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

At the end of the day … we end up looking to old tests and scores to tell us how well our kids are doing. They’re what we know. They’re what we trust, because they’re the same measures that were applied to our own learning when we were in school. But those scores really tell us very little about what kinds of learners our kids are. And they tell us even less about what our children will actually be able to do in their lives. – Will Richardson

This is the final part of a four-part blog series that tells the story of how we tackled the challenge of transforming our school’s traditional grading and assessment system. This ongoing process is primarily a learning story and, while it is one that may be far from perfect, we continue to strive to honour our belief that the primary purpose of assessment is to improve learning. This entry focuses on some of the key learnings that emerged in the change management process. The earlier parts of this blog series can be located here.

Some Myths Worth Sharing
During the course of this project we heard the following points voiced as significant concerns by some teachers and parents. These were entirely valid in the sense that they represented genuine fears, questions about the unknown, uncertainties about the soundness of the direction. Every major change process needs to be challenged and strengthened – or re-directed, sometimes even halted – with such crucial input and honest perspective. Listening carefully to, and validating such concerns with appropriate, considered responses is crucial in a process like this. It must be possible to provide honest responses to the concerns of all stakeholders. Sometimes this involves a determination to follow gut instinct for what is best for students with an essential readiness to review progress as the journey proceeds. Having given all major expressions of concern serious consideration and respect, we can, with conviction, dispel the following misconceptions and – if you hear them voiced as arguments against transforming the grading system at your school – you should not allow these ideas to become legitimate obstacles to change (but you do need to engage in dialogue to understand and validate the source of the concerns).

The following concerns are myths:

  • If you don’t grade homework, students will not do it
  • Parents will object aggressively to a new assessment system focused on improving learning
  • Colleges and universities will not understand anything other than a traditional grading scale
  • Not deducting points for certain behaviours will result in increased plagiarism, etc
  • Students will not value formative feedback because it doesn’t “count”

In short, this wonderful line from Douglas Reeves is not really true:

“Those who implement changes in assessment, grading, professional practices and policies risk not only confrontation, but also unpopularity, social isolation, public humiliation, and ultimately, even their livelihoods.”

SOME OF OUR MOST IMPORTANT LEARNINGS

While some of these ideas may seem self-evident, I can’t emphasise enough how crucial these aspects of the change management process were. When I speak of change management, I do not mean the process by which the leadership team implemented change; I mean the process by which a system that focused more clearly on student learning was implemented by teachers. That is a vital distinction.

Leaders Needs to Educate Themselves Before Requiring Change in Others
Transforming assessment practices is complex and time-consuming work that is ultimately rewarding. The real burden of understanding, developing, and communicating the rationale and processes for these changes should not reside with teachers. Teachers should also not be called upon to defend a system that has not been clearly communicated or outlined to the community. School leaders must take the time to do the hard work themselves first, before expecting teachers to begin to implement changes. There are a wealth of experts out there on this topic, among them Ken O’Connor, Tom Guskey, Robert Marzano, Rick Wormeli, Tom Schimmer and Douglas Reeves. Read them, speak to them, become learners with their help first. Pearson runs some excellent conferences on this topic. Make sure you have enough knowledge to understand the genuine concerns of the teachers who have to make it work.

Professional Development is Not a Workshop or Conference
Teachers will support changes that can be demonstrated to be best for student learning. A standards-based, criterion-referenced approach to grading and assessment shifts the professional context of the teaching profession. Educators are no longer tallying points – they are more than mere scorekeepers in the Game of School; they are using their professional judgment – as most other professions require – to make evidence-based decisions of significant importance. This requires a commitment to professional development from  schools. By professional development, I don’t mean the traditional spoon-feeding that conference attendance or the one-shot workshop can often represent. A topic of this magnitude needs to be included in every communication faculty receive, needs to be on the agenda of each faculty meeting with pragmatic purpose. We spent a full year debating and reading about the value of homework and the impact of the grading treadmill before we began earnest discussion about potential changes and their implications. Formal and informal support groups need to be established so that teachers can learn from each other, be given time to learn, and be supported through a process of substantive change. Professionals deserve nothing less.

Parent Concerns Are Always Valid and Well-Intentioned
The concerns of parents when it comes to change that will very likely impact the futures of their children are always valid, often critical. Concerned parents are generally reassured when they hear that the proposed changes are constructive and will favour the things they hold dear. Ultimately, the question of how colleges will understand a new assessment system is crucial. For parents, we found that preparing an Assessment Handbook with a comprehensive FAQ section was vitally important. We have had lots of conversations, communications and meetings with parents on this important subject. I have yet to hear an unreasonable concern or a perspective that was not valid or significant. Parents want to be partners in projects like this. It is a myth that they will try to block changes that are in the best interests of their children.

You Must Redefine Learning For Students
Nothing may irritate a teacher more than a student asking, “will this be on the test?” That approach to learning is one we desperately wanted to get away from. Yet, when we began to change our language to that of learning being formative or summative in our new system, we realised we had simply moved the goalposts and now students were beginning to ask, “is this formative or summative?” Students are  very perceptive and they quickly exposed a weakness in our thinking. It has taken some time to convince students that all learning is ultimately formative and that it is the quality of, and engagement in, formative assessment that has the greatest, single impact on (summative) learning outcomes. The same applied to students who realised they could re-take tests and re-submit assignments without trying the first time – these students needed a reset process, more than a retake one. Students must demonstrate a genuine engagement in the learning process first in order to benefit from extended assessment opportunities. We are providing feedback on learning, not just grades. If you want a better grade, follow the learning cycle: it’s about much more than the assessment at the end.

Technology is Critical to the Feedback Process, But is Always Just a Tool
Our decision to introduce Google Apps transformed our ability to engage in meaningful feedback with students and to bring other students into the peer assessment and shared learning cycle process. There is really no “grading” to be done at the end of such a process if used optimally – both parties should be clear on where they stand and we find that this is most often the case. For reporting, we use Pearson’s PowerSchool Student Management System with all reports made available through a Parent Portal (opened only during reporting windows). Because our approach to grading and reporting is new in many ways, PowerSchool has provided us with the system that allows us to manage the gathering of formative and summative data effectively, but we have had to customise our use of the reporting program in ways that – while we find them effective – are not entirely intuitive. When teachers are clear in understanding that we are no longer thinking about gradebooks or reporting tools as the primary focus of assessment, the system works well. If these approaches to grading become more mainstream, improved software possibilities should inevitably follow.

Take Your Time: This Work Takes Years
We learned a lot in this process. It would not be entirely honest to say it is yet completed. We continue to work on refining the quality of our assessments and to question the value of some of the content we focus on. But we have also made exceptional progress and have indeed transformed our approaches to assessment – and therefore learning – in ways of which we are proud. As a leadership team, our greatest learnings have been in the context of managing a complex change management process that defined the issues, articulated the challenges, educated all stakeholders, distributed the leadership, provided the time, supported the inevitable stress of change, and communicated the outcomes. It is worth taking the time to understand the Common Ground Curriculum to fully understand the context and exceptionally strong culture of innovation in which this process occurred.

This Is Not Radical Work – It’s Our Professional Obligation
On occasion, after several years using our new system successfully, we encounter new parents to our school who express sincere and justified concern at our philosophy. For some, the notion that everyone can learn, that all students can be successful means that our approaches to learning must be somehow diluted or less rigorous. The opposite is actually the case. The paradigm shift in the thinking of many schools and state systems is happening slowly, but happen it will. Typically, we try to reassure parents and students who are concerned about the sanctity of grades by letting them know that we are equally obsessive in our ambition for students, but that our primary focus is on learning, with grades being an authentic by-product, not the driver of this core purpose.

Our need to confront many of the bland and outmoded practices of our schools will continue to require bold initiative, determination, and perseverance. The old certainties no longer obtain; we are compelled to make the radical shifts that are now common to all aspects of society.  As David Price has stated, schools can not be immune to change:

“We face a complex set of possible futures and no one can authoritatively predict how things will look in ten years, let alone by the end of the century. We know only two things for certain. The first is that we should learn to embrace uncertainty, because this age of uncertainty could become permanent. The second is that if all the old certainties are gone, then we have to be open to radical shifts in how we work, live and learn.”

Transforming grading practices in our schools may seem like radical work. Ensuring that our school systems support and nurture student learning is the job of all educators and one we cannot choose to shirk. Knowing what we know about the slow pace of change in our schools in the past, and the galloping pace of society and life today, we have no choice but to do our jobs. I hope that the story of our journey can assist you in yours.

Picture credit: Still shot from a promotional film created by Emily and Josh Brooks (www.brooksbox.co.uk) on behalf of ISB Communications. See the film here.