smart (Corwin Press, 2015). Contact through www.thommarkham.com:

Grading Performance in the 21st Century Classroom

A middle school principal I know received a familiar call last spring. "My daughter worked on a project this month and she got a B minus," a mother complained, "She was graded down because her team didn't finish the project. But she did all the work and no one else did anything. That's not fair."

That's a typical question that parents ask about instruction that focuses on collaboration and problem solving skills--the staples of a 21st century classroom, where the emphasis is shifting to skillful performance and teamwork rather than retention.

It's easy to see the problem. Taking a test at the end of a unit yields an easy to interpret grade; now teachers must evaluate skills that lack clear cut standards, leaving room for judgment errors. With most parents grade-conscious these days, it's no wonder they seek explanations from teachers.

It's also no surprise that teachers feel unprepared for the conversation. Most schools have a handy supply of wall posters pointing to the importance of 21st century skills, but far fewer have helped teachers to adequately teach, assess, and grade performance-based skills.

How to proceed? The goal is to supplement the quantitative certainty of tests with performance standards that are objective as possible. Here are four possible steps toward that end:

Make 21st century skills a community issue. Partly, the conversation about assessment of 21st century skills needs include parents because of the real issue: Skills are more challenging to evaluate, as companies have found when developing metrics for assessing an employee's ability to work in a team, communicate, and innovate. In an era in which soft skills must be taught, measurement and assessment inevitably are more challenging--and require the village to establish new standards for the times.

Standardize performance rubrics--and make them mandatory. Assessing 21st century skills will not succeed without world-class, field tested, performance rubrics. I add the adjectives because--to be blunt--so many rubrics used in school are terrible. They lack precision, with language too simple or broad, without adequate descriptors of behavior. However, when teachers across all grade levels and subjects in a school use detailed rubrics to assess skills, teachers develop a common mental model of skills standards. Those standards become embedded in the culture of the school, offering a consistent and reassuring message to students and parents.

Adopt the deeper learning model. Many parents see 21st century skills as replacing content, but the goal is for students to master academics as well as skills. The emerging deeper learning model captures this quite well. It's an excellent model to present to parents and let them know that the mix between information and skills is shifting. Further, the model is implemented through project based learning, an approach designed specifically to teach and assess collaboration, communication, and creativity. When students master these skills at a high level, the result is apparent to themselves and to teachers. And when parents have the opportunity to witness quality PBL in action, they're sold on skills.

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Response From Nancy Sulla

Dr. Nancy Sulla is the Founder and President of IDE Corp. -- Innovative Designs for Education -- an educational consulting firm focusing on instructional innovation. She is the creator of the Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classroom, taking a systems approach to creating student-centered, problem-based classrooms. Dr. Sulla is also the author of two books: It's Not What You Teach But How: Making the CCSS Work for You and Students Taking Charge: Inside the Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classroom:

Schools serve society by what they teach. Today's creative economy focuses on creating solutions to problems and challenging situations. Students need to be critical and creative thinkers and problem-solvers. Schools are shifting instruction to meet that need.

Schools have long focused on teaching students to follow a procedure, applying it to answer similarly-posed questions. I refer to this as procedural automaticity. I learned the process of identifying parts of speech and could do so on a test; I learned the process of balancing chemical equations and could do so given similar problems; and so on. Tests presented me with a series of similar questions, and, often, those that had one correct answer. But with changing times come changing tests.

In my book, "It's Not What You Teach But How," I introduce the term novelity. "The shift in the CCSS and new standardized tests is away from rewarding mere procedural automaticity toward ensuring that students understand and can apply knowledge. What counts is what I refer to as 'novelity' -- the ability to respond appropriately and successfully to novel situations. Without understanding, you cannot solve problems for which there are not known solutions. Procedural automaticity won't get you there." Today's creative economy requires those who possess "novelity."

Problem-based learning provides the perfect venue for assessing the high levels of understanding and application characteristic of novelity. To prepare students more fully for the 21st century careers that lie ahead, teachers must focus on teaching students to solve open-ended problems for which there are no one right answer. Grading such performances requires something other than an answer key. A rubric offers a scaled set of criteria for success.

It is important to educate students and parents as to why you are introducing new types of assessment. I think of the power of the three-minute video that shares the nuances of Common Core math. Parents and students need to consider that students today will work in a world in which they will be rewarded for solving problems: from big problems with global implications to small, customer-service problems. Both require different ways of thinking and working, and those require different forms of assessment.

The rubric should provide a detailed description of the type of thinking and work expected. Consider a task that asks how to generate oxygen on Mars. A rubric that is mostly quantitative (e.g. "offers 3 examples" or "cites 2 resources") does not capture the performance. The rubric should describe the quality of thinking or work and represent a cognitive progression, for example, one row might read:

• suggests plants to be introduced

• all of the above plus details the anticipated photosynthetic output of oxygen

• all of the above plus details the likelihood of the sustainability of the necessary conditions for the oxygen output

• all of the above plus describes potential unintended consequences of introducing the plants to the Mars environment

The power of the rubric lies in its ability to describe advanced levels of understanding of content, making it defensible to parents and students. The rubric can also easily be scaled to produce a final numeric or letter grade. A well-constructed rubric should allow the student to self assess and arrive at the same grade as the teacher.

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Thanks to Kristina, Heather, Thomas, Thom, and Nancy for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment  with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected].When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form.  It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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Look for Part Two in a few days.....

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