Student Agency and Assessment

July 9, 2015

 

Writing about assessment at this blog is not new. In this post from March 2013, Jesse wrote about assessing standards at least three times and developing rich 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.” I tackled this topic in March 2014 and discussed summative assessments that were not only cool and would appeal to students but were also multi-layered and rigorously aligned to standards. And here, in February 2015, Sara and Hayley and Jesse wrote about formative assessment, and Sara had this to say about that important practice: “When we acknowledge that ‘doing well’ is seen in students making strides toward mastery and recognize that happens, in part, through our deliberate and careful feedback, it’s easier to see how important formative assessment data is.”

 

We care deeply about thoughtful and well-planned assessment practices, including the relationship between formative and summative assessment - that students undertake various formative assessments before they launch into a summative one. In a standards-based teaching and learning system, those formative assessments provide the student and teacher with important information: Is the student ready to show mastery of a set of standards? Is the student ready for that final step, for the great leap that a summative assessment should be? If the formative assessments have been built thoughtfully and coherently, success on the summative assessment is a given. This is not to diminish its importance, for it’s often a chance for students to show their mastery of a set of standards. It is that culmination, right? But it does not come lightly, with a series of formative assessments building to it.

 

For this post, let me do some writing/thinking about our rubric up above, particularly the Exemplary practice, that of having students co-create assessments. Many folks have written about co-creating units of study with students; for example, see this June 2014 Edutopia article from Matt Levinson, head of school at Seattle’s University Prep. At the article’s end Matt talks about the buy in from students, because of this process:

 

The class is now ready to dig into the unit of study. There is buy-in, with the teacher having listened to the students, engaged them in the learning process, and co-created a framework to proceed. The class has developed a list of sources at the outset, with the teacher adding other sources. Instead of a top-down approach, the teacher has proceeded from the bottom up, putting the focus on each student to be the agent in the learning process.

 

This article, from the Canadian Education Association in June 2013, uses the phrase assessment for learning:

 

Assessment for learning is what teachers do during the learning. Teachers involve students in assessment by sharing clear learning destinations, using samples to help students understand quality and development, and involving students in co-constructing criteria and in self and peer assessment. They also involve students in collecting evidence of learning and communicating evidence of that learning to others.

 

We know that many of our partner schools and districts are at the two level from above and that some are at the three level, with “a range of rich summative assessments.” How do those at the three level make that leap to a four? I don’t think that it’s an easily delineated set of steps, like some sort of recipe, but let me try and sketch out three broad ideas and see what people think.

  1. Obviously, school and district culture play a huge role in this work. If that culture is a top-down one, shifting to a more student-centered approach of assessment development will rub that culture the wrong way. This is not to say that that might not work in a classroom or even within an intrepid school - but it will feel inauthentic compared with other instructional practices. Schools or districts thinking about having students co-create assessments need to think very honestly about their culture and the culture’s support of that work.

  2. If this is new work in a classroom or at a school, if it’s something never tried before, it is work that needs to go slowly, that needs to be scaffolded for both teachers and students. When I finally felt that I was an effective teacher and worked to make my classroom more student-centered, I used the time after the Christmas holiday as a deadline to measure my effectiveness in making that happen. I needed to train my students to rely less on me and more on themselves and their peers, and it took time to make that happen, to make stick. The same will be true for co-creating assessments.

  3. Lastly, put on your thick skin. There will be voluminous mistakes, as that locus of control shifts more and more to the student. It’s not going to be right the first time - maybe not the second or even the third - but from those mistakes will come important learning, for students, teachers, and administrators, and a more effective process will develop and blossom.

Let’s look back at a blog post that I did in March 2015 on student agency, which is related to the co-creation of assessments. In it I wrote:

 

You can’t have an effective standards-based system without student agency. But I want to take an even greater leap with this benchmark: It is the most important of our bunch and gets at some of the most important reasons for schools and schooling: Young people go to school to gain knowledge, to gain skills, yes, but most importantly to gain independence. To become their own learners. To be productive members of our democratic society. And I think that a standards-based approach to teaching and learning can be the heartbeat of that process.

 

Co-creation of assessments - or of any other part of the curriculum - is one important part of this work. And so get students involved in this process. Give them the kind of control that is at the center of a standards-based teaching and learning system. Given the importance of assessment in that system, this would be an important place to start.

 

What do you think? What might you want to add?

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