The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit http://edvisions.org/the-edvision/mstp/ and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!
Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota. She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota. She retired in 2017.
Assessment as Learning
Authentic assessments are a key tenet of EdVisions’ Ed°Essentials, the guiding principles that undergird their work with schools. EdVisions defines authentic assessments as those that assess cognitive and career skills and knowledge in comprehensive and formative ways. They are performance-based in nature. What sets them apart from traditional assessment measures is that they require inquiry, analysis, and self-reflection. The teacher’s role is to provide guidance and feedback throughout the process.
Authentic assessments have been a topic of conversation among educators for over thirty years. In 1990, Grant Wiggins posed the following:
“Do we want to evaluate student problem-posing and problem-solving in mathematics? experimental research in science? speaking, listening, and facilitating a discussion? doing document-based historical inquiry? thoroughly revising a piece of imaginative writing until it ‘works’ for the reader? Then let our assessment be built out of such exemplary intellectual challenges.”¹
Exemplary indeed. How often are today’s students engaged in these kinds of challenging tasks?
Not enough. Traditional assessment measures, whether teacher-made, curriculum-based, or standardized continue to be the norm. One can understand why. Traditional assessments are efficient and easy to use. But they don’t tell us much about what a student knows. They may indicate what a student has memorized, but there is little way to know whether students can transfer their learning to new situations. If we want to determine if students have mastered content and can apply their learning to a variety of contexts, authentic assessments are the preferred measure. But as long as we keep separating assessment from learning and treating it as the final step in the learning process, “after the fact,” as Wiggens says, authentic measures will continue to be the proverbial square peg we try to fit into the round hole. Continuing down this path will not foster the kind of critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills students will need to thrive in the 21st century.
Seeking to offer their students an alternative, partner schools in the Midwest School Transformation Project (MSTP) plan to embed authentic assessment into their practice in ways that assess academic and social/emotional learning as part of the learning process. Their action steps range from incorporating competency-based models, using student reflection as part of their assessments, and students sharing their learnings with audiences as authentic as their projects.
To guide their journey, EdVisions has developed an Authentic Assessment Continuum. The continuum charts the pathway from assessment as a measure of learning, e.g. standardized, multiple-choice, and other traditional measures to thinking of assessment as learning. When assessments are part of the learning process, students engage in deep, self-designed investigations of content over a period of time, as compared to a single event at the end of a lesson or unit of study. Schools are also encouraged to assess social and emotional learning using tools like the Hope Survey.
Why add social and emotional learning to the list of things to assess in schools? In its 2019 report titled From A Nation At Risk To A Nation At Hope, the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development stated that social/emotional learning is the real work of schools. It always has been, and it always will be. The report further noted that over ninety percent of teachers and at least two-thirds of recent high school graduates believe SEL is important.² When schools develop students’ social and emotional skills along with their academic skills, not only does students’ overall well-being improve; so does their academic performance.³ Students don’t learn in a vacuum. They are impacted by what happens in and outside the school setting, by whom they learn with, and by the values and norms of a school – written and unwritten. Part of creating a supportive space for learning includes having reliable measures in place to gain insight into how to support students’ social and emotional development.
As the MSTP partner schools widen their use of authentic assessments and build greater levels of efficacy into their practice, teachers will need to develop new skills to make the shift, and so will students. According to Nora Whalen, a coach for the MSTP, authentic assessments require much more effort by the student, and more patience by the teacher. Whalen should know. A high school advisor and founding member at Avalon, a charter school in Minneapolis that enrolls approximately 250 students in grades 6-12, Whelan has been a proponent of authentic learning since Avalon opened 11 years ago. To her, how teachers assess learning is one of the most important things teachers do. “There is a place for traditional measures,” says Whalen, “but when only using traditional measures, the teachers work harder than the students. That shouldn’t be the case. Your assessment model needs to be balanced with measures that show a level of synthesis.”
Which is difficult to do, Whalen admits. “It’s hard for kids to translate all of what they know. But when given the opportunity to develop their own projects, they stop talking about subjects and start talking about meaningful topics.” Their motivation to learn is no longer driven by external expectations or coercion; it becomes intrinsic.
But shifting to more authentic measures takes time. “Kids aren’t always ready to show what they know,” continues Whalen. Authentic assessments require more effort from students; they need support in developing the skills to initiate, design, analyze, revise, and present their work. In a way, they may even need to be unschooled if they come from traditional settings.
In project-based learning, students begin to see why something is important to know, versus what they need to know to get a grade or pass a class. “Kids have deep questions,” says Whalen. When given the chance to explore them, she sees the excitement and sheer delight in their work. And students become eager to share their learnings with others, which is why having an authentic audience to present their work to is so important. A lot of teaching goes on, she points out, when students share their work. For some teachers, it can be hard to let go of control when the teacher is no longer the gatekeeper to knowledge and students become teachers.
Whalen urges patience and persistence in bringing authentic measure into one’s practice, as well as an open mind. “Authentic assessment is where the learning takes place. It doesn’t always look like an assessment, and it doesn’t always transfer to an easy way to award a grade. But it’s so much more powerful.”
Bridges, an area learning center in Prior Lake, Minnesota, hopes to foster the kind of student passion Whalen describes. Bridges is a partner school in the MSTP. It serves approximately 100 students in grades 9-12 and 18 to 21-year-olds working on their diploma. Staff signed on to the MSTP because they want to expand their use of project-based learning and authentic assessments. Their initial work in this area demonstrated how students come to life when given the opportunity to share their learning in ways that are relevant and personally meaningful. Dave Brown, the coordinator at the school, is excited about what lies ahead for his school. “When students are in charge, you see some spectacular displays of learning. Giving them agency is a game-changer.” He goes on to say that not only does what students learn change; the “how” changes as well. He and his staff have observed increased levels of excellence and confidence in students when allowed to showcase their accomplishments in open-ended, non-traditional ways. Students are simultaneously learning and learning how to learn, setting them up with skills for a lifetime of personal growth and skill development.
Signing on to the Midwest School Transformation Project was a natural next step for Bridges. “The [professional development] support offered from EdVisions is right in line with where we are at as a school,” notes Brown. But there are challenges. One of the biggest barriers to achieving their goal to be more student-driven is the master schedule. Still operating on a seven-period day, Brown and his staff are determined to change that. Their transition will be incremental. For example, during the upcoming second semester, teachers ready to take the next step in project-based learning will offer blocks of time for students to work on projects of their own design based on their individual interests and passions.
Traditional schedules are a common barrier to school transformation. They are rigid and prevent the integration of content. Built around short blocks of time that section learning into discrete subjects, it is difficult for both teachers and students to approach learning in ways that are more holistic rather than bound by time or content. School space is often a barrier as well. Most schools were designed to facilitate the factory-like educational model that evolved over the course of the 20th century. In it, students shuffle from one class to the next.
But fortunately for Bridges, their physical space is designed for the kind of learning they seek to foster. In the fall of 2019 they moved into a new building constructed specifically with their program goals in mind. “Our new space,” says Brown, “is designed to do things differently.” Hopes are it will enable the kind of opportunities for longer, deeper investigations initiated by students that move assessment from being a measure of learning to one of assessment as learning.
Assessment is just one of many things to consider when seeking to transform schools. But it is often the last thing schools consider when taking steps to create a different learning program. Perhaps it should be among the first. Stephen Covey once said, “begin with the end in mind.”⁴ Though he was talking about personal management, his words of advice ring true for organizations as well. Structure matters. Curriculum choices and how time and space are allocated help or hinder a desired outcome. All need to lead to an assessment model that is balanced and makes sense. Being clear early on about how you want students to show what they have learned will save time and effort when making these and other important program decisions.
Are you ready to make authentic assessments part of your classroom? Is your school on the road to a systematic approach, one in which all students benefit from assessments that are part of the process of learning? Are you ready to let schools have more flexibility in how learning is measured? Here are some questions to ask as you consider the possibilities:
- Where would you place your school on EdVisions’ Authentic Assessment Continuum? Do you use assessments of, for, or as learning?
- Does your school have a clear vision for how assessments are used? Does each assessment have a clear purpose?
- How do assessments inform instruction? How do they inform learning?
- Do assessments only focus on academic performance? Or do they also assess students’ social and emotional learning?
1. Wiggins, Grant (1990). The case for authentic assessment. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 2(2). Retrieved from https://pareonline.net/getvn.asp?v=2&n=2
2. The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. (2019). From A Nation At Risk to A Nation At Hope. Retrieved from http://nationathope.org/report-from-the-nation/
3. Greenberg, M. & Weissberg, R. (2018). Social and Emotional Development Matters: Taking Action Now for Future Generations. Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved at https://www.rwjf.org/en/library/research/2018/12/social-and-emotional-development-matters.html
4. Covey, S. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Free Press.