Saturday, February 26, 2011

Finally - Some Discussion to Share

The slow-rippling effect of discussion
It looks as if the 11 participants in our poll from the last post have reached consensus. 100% of them believe that:

We need to learn to use assessment to help students learn, not just to give them marks.

Also looks as if in terms of that poll, only the converted voted, though what's to argue here?  Seriously, you won't see much input from any different perspective on this blog to date, as either our readers all agree or are very shy when it comes to making public comments.  I can only hope they're doing more discussion and debate in private.

I think this may be the case, as we had a  session at the February 11 Richmond District Convention called "What's All the Talk About Assessment and Evaluation?".  The session was filled with lively comments and questions.  Even if you couldn't be there, you can get the flavour of the talk from what follows in this post.

After some introductory comments from me as Superintendent about how the draft policy is a catalyst for a long-term ongoing conversation rather than a prescription for classroom practice,  District Consultants Norma Jamieson and Diane Graves led the group at the workshop through a discussion activity called 8 Big Ideas about Assessment.

Below is a sampling of the connections and questions those at the workshop came up with about some of the "Big Ideas".

Big Idea #1 
Assessment serves different purposes at different times; it may be used to find out what students already know and can do; it may be used to let students, and their parents, know how much they have learned within a prescribed period of time.

Questions …
• How to get parents to understand new assessment models/styles instead of them expecting (demanding) a mark out of “x” for everything students do.
• Many students are so focused on marks and want everything they hand in graded.  How do we help them make the shift to the process and meta-cognitive skills?
Good questions, those, and point to the fact that this conversation about assessment needs to be long and ongoing.  Lots of long-standing expectations and assumptions will be challenged and questioned as part of the discussion with parents and especially students, who have been well-schooled in the idea of working for marks rather than working to learn.

Big Idea #2
Assessment must be planned, purposeful and accurate.  Planning must ensure that assessment is aligned with curriculum, instruction, grading and reporting.

Connections …
• Students need to be involved in the planning and should be able to understand and discuss the accuracy of their assessment (both self-assessment and teacher-assessment).

Questions …
• Why are there teachers out there who are not doing this?
• How can we work together so that all of us know what accurate and fair expectations are?

Working together creates connections
A heavy duty set of questions here. 

The idea of giving students the tools to assess their own progress as they learn is key to using assessment as a way of learning instead of a way of reporting on what's been learned. Why are some teachers not doing this?  Those reasons can be as individual as teachers themselves. Here's one thought.

Teaching can be a profession of "solo artists" not because teachers are isolates by nature, but because the way the day is put together. Teachers have almost no time for professional discussions with adults.  We all enjoy the company of students; that's why we're here.  However, we can all benefit from discussing teaching and learning with other professionals, as that can promote reflection and change while it give us a chance to exchange ideas.  Part of that discussion becomes a conversation to address the second question - how to work together so that all of us know what accurate and fair expectations are. That's where the policy discussion comes in.  Pending policy creates the opportunity to talk and try to eventually find some common ground that we share.

And last but not by any means least question for today . . .
  • If student learning is the goal, doesn’t reporting and evaluation imply an arbitrary time frame in which students ought to have learned?
I saved this  question for last in this posting, as it calls us out and makes us think about what we know about how learning really happens and how it's supposed to happen in school. These two are not quite the same thing.  So where does that leave us as educators? More on that in the next post.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Why are we talking about an assessment policy?

What does policy have to do with assessment anyway? If you're one of the persistent few who have been following this blog for some time (I admit, it's not that easy to find), you've noticed that I've been discussing policy along with the idea of assessment "for", "as" and "of" learning.
Most people think of policy as something that gathers dust on the shelf, or at best, a bunch of restrictive rules to be ignored if at all possible.  Since assessment and evaluation are at the heart of teaching practice, it may seem like a deal killer to link such a personal part of teaching practice to policy.  
But, if we think of policy as simply a way of  putting our common values into words, it begins to make a little more sense to use a proposed draft policy to start the conversation we need to have about how to use assessment and evaluation to help students be as successful as possible.   Instead of forcing a change, the proposed policy can be a catalyst for the deep and ongoing conversation we need to have about this topic and how it relates to student learning.  Responding to the draft policy at this point becomes a way to share our practices and values on this topic.

The draft policy simply says:

The primary purpose of assessment and evaluation is to support and enhance student learning. Assessment and evaluation support student learning by providing feedback that informs teachers and students about what has been learned and what is not yet understood.

Assessment and evaluation practices are integral to the planning and delivery of curriculum and to implementing instructional approaches to best meet student needs and ways of learning, thereby supporting and enhancing student growth and achievement.

Richmond teachers have a 12 year history of work on assessment "for", "as" and "of" learning.  Active  study groups have been meeting over a long period of time, and there are many teachers who are regularly exploring these ideas in their practice.  The ongoing grade 8 projects around literacy in each school are based on the idea of using Performance Based Assessment evidence to plan instruction to improve reading comprehension.  The teachers design the assessment together, plan together and discuss the results on a regular basis.  The results are impressive - the students in these particular classrooms improve significantly in the reading skills taught over the course of the year.  This is a classic example of using assessment "for" learning to focus teaching in specific areas.
If we combine this long-term exploration of assessment in various areas in the school district with the idea that our primary job is to help our students do their best, now is the time to broaden the conversation and begin to share perspectives on  assessment and evaluation across the district.  Responding to the draft policy open up possibilities for beginning that wider conversation. For more thoughts on this read the previous post entitled "Draft Policy Seeking Response".