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  • Abner Oakes

Developing Rich Assessments

I talked on the phone the other day with folks from a JumpRope partner school, and they relayed to me an interesting story. As they explored the world of standards-based grading a few years ago, they visited a school where teachers had taken a narrow approach to the assessment side of their work. While the school was implementing standards-based grading, most of the assessments were worksheets or short quizzes, all of which measured just one or two standards. Yes, this school and its teachers were keeping to the letter of the law when it comes to standards-based grading - an assessment aligned to standards and progress assigned to the standard, not the assignment - but it struck me that what they were doing perverted that process, making it easier for teachers to grade and far less interesting and rich for students.

This story brought me back to some of the curriculum development work I'd done in schools and districts and the realization that things had not changed: In my own efforts with teachers and school leaders, it was the development of multi-layered, thoughtful, performance assessments aligned to standards that many people struggled with. Now, don't get me wrong: I struggled too, as it was the hardest part of our work together. A really thoughtful performance assessment can take years to develop and, back then, I was working with teachers over the course of a few days to create a draft of an assessment for them to test out in their classes.

Luckily in that early work, we had samples to share with teachers, interdisciplinary capstone units that were aligned to standards. I'm looking at one right now called American Originals - sorry but they're not online - that has an initial activity during which students read an excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath and then viewed, discussed, and wrote about Dorothea Lange's photographs of that same era for the Farm Security Administration. One performance objective asked that students "explain the ideals and viewpoint expressed in Steinbeck's story and Lange's photographs of farmers and their families." The next activity in the unit asked students to "identify various geometric figures in an Amish quilt by their particular properties and use them to solve problems."

But while there was a coolness factor to these activities and the overall capstone unit assessment, what I remember most of my work with teachers at that time was going back again and again to the standards. Cool assessment, sure - but how's it aligned to the standards? How will that assessment show student mastery? And are those assessments measuring multiple standards, even standards that are not in the teacher's discipline? Jesse also wrote about this issue a year ago and had this to say as part of our blog's Rules of Thumb series:

When you look at your planning tool, most of your assessments should be aligned to more than one standard. This encourages high-quality assessments that connect more than one learning goal such that students understand and can apply skills in real-world scenarios instead of just in isolation. Furthermore, it encourages you as a teacher to look more deeply at assignments/assessments for evidence of what students know on particular goals, analyzing the work at a deeper level than simply dividing the number correct by the number possible.

Like I mentioned earlier, developing rich performance assessments was never easy work, but thankfully we had models and samples from which to draw, we had chunks of time to think and discuss, and we had each other, perhaps the best part of this work - a group of like-minded people looking to change their practice.

That's what I'm most struck by when I talk with folks from schools that are using JumpRope as they implement mastery-based practices. They know that single-standard worksheets are just not part of best practice, and they're more than willing to climb that standards-based grading mountain - as long as they know that they have us and like-minded colleagues hiking next to them, similarly heavy packs in tow.

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