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  • Sara Needleman

The Long Road to the Long Term Target

How can we motivate students and be responsive to parents and guardians if we make the philosophical choice to report out only on course or grade level targets? How do we address the state of the "perpetual partially meets" or the "8 months-long 2"? I approached my second conversation with Becky Brown, Curriculum Coordinator of the South Portland, Maine school district, with these questions. She had valuable insights to share.

As educators forging the way with mastery-based practice, we are faced with decisions that sometimes ask us to examine the intersection between our beliefs, our classroom practice, and the ways we report student progress. Becky has an abiding belief that teachers should report out only on the long term targets. In South Portland, they are called Essential Learning Targets (ELTs). When she shared this conviction with her 6th grade JumpRope pilot teachers, they were concerned. The teachers felt it was important for their students to see progress, to know, as Becky relayed, that "they were doing what they were expected to do in that moment." The teachers suspected that seeing at least some 3s, as opposed to all 2s, on progress reports would serve to motivate students and would prevent an endless stream of parent phone calls and meetings. Becky heard this concern and responded by helping her pilot teachers create what they call foundational targets. She respected the need to show progress, but she struggles with reporting progress toward mastery (or proficiency, as is the chosen term in Maine) and reporting mastery itself.

The real crux of the issue, we discussed, is in the difference between formative and summative assessment and helping people - teachers, students, parents and guardians - understand that difference. A long term target or ELT, by its very nature, will require most students a fairly long time to master. Examination of one of South Portland's 6th grade ELTs - "Is skilled at using words that have multiple meanings including connotative and denotative meaning" - makes this point clear. Most 6th grade students will need repeated and carefully guided exposure to phrases such as "the tributes" in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games before they’re skilled at using words with multiple meanings. Teachers might use the phrase "the tributes" to assess formatively or foundationally for this ELT and therefore determine that a student, in this instance, has met the target. But it will take a great deal of exposure to such nuanced words before the teacher can definitively determine the student has mastered this skill.

Becky and I then discussed her use of Marzano's Taxonomy in helping teachers see precisely which levels of thinking they should aim for to define mastery. If, according to the taxonomy, retrieval of such phrases as "the tributes" were the aim, then in fact a simple vocabulary quiz or two would be a valid summative assessment in this case. The ELT does not ask teachers to assess for retrieval but rather for comprehension and analysis ("is skilled at using words"), and so a vocabulary quiz addressing the multiple meanings of "the tributes" could be a valid formative assessment - one indicating that in this case, for now, the student is moving toward the ELT’s mastery. A student who correctly identifies or retrieves several meanings of "the tributes" through a formative assessment would see the corresponding 3, indicating proficiency for this foundational target, in his or her JumpRope portal.

Sharing such successes is precisely what the 6th grade pilot teachers wanted to do. Students, parents, and guardians can log into the JumpRope portal to see this sort of progress and know they are "on the right path" (or not!). What they don't get - and this is where Becky is working very hard to communicate her philosophy - is the inclusion of this formative data in the printed progress reports. Those reports reveal summative data only. And so, a 6th grade student, trying to demonstrate mastery on the ELT, "Is skilled at using words that have multiple meanings including connotative and denotative meaning", might need to complete several constructed response assessments, deliver an oral presentation, or complete some other such summative assessment demonstrating a deeper understanding of words with multiple meanings as opposed to a discrete retrieval of one or a few of them.

Becky has maintained her belief that aiming for the long term Essential Learning Targets is the right thing to do. She sees learning and the assessment of it as a deep and layered pursuit. I think she would say that we don't want to celebrate "arrival" before we have really arrived, but as her teachers have said, seeing some clear landmarks as we travel, reassures us that we are headed in the right direction.

The above image was taken from here

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