Softening the Edges: Assessment Practices That Honor K--12 Teachers and Learners

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When teachers develop an effective assessment architecture, they prevent harmful hard edges and support all aspects of students’ growth and their own experiences as teachers. Discover the difference between soft edges and hard edges regarding alignment between students’ and teachers’ needs and the assessment practices that are meant to meet them. With this book, equip students with the skills to show proficiency in the learning goals and the confidence and learning strategies they need to be able to face any learning challenge in the future.

Benefits

  • Understand the language of assessment and softened assessment edges to measure student progress and verify learning proficiency.
  • Spot the indicators of hard and soft edges in classroom practices to differentiate instruction and assessment.
  • Learn how to educate for the whole student to meet students’ cognitive, social-emotional, physical, and ethical development needs.
  • Examine the importance of a learning continuum to smoothly guide students through their learning and engage them with positive and relevant learning experiences.
  • Visualize the qualities of a shared space that supports students’ and teachers’ learning.

Contents

Foreword by Cassandra Erkens

Chapter 1: Assessment and the Whole Person

Chapter 2: Instruction and Assessment Planning Using a Learning Continuum

Chapter 3: Preassessment

Chapter 4: Formative Assessment and Feedback

Chapter 5: Self-Assessment and Goal Setting

Chapter 6: Summative Assessment

Chapter 7: Systems of Reporting

Appendix: Sample Learning Continuums

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Chapter 1

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CHAPTER

Assessment and the Whole Person

In my first year as principal in a brand-new community, I spent the summer before school trying to figure out how to be an administrator. I thought about all the practicalities: the school discipline process; how I would communicate with staff; what kind of school-home relationships I would engage in; and how I would manage playground supervision and assemblies. The list was endless. I interviewed teachers and surveyed the students to determine where they felt they needed support. I did all the homework I could think of until I felt like I was drowning in details and plans. In spite of all this preplanning, I still felt I was missing a focus on the most important things—students and learning. In short, I was preparing myself to be a great manager but I was missing the leadership part. It took an event in my personal life involving my daughter to clarify what I was missing—a mission and a vision. I needed to step back from the details and look at the bigger picture.

 

Chapter 2

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CHAPTER

Instruction and

Assessment Planning

Using a Learning

Continuum

Travel has been a family priority for my daughters’ entire lives. We have journeyed overseas and camped close to home. Each time we head somewhere new, I vow to wander without a clear agenda and let the day unfold completely on its own. This never happens, though, because every day my daughters wake up and ask what we are doing that day. For years, they have resisted my attempts to play things by ear. They insist on learning our destination each day. I have come to understand that knowing where we are going provides them with a great sense of comfort and control—in having a sense of where we might end up despite not being exactly sure how our journey will unfold. As Schimmer (2014) says, “Maybe it’s just human nature—we crave some element of predictability and find comfort in knowing a little about the future” (p. 70). Blending the desire for adventure with the need for clarity supports a softened edge.

 

Chapter 3

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CHAPTER

Preassessment

I clearly recall times in my teaching career when I opted out of preassessments.

Sometimes I was too pressed for time. Other times, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to know. Most often, I simply assumed I knew what my learners knew and didn’t know.

I didn’t need to preassess them because I already knew where they were. I had taught this grade and content before.

I can most certainly connect these instances to challenges that cropped up later.

Often, I would sequence my lessons into units only to discover my students were unable to engage in skills I assumed they had learned the previous year. I would then have to double back and, in many ways, lose any progress I thought we were making. At times, I would attempt to group students only to discover that the group members were so diverse in their prior understanding that one student was inevitably stuck helping everyone else catch up, much to his or her frustration. I would later catch these same students rolling their eyes and sighing as I asked them to engage in something they could already do and had done “a million times.” Occasionally, I would sit at my desk at the end of the day, trying to decide which resources to use with my students the next day, realizing too late that I didn’t really know what they were interested in or what they had done in past years.

 

Chapter 4

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CHAPTER

Formative Assessment and Feedback

Imagine you have found a suitcase belonging to someone you don’t know. Imagine opening this suitcase and taking out a single item—a book about drums. What might you think about the owner of the suitcase based on this single item? Likes drums? Is planning on visiting a music store or is taking a class? Now, remove another item—an umbrella. What now? Maybe the person is going to attend a concert in a rainy climate. Maybe the person is simply planning for various weather eventualities. Maybe this person is organized? A third item—a map of Nashville. Now you are piecing together a story—this person is travelling to Nashville to attend a percussion concert and he or she is bringing the umbrella for protection in case it rains. You are making inferences based on artifacts in the suitcase. The more artifacts, the more robust and accurate your story becomes.

This act of piecing together a story based on artifacts is the same inferring process we use when assessing students. We collect samples—papers, posters, oral presentations, problems, observations—and use them to put together a story of student learning. The more samples we have, the more robust and accurate our inferences are about student understanding. Sometimes we get it wrong—maybe the owner of the umbrella was going to use it for protection from the sun. Maybe the person borrowed the drum book for a friend and doesn’t enjoy drums. Similarly, maybe the student doesn’t understand a concept as well as we thought. Or maybe the student understands it better than we thought. This is why it’s important to remember that assessment facilitates making an inference, but it isn’t foolproof. We might need to collect more evidence, change our opinion, or replace old evidence with new.

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Chapter 5

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CHAPTER

Self-Assessment and Goal Setting

A few years ago in a community art class, I introduced watercolor painting to a new batch of students. We had completed a day of exploring basic techniques and, on our second day, we were painting landscapes. Through instructions and modeling, I led the learners to create brief sketches with sky and land, practicing specific techniques.

I noticed a couple of students seemed a little disappointed with their results. Some had experienced difficulty with some techniques, ending up with landscapes that reflected the need for further practice.

On the spur of the moment, I decided to try something I had not attempted before with my watercolor lessons. I asked everyone to set their landscapes on the table in the center of the room, and we gathered around to discuss the art. I invited the students, one by one, to tell the group one thing they were proud of and one thing they wished they had done differently. Interestingly, every student seemed to find this request actionable, and as we worked our way around the circle, the reflections became increasingly insightful. Sometimes, one learner would make an observation and others would agree that they felt the same way about their own art. Soon, we were talking about what we had tried, and the students became interested in making a second attempt at their landscapes. I encouraged them to try again, using what they had learned through our reflection. Each student had to set a goal for his or her new landscape, and then got to work. I was astounded at the engagement and confidence in the room. They dove into their new works with little discussion and much concentration. A student or two asked to be reminded of how to do a technique they knew they needed, but most moved through the steps entirely independently.

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Chapter 6

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CHAPTER

Summative Assessment

In my tenth year working in education, I moved from teaching middle school to teaching elementary school. I was assigned a classroom of fourth- and fifth-grade students. I absolutely loved this teaching assignment. Every day I came to school with energy and passion for both the content we were exploring and for the inquisitive minds that greeted me when I walked in the door. I worked very hard to plan effectively, looking for similarities and differences in the learning goals at each grade level.

Sometimes we spent time together as a class, and other times we would divide into grade-alike groups. I introduced projects and collaboration. We built a supportive climate and culture; we were a team. It was a great year.

Interestingly though, amid the enjoyment of this year, I also clearly remember the pain of report-card time. After months of well-considered instruction, I recall sitting at my computer, entering assignments and journal work, test scores, and project marks. At first, I was quite proud of myself for two reasons: I had designed a spreadsheet that completed wonderful calculations based on weighting and averaging. It was a new approach, and I loved the magic of watching student grades unfold before my eyes, much as I imagine a stockbroker loves the ebb and flow of stocks. I was also especially proud of the sheer volume of grades I utilized to calculate overall averages.

 

Chapter 7

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CHAPTER

Systems of Reporting

My youngest daughter had an eighth-grade teacher who used social media to share the learning stories in her classroom. Intrigued at the teacher’s invitation to be part of this experiment, I positioned myself to receive notifications from her when she shared these stories, and I waited for the first communication. It arrived in the second week of school in the form of images of learners, including my daughter, engaged in a science experiment. Their faces were a mix of interest and excitement as they conducted their lab, and I was surprised at how much joy it brought me in my busy adult day to witness this learning artifact. I found it compellingly reassuring, and the posts that followed as the year progressed continued to bring me these same feelings.

I felt like I was opening a window into my daughter’s day of learning. When the first reporting period arrived and I opened my daughter’s report card, I realized I now had a context for the symbols I saw—they actually meant something. The story of my daughter’s and her classmates’ learning had been made visible to me, and I felt a role by witnessing and supporting her learning story. Our conversations about school expanded because of this single experiment by her teacher, and for that I am grateful.

 

Appendix

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APPENDIX

Sample Learning

Continuums

The following samples illustrate how each stage of the learning continuum fits together to develop student proficiency and enrich learning goals in a variety of subjects and grade levels.

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S OF T E NI NG T H E E DG E S

Table A.1: Sample Learning Continuum for English Language Arts in Grade 6

Standard

Analyze how a particular sentence, paragraph, chapter, or section fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the ideas (RI.6.5; NGA & CCSSO, 2010a).

Building

Readiness

Skills and

Knowledge

• Understand

the use of vocabulary

(within a sentence, paragraph, chapter, section) and the text structure

(main idea, supporting details or ideas, message, author, and meaning).

• Know how

to analyze, support an analysis, and track idea development throughout a text.

• Identify

strategies for improving comprehension.

 

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