Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Assessing Mastery

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If teachers are to assert their authority in the national discussion about education, we will have to begin by what we do in the classroom. The national culture of testing, data, and rigor has put us in a place we may be unaware we are in. We have no authority in student assessment. And this is dangerous.

All stakeholders in education have enabled the culture that places value on test scores regardless of a student's body of work throughout the year. In fact, the student's body of work throughout the year seems to be no part of the national conversation. I believe the reason is because there's only one measure of a student's body of work throughout the year: grades.

Nothing irks me more when I hear a politician, or even worse, a school administrator ask "how will we know how well they are doing?" It's called a grade, that's how! (but thanks for doubting my job) It's my job as a teacher to assess content knowledge and evaluate mastery for my students. But that part of my job is not taught to me, not discussed in professional development, or not part of my evaluation. Yet, the ability to assess content knowledge and evaluate mastery is a key component to my profession. And we have yielded that authority to The Test, yielded it to data.

We should have never lost that authority. There should be heavy investment in that authority.  The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) put out a report in June of 2012 that had documented the importance of GPA and its correlation with retention, graduation, and long term earnings.  Read the report here, or at least Page 3 and Box 1.1.  It is clear that a student's body of work through the year is the most important aspect of their education. Yet, teachers have yielded the authority to grade students based on in-class evidence (projects, discussions, teacher-created assessments) to the results of standardized or multiple-choice tests. Disclaimer: I would be okay with that IF AND ONLY IF the teacher either vetted or created those tests, especially in collaboration with other teachers.

I do not blame my colleagues for this. We are in a system that strives to de-humanize students as numbers, we have policymakers that place ever higher stakes on the outcomes of those numbers, we have school administrators that drive their staffs to improve those numbers, and so we have teachers that channel all their energy into creating the cutest and most "engaging" way to have students turn themselves into numbers. (See "when those scores came back, I about did the SUPER SUPER happy dance": authority yielded.) We are blindly enabling a dehumanizing culture, unaware of the consequences, and we have yielded one of the most powerful authorities we have: assessment.

It's time for teachers to reclaim the authority to assess content knowledge and evaluate mastery. How can we do that?

  1. Your grade should mean something.What does it mean for a student to pass your class? What does an A mean? A C? Does your grade truly reflect what the student knows of your content?
  2. Stop accepting fluff for a grade. We have to discontinue the practice of assigning points and scores for activities, behaviors, and projects that have nothing to do with our content.  Make sure you create or vet anything assessed to ensure its validity. It would be ideal to do this with colleagues. 
  3. Work together. Make sure you are developing your assessments with your colleagues, and MOST IMPORTANTLY how those assessments will be scored. In fact, try this: develop an assessment for your classes that your colleagues will grade. You grade their students as well. This obviously does not apply to multiple choice tests. 
  4. Your students are your data. If you are asked about data, talk about your students. Tell their stories. There is no better data than your students and their stories. You want to see my data? Talk to my students. No, it's not simple. Why? Because they ARE HUMAN, and humans are complex.
  5. Articulate your authority. Defend your grading policy.  When asked about validity or accuracy, stand up for yourself. You are a professional, your team is a team of professionals, you know what good work looks like, you know what learning looks like, and you know what mastery looks like.  


Here is a great model of assessing mastery, from Around the Horn on ESPN.


Notice how immediately the points worked. Sometimes they were taken away. Did you also notice that there was an opportunity for one "student" to demonstrate mastery at a later time?   How cool would it be if we did this in class?!

Teachers: you know what learning looks like.  You know what thinking looks like.  You know what mastery looks like.  Assert your authority, perfect your craft, and articulate your profession.  That is how we can start making change.  Remember: our students are people, not data points.


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