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Rethink Assessment, Add Cornstarch, Then Stir

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This post is by Rebecca E. Wolfe, Associate Vice President, JFF

I recently attended "Curriculum Night" - an annual tradition at our elementary school where parents get to sit in uncomfortably small chairs in our children's overheated, cheerily decorated classrooms to hear from their teachers about what they'll be learning this year. Starting in third grade, we also hear about preparations for our state testing, the MCAS. As my oldest is now in fourth grade, I listened keenly to hear how much of the year was devoted to test prep, as well as about all the other ways he will be evaluated. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the kid who spent hours in the kitchen this summer playing "mad scientist"--randomly mixing ingredients just for the fun of seeing what happens-- was going to have a teacher who couldn't wait to get to the science units. Mrs. C plans to have them working in groups, "getting dirty and messy" with guppies, pill bugs, earthworms and more. 

All our time at home playing in the kitchen leaves no doubt in my mind that my son will love his science instruction this year. I also know, though, that he'll need the space for some trial and error. Not every "mad scientist" experiment results in something frothy and exciting, and ultimately almost all are bound for the trash can. But in each of these failed experiments, my son learns a bit more about what to try the next time. I can see the wheels turning in his head when he realizes that the baking soda he added made his mixture bubble, or that leaving the egg soaking in vinegar long enough really will dissolve the shell. He finds that he can fix a watery mixture by adding a bit more cornstarch, but too much just makes mush. What started out as a way to fill some "staycation" time led me to reflect during "Curriculum Night" on how his experiments provide their own formative assessment cycle. He gets continual feedback on his work in a way that's built right into his learning process.

But by the end of that long night, I found myself wondering: somewhere between state testing, engaging science modules, and goofing in the kitchen, do either Mrs. C or I know whether we're even encouraging skills that will still be in high demand when my son is an adult? At JFF, our organization-wide focus on the future of work always leads me to the critical role the future of learning plays. As the demands for skills evolve and change, our K-12 systems must be ready to meet them. To ensure we are instilling the full array of knowledge, skills, and behaviors each student needs to succeed, assessments need to do more than just feed numbers into   accountability ratings. However, instead of getting rid of standardized testing, as many call for, we should shift the balance toward assessments that inform instruction and are linked to learning. This would mean diving even deeper into formative assessment, along with measuring the extent to which students can use knowledge to think critically and solve problems, not just know facts and procedures.

If assessments getting at deeper learning were more widespread, they could be an important link in a system of assessments that measure learning and serve as learning. For my son, that might mean fewer worksheets to fill in to show if he knows about bases and acids, and more reflective writing to demonstrate what he and a partner predicted, observed, and learned when they added red cabbage to lemon juice and water. For his school, it could mean the principal and teachers working as a community of professionals prioritizing use of team time to a better understand what fires up each student, how they need to learn, and how to meaningfully assess if they've learned it.

For our district--together with teachers, parents, students, employers, and town leaders--it would mean taking a deep look at developing goals, competencies, and measures of learning that are fully aligned with where our economy, lifelong learning, and community engagement is headed.  And for our state and district, that might mean better use of well-tested methods of determining our school's quality that relied less on MCAS scores and more on means that help move the school through improvement cycles that include measures of instructional practices that lead to deeper learning, student voice, and equity goals. There's some promising examples of what such a system can look like emerging from places such as California, Texas, and Virginia.

Now if only I could improve how my son cleans up the kitchen!

 

 

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