Magazine article AMLE Magazine

Understanding Assessment Changes Everything

Magazine article AMLE Magazine

Understanding Assessment Changes Everything

Article excerpt

Much of today's conversations around assessment include discussions about standards-based grading. Missing from this dialogue have been anecdotes about schools that have successfully made the transition from "traditional" grading to something different. Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, did just that.

Last year, Rock Quarry Middle School (RQMS) completed the second year of implementing its grading manifesto. The manifesto, written by the school's leadership team and adopted by the entire faculty, is a public statement of our belief that learning for mastery is our primary objective and that grades should communicate students' status on their path to mastery.

The manifesto has three key components:

1. Grades should reflect academic achievement only and should not be a direct reflection of a student's responsibility or compliance.

2. Assessment is an important part of the learning process and should support ongoing feedback.

3. Students should have the opportunity to continue learning and retake and/or redo assessments of their learning.

The manifesto is the result of a schoolwide collaboration that began with a change in culture.

In the Beginning

Changing the way our education community understood and implemented student assessment required what educators/authors Rick DuFour and Mike Mattos call a collaborative culture and collective responsibility of a professional learning community.

Before implementing standards-based assessment schoolwide, not only was our instruction not driven by content standards, our assessments were shallow at best. Tests asked students to recall facts rather than show understanding.

What's more, we allowed students' grades to be influenced by factors other than academic achievement. For example, some teachers gave extra points to students who donated a box of facial tissue or an extra pack of pencils. Accordingly, students' grades reflected their parents' household income... how many facial tissue boxes or packs of pencils their parents could afford.

We were open to the possibility of making a change for a variety of reasons. The climate of the school was not comfortable. People were angry much of the time. They complained a lot. It was simply not a positive work environment. We also were beginning the process of implementing Alabama's College and Career Ready standards, based on the Common Core State Standards.

These factors and others provided the catalyst for changing the way we understood and implemented student assessment.

A Commitment to Learn Together

At the beginning of the summer of 2012, as part of a leadership retreat, school leaders read and discussed Rick Stiggins' ETS/Assessment Training Institute article "Assessment FOR Learning Defined," then presented key components of the reading to the entire faculty. Through this exercise, the leadership team took ownership of the ideas that they subsequently shared with their colleagues. At the close of the retreat, each teacher signed a commitment to participate in the process of learning about assessment for learning as a faculty (Figure 1).

Each teacher joined one of three book study groups. The books were Transformative Assessment in Action by W. James Popham, Classroom Assessment and Grading That Work by Robert Marzano, and Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning by Jan Chappuis. Each book introduces grading practices that support assessment for learning, such as replacing the 0-100 grading scale with a 0-4 scale that describes mastery status.

The schoolwide book study was not typical of book studies imposed on the faculty in the past. We didn't have assigned chapters to read every week. We read the book at our own pace.

Throughout the 2012-2013 school year, the book study groups read, met for discussions, and took turns presenting key ideas during faculty meetings. Paralleling this formal structure, many teachers began informally experimenting with assessment practices. …

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