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Thursday, 11 December 2014

Making “It” Make Sense for Parents

December is a busy month and it is also a month of reflection as we prepare for a new year. As we’ve worked this year with educators across Canada and internationally, we’ve been heartened by the powerful conversations in support of ensuring assessment, evaluation, and reporting is in the service of learning. These changes require that we thoughtfully build plans to support the learning of our teachers, administrators, Trustees, and senior leaders. A mindful plan also includes involving parents in the conversation. Bridging home to school and school to home is an important pursuit.
In our work with school systems, we are often asked to meet with parents. For us, this work can occur after we have had the opportunity to better understand the context in which students learn and educators teach, including reading board reports, viewing information on the district website, working with teachers and division support staff, and meeting with school leadership teams.

The point at which we are asked to engage in parent information meetings or district parent sessions is often when the structure that reports student learning begins to shift. Across this country, jurisdictions are changing report cards and reporting mechanisms to reflect today’s challenging curriculum and communication landscape. The reality of this work often results in mixed reviews from parents and the broader community. And no wonder – the perfect report card or reporting process just does not exist.

The complexity of the curriculum, the diversity of learners and communities in which they live, and the inherent errors that occur when we communicate using a coding system and the written word can seem overwhelming. What we can do, however, to mitigate these issues is to involve students in communicating evidence of their learning, to ensure that teachers’ professional judgment is informed and guided by district policy, and to build trust over the long-term. This often requires that we seek to understand before being understood – that age-old adage serves us well.

As we plan for meeting with parents, we reflect on the large number of sessions that we have facilitated over the years. We strive to be respectful of the experience, intelligence, and commitment that each parent brings to the conversation. And at the same time, we wish to acknowledge the expertise and ‘craft’ knowledge that educators hold as they work in support of student learning.

1938 Report Card
For us, there are five essential points around which we build the conversation with parents. Each one pulls parents and community members from their past experience as a student in school to the reality of pedagogy and politics today.

It used to be that teachers chose what they were going to teach.We show parents what curriculum looks like today – its specificity and breadth. As we open curricular documents up to parents, we convey the depth of these documents and how it both directs and supports teachers’ teaching and students’ learning. No longer do educators choose a topic because it only interests them. Today, a unit or a theme must unfold in support of the learning expectations or outcomes.

It used to be that the students who “crossed the finish line” of the course first, were awarded the best marks. No longer do our marks ‘reward’ students who require the least amount of instruction or those who can most quickly understand the concepts. Rather, curricula across this country allow students until the end of the term, the semester or the course to achieve those outcomes. In other words, our curriculum does not ask “How fast?”, but rather it poses the question of “To what degree of quality and proficiency?”

It used to be that test scores and results from quizzes and exams were sufficient evidence of learning. The complexity of today’s curriculum requires that students provide evidence of their learning in ways that go beyond tests, quizzes, and exams. For example, we cannot determine whether a student engages in a scientific investigation safely by giving them a test. We need to watch them in action. Nor can we determine whether a student can engage in classroom discussion by having them write a paragraph about it. We listen to them talk through issues and questions. If a term or course mark is comprised of marks gathered from tests, quizzes, and a final exam, then we know that the breadth of the curriculum has not been addressed….only a part of it has.

It used to be that all students had to show what they had learned in the same way and at the same time. In the past, if our students were studying the water cycle, for example, then all students had to write a paragraph about that scientific concept. The curriculum states that students should be able to describe the water cycle. Period. It does not dictate a singular way in which students should show what they know about this scientific concept. So today, students might write about it, they might put together a narrated video, or they might even make it rain by bringing in a kettle, a pie plate, and some ice as they demonstrate the water cycle. This does not mean that writing or putting things down on paper is not important. In fact it is. Many curricula speak to the importance of the written word; however, a student who deeply understands how she solved a trigonometric equation should not be penalized if she cannot tell how she arrived at the answer in perfectly formed sentences. The best way of explaining her thinking and making her mathematical problem solving visible to others might be to record herself going through the question, step by detailed step.

It used to be that external examinations were the most important source of assessment evidence. Provincial or jurisdictional examinations do provide important and essential information. But because they cannot evaluate the breadth of the curricular outcomes or expectations, they are not the only measures upon which we can rely. We look to our teachers and their understanding of the curricula that they teach, of the ways in which students learn, and of what proficiency and quality look like. Teachers bring these three factors to bear as they pull evidence from multiple sources to make a professional judgement that informs the final evaluation or mark on the report card. What teachers do in classrooms with students matters a great deal. And their consideration of all that they know is important in giving the most accurate and up-to-date picture of how a student is doing compared to how they should be doing.

As we write in our book Transforming Schools and SystemsUsing Assessment for Learning (p. 83), “It is not enough that parents and community be ‘informed’; they must be invited into the thinking and visioning that will provide the foundation for all that comes. They can become some of the most powerful advocates for thoughtful change when their resistance, concerns, and questions are dealt with honestly and respectfully.”

We believe that we build relationships of trust, action, and support when we provide information that not only contextualizes the work but allows parents and community members to be able to contribute and challenge from a position of understanding and strength. John Dewey says it incredibly clearly, “Communication is a process of sharing experiences until it becomes a common possession. It modifies the disposition of both parties who partake in it.”

All our best,

Anne, Sandra and Brenda

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Multi-Age Classroom Demonstration - Learning the Language of Assessment

This past September, I had the opportunity to spend a day watching Sandra Herbst in classrooms with the students and staff of Kaw Tay Whee School in Dettah, Northwest Territories. 
Sandra was doing a series of demonstration lessons in classrooms with students from 3 years of age to students in Grade 8. The staff members and I watched Sandra co-construct criteria with students from two different multi-age classes. It is something Sandra has written about in her blog, both from the perspective of observing colleagues as well from a learning perspective
Some people might make assumptions about what students in a small, northern community can do or not do or how they may or may not participate. If the assumptions were that these students would be knowledgeable about writing and enthusiastic learners, then they would be correct. 
In one class Sandra adapted the four-step process from Setting and Using Criteria and used a writing sample to help focus students on quality and proficiency. Here are a series of photographs to show the process she used:

Sandra asked the question, “What counts... what matters... what is important when we write well?"

Sandra led the process. Together students, with Sandra's guidance, examined part of a sample and brainstormed ideas about good writing.

As students identified what was important in a chunk of the sample, an adult recorded student ideas on sentence strips. Then, another chunk of the sample was examined.
They continue, chunk by chunk, until all ideas were surfaced. The teacher also contributed ideas.
Once all ideas have been recorded, it was time to sort the strips into three to five groups.
The next step was to use the criteria. One way is to have students practice by finding proof in the sample, in another sample, in their own work, and then, eventually, in a peer's work.
 As you consider this example, think about what learning processes are being used. Think about words such as analyze, synthesis, collaborate, and more. This is what one group of teachers, after watching Sandra do demonstration lessons, said:

Every curriculum document and set of standards includes these kinds of words. When we co-construct criteria with students we help them better understand quality and proficiency as well as learn the language of assessment – of learning. And, at the same time, students learn
This is a powerful 'assessment in the SERVICE of learning' undertaking. It is also a powerful way to teach students executive functioning... and that will be the subject of my next post.

All my best,


PS If you'd like Sandra Herbst or Brenda Augusta to demonstrate quality assessment, teaching, and learning in your school, please contact Kathy (kathy@connect2learning.com) or call 1-250-337-8244.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Does Classroom Assessment Work?

Recently I read a piece by Bennett (2011) questioning the true impact of formative assessment. And, while I appreciate the powerful questions he asked, there are also some significant, unstated assumptions. One of those assumptions is that there is a lack of observational evidence to inform the work of teachers and others. And, that this lack undermines the process of formative assessment.

While I can't speak to his experiences, I can speak to my experience in this regard. In my work over the past 30 years, formative assessment is considered within the larger context of classroom assessment (Davies, 2000, 2011). In Canada, for example, many policy documents have taken the stance that classroom assessment – which includes both formative and summative assessment – is actually a research undertaking. That is, classroom teachers need to triangulate their data much the way social scientists do (see, for example, Lincoln and Guba, 1984). 

In practical terms this means teachers need to collect the products students create, observe them as they engage in the processes to be learned, and have conversations with them (through words spoken, written, or recorded) to better understand the meaning students are making as they learn. As students learn, teachers collect evidence from multiple sources over time to inform their professional judgement regarding student learning.

As teachers deliberately plan to collect evidence in relation to what the curriculum states what students need to know, understand, do, and articulate, they increase the validity of their professional judgements. As teachers engage in ongoing professional learning, they come to better understand the quality expectations for students, given their age range and the subject area discipline. Powerful professional learning goes way beyond scoring of common assessments and includes moderation of collections of evidence of student learning - a process shown to increase the reliability and validity of teacher judgement (ARG, 2006).

Further, as teachers deliberately collect evidence over time in relation to curriculum outcomes, they increase the reliability of their professional judgement. They have 'proof of learning' from multiple sources over time. The 'trustworthiness' of their findings is increased (Davies et al., In press).

In this context, when teachers use an ongoing collection of evidence of student learning to inform their next teaching steps, the evidence of learning informs them. It ensures they are able to engage in 'informed assessment' and use that assessment information to inform their teaching and student learning. This is the true meaning of formative assessment.

And, as teachers involve students in the assessment process they engage in formative assessment for themselves - a process often referred to as Assessment for Learning. This photograph was shared with me recently by a teacher working with 7-year-olds in British Columbia. Notice how she is teaching students to understand quality and giving them the information they need to engage in formative assessment for themselves.

Bennett (2011) is right when he notes that educators and others can often be found reducing formative assessment to "five simple ideas" or the "eight great strategies." It is fair that this over-simplification invite criticism. It is critically important that we not limit classroom assessment in these ways.

What does work when it comes to classroom assessment?
  1. Teachers begin with the curriculum outcomes.
  2. They thoughtfully consider possible evidence of learning (products, observations of process, and conversations) of all the curricular outcomes.
  3. Teachers research quality so students and others have samples and models to illustrate the expectations for quality and proficiency.
  4. Teachers use the assessment information to inform their next teaching steps.
  5. Teachers deliberately help students use the assessment information to inform next learning steps.
  6. Teachers teach students to engage in formative assessment in support of their own learning.
  7. Teachers use the assessment information to inform their professional judgment and engage in summative assessment.
This is the classroom assessment process. Classroom assessment is a research undertaking with clear procedures and articulated methods. It is the one upon which Making Classroom Assessment Work is based which is the reason a growing number of universities are using it as a course text in professional courses leading to teaching degrees. 

After all, classroom assessment is a research process. And, as Bennett's (2011) article reminds us, it doesn't come easily. It needs to be learned and carefully implemented.


Assessment Reform Group (ARG). 2006. The role of teachers in the assessment of learning. Pamphlet produced by Assessment Systems for the Future project (ASF) http://arrts.gtcni.org.uk/gtcni/handle/2428/4617.
Bennett, R. E. (2011) Formative assessment: a critical review, Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 18:1, 5-25, DOI: 10.1080/0969594X.2010.513678
Davies, A. (2011). Making Classroom Assessment Work 3rd Ed., Courtenay, BC: Connections Publishing and Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Davies, A. Herbst, S. & Parrott-Reynolds, B. (2011). Leading the Way to Assessment for Learning: A Practical Guide 2nd Ed., Courtenay, BC: Connections Publishing and Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Davies, A., Busick, K., Herbst, S. & Sherman, A. (In press). System leaders using assessment for learning as both the change and the change process: Developing theory from practice. The Curriculum Journal. http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rcjo20/current#.VEgWFeffozg
Lincoln, Y. and Guba, E. (1984). Naturalistic Inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Do you have different criteria for all the different projects students do?

As you plan evidence of learning for students given the learning outcomes, do you sometimes hesitate to ‘get creative.’ Last week a teacher in Alberta asked me, “What do you do about setting criteria with students when they are all using different ways of representing their learning? Some of them are building models, some are writing, some are making videos and so on. Do I have to have separate criteria for each one?”

It’s a good question. I know teachers sometimes hesitate to open up assignment or project formats because of the dilemma it poses when it comes to grading or marking the work. How can one be fair and equitable? I wouldn’t recommend having a different criteria for different formats for exactly those reasons. First of all, it would be time consuming and teachers need to use their time wisely. Secondly, teachers might be perceived to be acting unfairly.

What can be done? Here are two practical ways teachers manage co-constructing criteria in this kind of situation.

Focus on ‘Quality plus….’

A high school teacher had multiple blocks of English. Early in the semester he asked students, “What’s important about quality? And then, as they worked on different assignments he would remind them of their criteria for quality and they would add whatever was needed for the individual assignment. The criteria became, ‘Quality plus…. ‘Here are two pictures of the criteria students and teacher co-created for quality.

I love the second one. Notice the title has been crossed out and renamed as, "Use to Check it TWICE"
Co-constructing Criteria for Representing

Another teacher wanted students to represent their learning for their research project in a variety of ways. They had previously co-constructed criteria about research methods. They had done projects together – all doing the same kind of project. But this time, towards the end of the year, the teacher wanted them to represent their learning in a variety of ways. This example is from Setting and Using Criteria by Gregory et al (2011, p. 30-32) available in English or in French.

The teacher waited until the students had determined how they were going to show their learning. Then the teacher said to them, ‘Think about the project you are working on. What do you want me to notice?” In response, each student thought about their project and contributed what they wanted her to notice about it. As everyone shared ideas and they were collected as a list on chart paper. The students said things like:

Clear and easy to read
Personal understanding
Creativity – original ideas
Facts and information
Realistic model

The teacher also added two or three ideas such as:

Select key ideas
Use a variety of sources
Representation format selected is appropriate to the subject matter

The teacher focused on what was needed to include in their project regardless of the form. When they were finished listing their ideas, the teacher helped the students sort the ideas into groups of similar ideas. Then, they looked at each group of ideas and determined the ‘big idea.’ The co-constructed criteria were:

What counts in a research project?

1.     Pose and answer a research question
2.     Summarize information showing personal learning 
        and understanding
3.     Communicate what you have learned through a 
        choice of representation

Each criteria had the collection of student ideas alongside it in a T chart so the students would remember the important elements or details.

When the projects were handed in the same criteria were used to assess and evaluate each project. Students, prior to submitting their project were asked to do a detailed self-assessment explaining how they had met each criteria showing where the teacher would find evidence of them doing so. When the teacher reviewed the projects what the students had said was considered and then added the teacher added more specific feedback.

The criteria encouraged all students to explore different ways of showing what they were learning and reach towards quality no matter what representational form they chose. The criteria also made it possible for the teacher to support all learners to move towards quality no matter what representational form they chose. Equal is not always fair. The co-constructed criteria gave the teacher the means to be fair and equitable while honouring quality work no matter what form it took.

As you begin this new year thinking about how to support every learner to show you proof of learning consider ways to 'open up' the evidence collection so more students can represent their learning in ways that make sense for their kinds of minds.

All our best,

Anne, Sandra, and Brenda

PS You can find more ideas and resources on our website: connect2learning.com

Monday, 25 August 2014

Preparing for the New School Year - #5

Evaluation and Reporting

Evaluation and reporting – assessment oflearning – requires that teachers’ professional judgment is informed and clearly communicated. Developing our informed professional judgment is a key professional undertaking. And, taking a fresh look at our grading and reporting practices prior to beginning a new school year can set us AND our students up for success.


As teachers learn more about summative assessment, it is important to engage in processes to deliberately inform professional judgment since professional judgment is a key aspect of summative assessment.

Teachers are working thoughtfully to make sense of grading and reporting structures in order to better reflect what students know, do, and say in light of changing learning priorities. They are rethinking assessment of learning to better communicate their informed professional judgment about what students have learned. There was a powerful research study done by the Assessment Reform Group called The Role of Teachers in the Assessment of Learning (2007). You can download a copy here.

It found that teachers’ professional judgment is more reliable and valid when teachers engage in looking at student work, co-construct criteria about quality, score the work, and check for inter-rater reliability. This is the kind of work that can help teachers improve their professional judgment regarding the learning and achievement that has occurred.

To deliberately inform professional judgment, educators: 
  • Agree to work with colleagues over time to come to agreement about quality.
  • Collect student work samples related to key aspects of learning (could be product or application).
  • Examine those samples in terms of expected quality levels.
  • Work together to co-construct criteria for quality. This may be in the form of a development continuum or progression.
  • Practice using the criteria to look at student work and giving specific, descriptive feedback.
This process informs professional judgment. It is very powerful professional learning. 

Professional judgment is a key part of the evaluation process.

Four Actions for Teachers:

1.     Read more about the process of coming to understand quality and informing our professional judgment in Chapter 4 of Making Classroom Assessment Work. Or, read more about this important topic in Chapter 3 of A Fresh Look at Grading and Reporting in High Schools.

2.     Read Chapter 10 of Making Classroom Assessment Work. Notice the different ways teachers work within their current rules and regulations regarding reporting and yet still exert their professional judgment regarding student learning and achievement. Do the end-of-chapter tasks on page 104.

3.     View a Secondary Q&A with a group of high school teachers regarding giving percentage grades and letter grades. 

4.      Revisit an earlier blog about moving From Reporting to Informing. There is a link to a great video that might be useful as you plan for the new year.

Three Actions for Leaders:

    1. Read Chapter 12 in Transforming Schools and Systems Using Assessment. It is titled Standards-based Grading and Reporting.
    2. Read our blog about Zeros, No Zeros and the Dangers of Dichotomies.
    3. Join an online learning opportunity about this topic. We suggest this one focused on using samples in support of learning.
         As we close this series and approach the new school year, we wish the best for all those who work so hard on behalf of children and their future. In particular, our thoughts are with our colleagues in British Columbia.

    All our best,

    Anne and Sandra

         PS If you need any assistance, please call our office and speak with our helpful staff. They will connect you to the resources and support that will best suit your learning needs.