Assessment: More Than Just a Grade

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It’s been a while since I’ve blogged… this job and my two little ones keep me busy and on my toes… but I attended an amazing conference this past week.  What I love about blogging is that it helps me to organize my ideas and reinforce my understanding, in this case, in the area around assessment.

I’ve done a lot of work (and learned so much) in the assessment field in the schools I work with: some of it is conversation based with new teachers, some of it is PD, some of it is supporting division or ministry assessments, some of it is guiding the moderation piece and working with teachers to build an instructional plan for the next steps.  I’ve been fortunate enough to work with individual teachers and a working group as they move outcomes based assessment to the higher grades, and to work with a Learning Council of teachers to create an assessment framework for their own school.

This past week I attended the “Leading for Assessment Excellence” conference hosted by the Saskatchewan Educational Leadership Unit.  I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn more and to engage in discussions with a group of teachers, administrators and colleagues with whom I am able to work closely every day.  The conference speakers were the “big names” in assessment: Damian Cooper, Ken O’Connor, Cassandra Erkens and Tom Hierck.  Every session was fantastic and they allowed for tons of discussion about what these practices look like and ways to integrate them into our academic reality.

While there were so many ideas and thoughts shared, I’ve tried to narrow down the big moments where I really connected with the speakers.  Here we go, in no particular order to the author or session, although I will try to attribute the idea to the speaker as I go along.  

1.   Our keynote on the first day, Cassandra Erkens, likened formative assessment that we do as educators to the skills of great leaders.  “Hope is not a strategy.  Our role as leaders and educators is in how we design our classrooms and the role of the teacher is to be the assessment architect” (Erkens).  The key elements that we should be including in formative assessment are the same elements shared by educational leaders: understanding learning targets, clear descriptive feedback, examples of strong and weak work, the ability to self assess, the use of mini lessons, revision, and self reflection.

2.  Many of the sessions spoke of similar ideas but the notion of procedural knowledge / memorization vs deep understanding came up over and over.  Cassandra compared the “Google curriculum” to performance assessment.  “Authentic assessment tasks require students to perform or produce something that closely resembles actual situations, abilities and products that one might see beyond the school walls”. (Erkens)  In her breakout session about Designing 21st century learning, she talked at length about the skills needed in today’s world (communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity).  We also have to think critically about whether these skills are demonstrated in the assessment tasks we ask of our students. The ease of access to information HAS to change how we teach and assess students (Cooper).  

3.   All of the speakers talked about the use of a grade as communication vs compensation.  Many of our beliefs about assessment practice come down to our understanding of what we truly believe assessment to be about.   The primary purpose of assessment is “to communicate with students and parents about [their] achievement of the learning goals” (O’Connor).  Grades should be supportive of learning, accurate, meaningful, and consistent.  Inflation of grades because of behavior or completion of a task prevent us from truly understanding where a child is at regarding the learning targets.  If we believe assessment is about moving students towards mastery of the learning target (outcome) then there is no place for a punitive zero or for the removal of late marks as these are assessing the behavior, not achievement.

4.  O’Connor spoke about the role of homework.  He believes that the intent of homework should be preparation (pre instruction), practice, extension or integration.  Therefore, if it is preparation, we cannot include it as part of our “mark” because we haven’t taught the content yet.  If it is practice, it is part of our formative assessment and should not be included.  If the homework IS a summative task, then to ensure authenticity, we need to monitor to be certain it is the students’ own work, and we need to monitor to ensure that all students have the supports required in order to include it as a summative mark (equitable).  I do struggle with the notion of homework as an independent task to be assessed for reporting purposes, and I was reminded throughout the conference about the notion of equity: those who could benefit from doing homework at home do not always have the supports and structures in place to allow for that to occur.  

5.  There is no such thing as a “group grade”.  A group grade allows for children to hide inside of their group when in fact, we should be looking for mastery from each and every child.  Even assigning roles inside of the group creates a false construct in which not everyone has to be responsible.  In fact, everyone has to be responsible and one of our biggest challenges as educators is to teach kids how to work collaboratively and how to work their way through conflicts to solve problems.

6.  What do collaborative practices look like?  Cassandra Erkens shared the process for developing a collaborative team (or a collaborative group).  She used the analogy of food: the initial steps of collaboration look like a potluck; we all share (bring something different), there are more strategies being developed, we start to work together, but we are still individually contributing to the learning and teaching experiences.  True collaboration occurs when all of the members work together to develop the meal; they pick out a recipe, go to the store, purchase the ingredients, and cook the meal together.  They work in synergy to co-create a meal or a learning experience for their students.

7.  Fairness means that students are given equal opportunity to demonstrate what they know and can do as part of the learning process.  (O’Connor)  It does not mean equal or insistence of uniformity.  It is about equity of opportunity for students.  Differentiation is the key factor to allow for equity of opportunity.

8.  O’Connor’s 6 “musts” in grading for learning: standards based, performance standards vs a percentage, achievement separated from behaviors, summative only (no mark but comment only in formative assessment), most recent evidence of learning emphasized, grades to communicate information vs penalizing students (zeroes and late marks).  Zeroes and late marks skew my ability to gather accurate information about a child.   In addition, if the intention of assessment is to close the learning and achievement gap, then a zero incorrectly indicates that a child has learned nothing. (Hierck)

9.  Cooper’s “Zone of Proximal Development”: What do students currently know and what can they do?  Where do I want them to get to?  How big is the gap and how do I ensure that it is just right to challenge students in a way that maximizes learning? (challenging but not frustrating).

10.  All teachers K-12 share an equal responsibility in filling the gaps.  For example, if a learner is a struggling reader when they get to high school, we need to teach the reading skill before the student can read to learn.  

11.  Feedback is key to engaging learners and moving them forward.  It is the piece of information that helps to fill the learning gap and must be specific, constructive, timely and meaningful.  It needs to engage the recipient and encourage them to think, “where am I and where do I need to go?” (Hierck).

“Every child deserves access to high quality teaching and assessment”.  Tom Hierck ended the conference with his final keynote sharing the importance of relationships and reminded us that “the kids who need us the most, challenge us the most”.  It is an important reminder.  Our job is educators is to provide students with the guidance, assessment and feedback required so that every child has the opportunity to be successful.

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