Who Owns Your Assessments?

I had the privilege of spending a whole day last week with a room full of smart, creative teachers thanks to Common Sense Ed’s 2017 Teacher Instituheaderte, “Assessment Beyond the Gradebook.” This conference covered a lot of ground, but at the heart, it was a conversation about how to help students take more ownership of the work of measuring their own progress. In other words, how can we frame assessments as something we do for students rather than something we do to them?

In my opinion, a good conference first and foremost should leave me with new questions to chew over, so here’s a list of some questions I came away with:

  • How can we make assessments feel like waypoints rather than the end of a chapter?
  • How can we help students see assessments the way we do, as data to inform the next steps they need to take?
  • How can we give students more control over how and when they demonstrate their progress?
  • To what degree can we live into a truly standards-based approach within the confines of a traditional calendar, courses, and letter grades?
  • How can we make standards and assessments part of an organically interconnected path rather than stand-alone experiences?
  • How do we make reflection a genuine part of assessment? How does one measure reflection? Does one need to?
  • How can we increase engagement and make classroom activities more intrinsically rewarding without oversimplifying anything?

I’m going to be brooding over these for weeks to come;  I welcome input from all of you out there!

I also came away with a grab bag of more concrete resources and ideas. There is always far too much happening at a day like this to corral into a single blog post, but there are a few things that stood out. In no particular order, here are some of the things I want to be sure to remember and pass along.

  • Da Vinci RISE, a non-classroom based charter school in southern California for students who have not done well in the conventional school system, is doing some amazing stuff. Highlights:  meet students where they are and let them progress at their own pace (RISE has eliminated “years” altogether in favor of the more neutrally names “chapters”), offer wide student choice in when and how to demonstrate mastery of the material, increase the level on Blum’s taxonomy on which assessment draws as students progress through the chapters, not just the difficulty of the material being assessed (start with an “easy win” and build toward challenge), focus on key skills and make it very clear to students how those skills connect across disciplines. I teach a student population very different from the one RISE serves, but I was struck by how directly applicable to my kids these ideas seemed. They’re trying to rebuild the confidence of students who equate school with failure and allow the flexibility to accommodate widely varying life situations. We’re trying to replace an anxiety-laden focus on grades with a confident sense of progress and control and to offer the flexibility for students to progress as fast as they are able. There’s quite a lot of overlap there. The teachers at RISE are teaching in a non-traditional, 1:1

    RISE’s assessment system: the type of assessment, as well as the material, becomes more demanding as students progress.

    environment where it is much easier to give students that degree of flexibility. I’m going to have to think hard about what this philosophical approach would look like in a more traditional school, where I have to work with semesters, letter grades, and college calendars. Does it have to be all or nothing? I hope not.


  • Jennifer Auten, from Montclaire Elementary School, demonstrated the ability of even very young learners to design their own assessments and evaluate themselves. The thing she said that stuck with me the most was “Reflection is the most important part of any assessment.” I’m still thinking about how I can make sure to build that piece in every time.
  • Not strictly about assessment, but more than timely:  Kelly Mendoza shared this ominous video about the fake news industry and this study from the Stanford History Education Group which suggests that the large majority of our students cannot reliably tell advertising from news from fake news. Here is a list of some resources for teaching news literacy. I would add to that Facing History and Ourselves  and the ever useful Newseum.
  • While we’re on the subject of resources, Common Sense Education, the day’s host, has put together a nice resource page on teaching strategies more generally (mostly related to things digital) that I plan to add to the list of pages I hit when I’m feeling a little dry of ideas. It’s mostly curated from other sites, but the materials are all well chosen. They also so reviews of edtech resources and have the most complete list of those I’ve seen.
  • One final resource that I’m still mulling over is an unusual sort of classroom tool from Breakout Edu: a strongbox with a series of combination locks attached. The idea is that kids follow clues to unlock each padlock and get to what’s inside. There are no instructions, so figuring out how to go about solving the puzzle is part of the game. (I have some friends who are obsessed with the annual MIT puzzle hunt. This reminds me a bit of that, on a much smaller scale). I had a chance to play a round, and it was a blast. This is definitely a great tool for teaching teamwork, problem-solving, and persistence, as well as ramping up energy and engagement. At my table, we debated whether we would really use it much in a high school humanities class, where few of our problems have a clear single answer and most of our in-class activities focus on nuanced analysis, but I can certainly imagine it as a great way to introduce a unit or liven up the process of acquiring or reviewing factual material. It would work very nicely when teaching basic research skills, too. One could make one’s own box with a nice collection of locks from the nearest hardware store, but buying one from Breakout also buys you access to a collection of prewritten challenges. They also have a lively Facebook page that is open to all. More generally, the experience made me think again about ways to make classroom activities more intrinsically rewarding, whether that’s through mysteries, puzzles, real life applications, or competition.

There were lots more ideas flying around on Friday that I just can’t pin down right now. Some of them will likely make it into future posts. Thanks again to everyone who made a great conference happen!



About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
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