Assessment: A Complicated Landscape

The next time you are combing through your Twitter feed or perhaps at a PD event, I invite you to try out my version of “Assessment Buzzword Bingo.” I guarantee you that you’ll be able to daub off quite a few without even breaking a sweat!

Assessment Buzzword Bingo

In all seriousness, there is a lot of conversation happening in British Columbia and beyond, concerning all things assessment. The vast majority of these conversations are positive and causing educators, administrators, and districts to question their beliefs and actions around what quality assessment looks like. Yet, in conversations I’ve had with educators across our district, I am feeling a lot of empathy for how complicated the landscape of assessment has become. Teachers are pouring hours and hours into digital portfolios, they are taking great care in creating learning summary reports to best showcase what students know, can do, and understand, and they are reimagining how conferencing with students and parents can become more beneficial. I empathize with them because they are putting in a ridiculous amount of time and effort and are feeling that all this effort isn’t having a significant impact on student learning.

My real wonder in looking at the bingo board, littered with assessment jargon, is what is at the core? What is the change we are hoping to see? What really matters? Is it about documenting a student’s learning journey in a portfolio that many parents (and some students) never take a look at? Have we really changed the game by getting rid of grades and replacing them with just another scale (see Grades in Costume)? Has creating a report card learning summary that has more cells than most accountant’s spreadsheets had the desired outcome? My gut feeling is that it may have not have hit the mark we were aiming for. What are we aiming for again…?

I remember vividly when BC’s redesigned curriculum launched, I immediately started searching for how district’s were supporting teachers’ assessment practices. One of the first district’s to publish anything around the switch from Reporting to Communicating Student Learning was Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools. In their document “Communicating Student Learning K-7 Guidelines” (updated Sept. 2019) you will see a simple graphic that captured what I believe is at the core of what we know about assessment and how we should best move forward: Formative Assessment is greater than Summative Assessment.

Thanks to research from John Hattie, the OECD, and countless other institutions and individuals, we now know how impactful formative feedback is. When feedback is ongoing, specific, and helps students identify strengths and next steps, student learning flourishes. In addition, we also know how problematic summative feedback can be to student learning, so much so that at times it completely brings learning to a halt. 

I am brought back to a story Antonio Vendramin once shared during an assessment event himself and his Surrey Schools Communicating Student Learning team led in our district. He shared how a Kindergarten teacher logged into a digital portfolio tool with the intent of documenting student learning to help students see their growth over time and to help support their next steps in learning, absolutely a sound pedagogical reason to use a digital portfolio. But when that teacher saw that this tool had a gradebook attached to it she believed that the focus should be to not only documenting student learning but to also grade it. This was a teacher who had never used a gradebook, this was a teacher who believed in triangulating evidence, but since the narrative around the purpose was not clear, she was led astray. She articulated herself, that she went backwards in her assessment practice.

I tell this story because I think we need to be crystal clear on the change we hope to see. I strongly believe it is not about portfolios, building a better scale, or reinventing report cards. Those are tools that may assist, and in the example above may not. I have seen digital portfolios with almost no summative assessment, that focus not on where a student is at according to some mystical grade level comparison, but rather, serve as a mirror that shows the students growth overtime compared to themselves, not others. I’ve also seen portfolios where every day a student is coming home with a post made about their learning that has a strength-based proficiency scale attached to it that describes how this child is “emerging” (the lowest-end of the scale) in virtually every curricular area. I refuse to believe this is strength-based and in this case, more summative assessment is being used than previously.  My hope is that we can wade through all the assessment jargon, the assessment instruments we may be using and ask ourselves if our pencils, like the Nanaimo-Ladysmith example, are moving in a direction that supports learning and prioritizes formative feedback.

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