Making the Grade: Transforming Assessment (Part 3 of 4)

Grading on achievement, with a coherent system of instruction and formative assessment deeply aligned with the criteria for achievement, can lead to students’ developing a deeper and more self-regulated sense of responsibility than the use of grades as external rewards and punishments for behaviors.
Susan Brookhart

This blog series, in four parts, tells the story of how we sought to address the challenge of transforming our school’s grading and assessment system from one that had organically grown to focus more on measuring learning rather than improving it. One of the most important aspects of this work involved the distributed leadership that led to the development of the learning standard indicators that lie at the heart of our system. This entry focuses on that process and the resulting outcome. The earlier parts of this blog series can be located here.

Developing the Standards: Distributed Leadership
As mentioned in the second part of this series, we were in the fortunate position of having a school-wide, articulated vision for learning, that included learning standards or criteria that we sought to embed throughout the curriculum. Our existing assessment system provided teachers with no consistent way to record student progress towards these learning standards or outcomes. We also lacked a coherent system of providing students with clear, consistent feedback on their learning. To make these learning standards the foundation of our daily practice, we needed to assess them across all subject areas. This meant defining seven levels (see previous post for rationale for the seven levels) of achievement for each learning standard, where each level clearly described the desired learning outcomes.

As a leadership team, we knew that we would need the critical expertise of our faculty members in order to achieve our objective. Heads of Department and faculty volunteers from the various subject areas met over several months, writing and revising the levels for Subject Understanding, Knowledge, and Skills and the Learning Through Inquiry and Problem Solving standards.  Each group started with the same “foundation” set of levels, and were given the freedom – correctly accorded to professional experts – to revise the levels for the specifics of their subject. This process led to incredibly meaningful conversations about learning in each of the subject areas, which allowed our teachers to develop and reach  common agreement on the seven assessment levels for each criteria. Remarkably, the criteria were very consistent across the curriculum. By inviting Department Heads and faculty members to take the lead on these discussions, faculty developed their own, deep understanding of our new assessment system, and, as is often the case with successful, distributed leadership, acquired a strong sense of ownership of the direction ahead. As one, senior faculty member, who was initially sceptical of the work remarked, “I can see now that we have developed a blueprint for learning for our students.” Providing time and space for these conversations was a critical part of the change process. As is so often the case with meaningful change in schools, the teachers were the real leaders.

What Does Our Assessment System Look Like Today?
We assess our students to our learning criteria based on our curricular learning standards across all subjects and grade levels. These criteria, slightly modified to address specific discipline needs, have truly become the blueprint by which teachers guide student learning formatively and students assume ownership of their own learning. The assessed standards are:

  • Subject Understanding, Knowledge and Skills
  • Language for Learning
  • Learning through Inquiry and Problem-solving
  • Learning Relationships

The learning criteria effectively operate as a common assessment rubric that :

  • makes clear to all students and parents what the various levels of achievement mean;
  • provides explicit expectations of quality to students, in advance, to guide them in their work;
  • allows for specific feedback which guides students towards improvement;
  • allows students to take control of the learning process through self-assessment

Our reporting system mirrors this process and, crucially, in calculating grades, we emphasize the most recent achievement in determining achievement because learning is developmental. We do not average learning over time.  We also do not rely on the mean or average to calculate final grades. Our point of central tendency is the mode or most consistent level of achievement attained and we use evidence supported by professional judgment in arriving at this point. As leaders, it is our job to support the professional judgment of our teachers.

On semester report cards, students and parents see all 7 levels of achievement described for each standard assessed, providing not just a clear descriptor of achievement attained, but the targets required to reach the next level. Because we must be realistic about college admissions and the needs of other schools, students also receive a single grade that summarizes overall achievement. (We don’t like this last point a whole lot, but we are obliged to be cognizant of realities we would prefer to see changed.) One remaining question we have about report cards is, why we continue spend so much time on them. Our work is not yet complete in this regard, but we are satisfied that we have moved our assessment practices in the right direction – student-centred and learning focused. As one student candidly remarked on the current approach: “we get to look at learning in a whole new way.”

The final part of this blog series (located here) looks at what we learned from this process and the learning that is ongoing. It may, I hope, offer insights for schools undertaking or reviewing similar work. From start to finish, it is primarily a learning story and, while it is one that may be far from perfect, it continues to strive to honour our belief that the primary purpose of assessment is to improve learning.