What If Assessment Was Used to Elevate Learning Rather than to Rank Students?

Imagine you are the coach of your daughter’s soccer team. Assessment would be important to you. You would hope that each of your players would have a clear sense of what she does well, what she needs to work on, and a commitment to improvement. It’s doubtful you would regularly give each girl a written test to determine her value as a player, and then sort each player into proficient, needs improvement, and failing categories.

Just as good soccer coaches do, teachers must help their students gain a clear sense of — and high standards for — what they do well, what they need to work on, and how to improve. The most important assessment that takes place in any school is not the end-of-year test; it is the assessment that is going on all day long in the mind of every student. Each student is continually assessing his or her attitude, behavior, understanding, and work — “Is this piece good enough to turn in?” “Do I actually understand this concept?”

If we hope to improve student learning, we need to get inside student minds and turn up the dial for quality. Most importantly, we need to build into every student a growth mindset — the confidence that he or she can improve through hard work — and a passion for becoming a better student and a better person.

In many schools, assessment practices provide little of this information and inspiration for students and their families. Assessment is typically seen as something “done to students,” not as a set of tools they can use for their growth. For those who are regularly ranked below average (almost half the students in any school), assessment practices often take the heart out of personal motivation. At Expeditionary Learning (EL), we focus on student-engaged assessment — a system of eight interrelated practices that positions students as leaders of their own learning.

Our book, Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment describes these eight practices in detail. I will briefly highlight two of them here: Student-Led Conferences, and Models, Critique and Descriptive Feedback.

Join Teaching Channel’s Winter Book Club. We’re reading Ron Berger’s book, Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools through Student-Engaged Assessment.

Student-Led Conferences

When I was in school, parent conferences happened once a year, and only when I was in elementary school. My mother would go in after school to meet with my teacher. I have no idea what they talked about. When she came home there were two possible outcomes: either I was “doing fine,” which meant I was not in trouble; or “I was not doing fine,” which meant I was in trouble.

In contrast, for schools in the EL network, parents come to school multiple times each year, whether their child is in kindergarten or eleventh grade. Their child runs the conference, presenting to them a full picture of his or her learning, challenges, growth, and goals. The teacher is there to listen and comment, but the student is responsible for showing evidence of meeting academic learning targets in all subjects, strong and positive work habits and character habits, and growth as a scholar and person. Unlike the parent conferences of my youth — which did nothing to build my skills or insight — these student-led conferences build in students a powerful mix of responsibility, motivation, and metacognitive skills and understanding.

Watch a student-led conference with seventh-grader Gabriella and her father at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, a NYC district school in which 100% of the students are low-income, and 100% of graduates are accepted to college.

If you have a hard time imagining how young students could understand themselves well enough as learners to facilitate a conference effectively, watch kindergarten student Trinity share her work with her mother and father.

Models, Critique and Descriptive Feedback

What if, instead of being continually disappointed by the quality of work students turn in, we showed them exemplars? What if we analyzed that work with them to determine what the criteria should be for quality, to give students a clear vision of what they are aiming to create?

Using exemplars in the classroom

Often, we do share with students the rubrics of how they will be assessed. Rubrics can be useful tools, but absent a picture of what the final goal actually looks like, for many students they are just a bunch of words. Students need to see high-quality student essays, geometric proofs, experimental designs, book reviews, research papers — whatever the genre — so that they can understand and analyze what “good” is.

To see an example of how students can analyze quality work thoughtfully and build criteria for improvement, watch the Austin’s Butterfly video. If you would like to see what a classroom looks like where that same process of using models, critique and descriptive feedback produces extraordinary high-quality work, you can see that here.

Assessment, when it is student-engaged, can be a more powerful, positive force than we imagine. It can give students the tools and motivation they need to truly be leaders of their own learning.

Deeper Learning Video Series: Watch more videos from Expeditionary Learning

Ron Berger is Chief Academic Officer for Expeditionary Learning – a network of over 160 public schools in 30 states. Ron was a public school teacher and master carpenter in rural Massachusetts for over 25 years. His writing and speaking center on inspiring quality and character in students, specifically through project-based learning, original scientific and historical research, service learning, and the infusion of arts.

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