More meaningful assessments, with the student `front and center’

The movement to redesign learning assessments has been building quiet momentum for many years. While roadblocks still exist, more schools are putting students at the center of competency-based approaches.

A century ago, a psychologist named Edward Thorndike created the first standardized testing in American education. His work was heralded by some, especially those who shared his eugenics-inspired views, as a brilliant solution for classifying generations of future workers. His tests were adopted and his textbooks installed in classrooms nationwide. Some of the tests are used to this day.

In his 2016 book “The End of Average,” Dr. Todd Rose explains that, to Thorndike, the purpose of school wasn’t to educate each student. It was to sort them based on what he believed to be their inborn intelligence.

“It is deeply ironic,” writes Rose, “that one of the most influential people in the history of education believed that education could do little to change a student’s abilities.”

Rose, who spent his own childhood earning dismal grades on standardized tests, today leads the Laboratory for the Science of Individuality at Harvard University and the think tank Populace. And Thorndike’s problematic impact is still felt in the echoes of systemic racism and gender bias that underpin aspects of public education today.

Speaking during the May 28 New Way Forward Summit, Dr. Kaleb Rashad pointed out that one key to effectively building a better approach to learning assessment is looking back and acknowledging the reality of this history.

Watch Dr. Kaleb Rashad present as part of the keynote for the 2020 New Way Forward Summit.

Current systems of assessment “were created to show who was intelligent and who was not,” said Rashad, director of creative leadership at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education.

But here’s the good news: “These systems were designed,” Rashad said. “They can be redesigned.”

Moving Toward Change

The movement to redesign learning assessments has been building quiet momentum for many years. Some elementary schools have replaced traditional parent-teacher conferences with sessions led by the student. Each elementary student discusses learnings, highlights achievements and reviews challenges.

With middle- and high-school students, a small but growing number of schools are getting even more creative.

At Big Picture Learning schools, students take center stage in “exhibitions,” which allows them to share their learning and demonstrate what they know.

“The student is really front and center,” says Big Picture’s co-director, Carlos Moreno.

Names can vary. Envision schools, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, use “portfolio defenses”; in other places, it might be called “presentations of learning.”

“But essentially, it’s still focused on the learner — he or she sharing and demonstrating what they’ve learned, and how they can apply it,” Moreno says. The common thread through all of these methods: They “assign a high value to demonstrations of competence.”

In Western Pennsylvania, students in the Laurel Highlands school district create writing portfolios that follow them through elementary school. Students choose works they want to include and discuss the growth of their writing ability with their teachers.

This program, which began 15 years ago, “is an opportunity for students to see growth from beginning of year to the end of year,” says Randy Miller, director of curriculum and instruction for the district. “They have the opportunity to see how their writing improves each nine weeks.”

Laurel Highlands has also added art portfolios that offer the same benefits.

Katie Martin, vice president of professional learning at Altitude Learning, recently joined a panel for a student’s portfolio defense in Hawaii.

“She was brilliant. You could tell she really knew her stuff and she deeply understood the values and was able to describe it in her 15-minute presentation,” Martin says.

Trouble is, the student lacked visuals and hadn’t edited her presentation enough. Her mentor told her: This isn’t your best work. You can do a better job.

“And so we asked her to re-do her defense of learning — not because it wasn’t good but because it could have been so much better,” Martin says. “And that was what was going to give her the confidence and skills to keep improving. That is a beautiful lesson.”

Roadblocks and Possibilities

 While innovative assessments like these operate alongside traditional testing and grading in some districts, it’s still rare for public schools to fully embrace competency-based assessments.

In many districts around the country, proposals for major changes are swiftly met with roadblocks. Doing away with standardized testing is impossible, teachers are told — especially testing as universally accepted as the SAT.

“In many schools and districts, the system remains stuck in conventional routines and definitions that have changed little in decades,” the “Show What You Know” research report by Getting Smart and XQ found.

It also found that schools are stuck with:

  • tools and resources designed for a more static system;
  • college admissions requirements that reinforce old expectations;
  • state accountability systems that do the same.

Those obstacles, Getting Smart says, makes change “feel risky to teachers, parents, high schools, and students themselves.”

Then came the COVID-19 school disruption. Many high schools are ending this year without final exams. And universities have said they may not use SAT scores when choosing applicants in the coming year.

Will these temporary shifts lead more districts to permanently change their approach to learning assessments? It’s not clear yet “whether COVID will turn out to be an accelerator or an obstacle,” says Valerie Hannon,  co-founder of Innovation Unit.

“There’s a huge pressure for schools and school districts and networks of schools to snap back,” Hannon says. “There’s a longing among people to get things back to the way they were — back to normality, which wasn’t really normality at all.”

But Hannon is hopeful. She thinks we may be on the cusp of more widespread progress in leaving convention behind. Katie Martin sees the same possibility.

“We need to create something,” she says. “Because we do need an accountability to what we care about. There’s that opportunity to create that now.”

This article is part of a series for Tomorrow, powered by Remake Learning. From May to October 2020, Tomorrow will explore–through virtual events, grantmaking and extensive storytelling–what we can do today to make tomorrow a more promising place for all learners. Have something to add? Share your hopes for today’s young people using #RemakeTomorrow and tagging @RemakeLearning. Tomorrow will elevate community questions, spotlight your ideas and help all of us prepare for whatever the future may bring.