Monday, November 11, 2013

What Assessments Can You Tolerate?

In my last post, I wrote about a session I attended at the recent AMLE conference that was all about assessment, and how we can do it better by giving descriptive feedback, allowing students to act on this feedback, and to provide for (or at least allow for) multiple means of showing that they have met the standard. Rick Wormeli was the presenter, and he both challenged and affirmed my thinking about these topics.

Rick had quite a bit to share about what research indicates makes for effective assessment. (Hint: more formative assessment--not graded, but rich-in-feedback--and less summative assessment--which would be graded.) And, truth be told, since I've read quite a few things Rick has published, I wasn't at all surprised to hear him talking about this, and I really agreed with him.

But there was one thing Rick shared in this presentation that really resonated with me, and I've continued rolling this around and around in my head:

The question teachers need to ask is not
"What is the standard?"
It is "What evidence will we tolerate
for students to show their learning?"

This is not an easy question to answer. I think that part of the problem is that different teachers will have different levels of tolerance for different assessment vehicles. Perhaps not every teacher would agree that a podcast is a valid way for the students to show what they have learned. Or perhaps some teachers might argue that a podcast is the only way to show what they have learned? Or maybe, if we really mean it when we say that we believe students are unique individuals, we might have to allow multiple assessment vehicles for students to show what they have learned?

This is NOT to say that every student has to have a personalized lesson plan, or that teachers need to accept any evidence of learning to meet the standard. We have to decide what we will tolerate as evidence: what may students do for this particular learning target that will show that they understand it? This begins with defining what we will mean by "mastery."

This may be my favorite slide in this whole presentation.

The trouble is, different teachers will have different definitions of what constitutes mastery, what constitutes meeting the standard. We will need to have conversations amongst educators to determine what evidences would be acceptable. Here is another slide he shared to further unpack what this conversation might look like:

Carrying the "mastery" definition a bit further...
Teachers, we need to think together, talk together, come to some consensus. Each teacher is likely to have their own definitions for mastery, for proficiency, for developing understanding; the hard truth is this: we will likely disagree about what is acceptable. So this kind of discussion is necessary, and I would argue it's even crucial in today's high-stakes, high-accountability school environment. Formative assessment is of course key, but as we think about summative judgment of learning, what will we collectively allow?

I am thinking about having this kind of meeting with my colleagues to develop some communal clarity; I hope you will do the same! What other questions should we be asking as we have these conversations with colleagues?


  1. Well done! Grading is a hot topic with so many questions and so little consensus. I to have had the pleasure of listening to Wormeli, he truly puts things into perspective.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Ben! I totally agree with you about the lack of consensus: groups of teachers need to have conversations about this.

  2. The elephant in the room regarding CCSS discussions is that even after we get to unpacking standards into curriculum pieces and learning opportunities AND we've decided that our teaching and our grading systems ought to be based on standards, most of that work won't be of value if we can't agree upon performance expectations. What does proficiency and mastery look like? How will we know when students are getting it? It's such a big hole right now, waiting to bubble up to surface. It speaks to the two sides of the word "standard," content expectations and performance measures.

    1. Preach it! This is my conviction: unless we have these kinds of conversations--both in schools, throughout districts, and across the nation--the CCSS won't really make a hill-of-beans difference for actual improvement of learning. It's just going to be the latest "thing" for teachers to deal with.

      Thanks for the feedback, my friend!