Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Exploring Alternate Assessments

Right before spring break I attended a meeting designed to explore the future of final summative assessments for academic courses in our school. In attendance were 5 teachers who have experimented with alternate assessments at the grade 12 level: two Geography 12 teachers (@RussReid1 and @mustangbevy), one Biology 12, one Physics 12, and one Literature 12 teacher @nsearcy17. Also at the meeting were our district Director of Instruction Don MacIntyre, assessment guru Tom Schimmer, District Helping teacher for School Completion Judith King, Vice-Principal and member of the Ministry of Education Committee for Graduation Requirements Myron Dueck and our school admin team (principal and 2 vice-principals). Now that I look back on it, it was a very good collection of people which is likely why the discussion was so engaging. The initial purpose of the meeting was for the 5 teachers to share what final assessments we had tried, and to get feedback on how to make our assessments more effective. A larger overarching goal of the gathering was to view our assessments through the lens of the Ministry of Education's new cross-curricular competencies and grad requirements. The overall framing questions for the meeting are here.

 Alternate Assessments We Have Tried: For the purpose of this post, this will simply be a summary and I will link more detailed blogs about specifics (from specific teachers) if they become available. To provide context for those who are not familiar with high school courses, all 5 teachers come from a background where our courses were once completed with a final written exam worth 40% of a student's grade. These exams first became optional, and were then phased out all together. All 5 teachers decided to offer options that were different from a traditional pen and paper exam (4 of the 5 teachers still offered a written exam if the students preferred that option).  

Student explains his final Literature project during interview
The teachers gave 3 main reasons for creating alternatives to the traditional final written exam format: 1.The exam was not felt to be appropriate or beneficial for a percentage of students taking the course (specifically those not continuing on to university) 2. The written exam was not suitable for students whose skills did not lend themselves to three hour written exams (for example their strengths were verbal or artistic etc.)  3. The exam did not reflect what the teachers felt were the most important elements of the course (for example the emphasis on factual knowledge vs the ability to apply, or synthesize concepts or to connect to ideas beyond the course itself). 

The range of ideas that the different teachers shared was inspiring. One teacher replaced the traditional exam with 5 days of assessments that included active and varied situations for the students to show their understanding. Another teacher had students design and present final projects based on different elements of the course (kind of like a massive course wide jigsaw activity) and then the final exam was based on those projects. Another teacher had every student present their final projects in an interview. One interesting observation from a number of teachers was that while we had specific "non-academic" students in mind when we designed our alternate options, some of our strongest students took the opportunity to come up with demonstrations that were much more creative and memorable than what they could have represented on a standard written test. 

Where We Struggled: All teachers had challenges (which of course was the purpose of the meeting). Our biggest struggle seemed to be that we were attempting to replace a final provincial exam on which students were responsible for demonstrating all knowledge from the entire course with a project- and this was difficult!  While we all had some very positive results to share, one of the biggest questions that kept arising was:

Student connects knowledge to his observations
during a final "Walkabout" for Geography 12
Must a final summative assessment evaluate student understanding on ALL learning objectives covered? The learning outcomes of any grade 12 academic course are extensive. All 5 teachers had created options that did not cover the course in the breadth that the provincial exams did, however all commented they felt their new assessments allowed students to go more in depth into the areas that they were assessed on. All 5 teachers struggled with finding the balance between assessing both factual knowledge and the ability to use and connect that knowledge. 

Teachers also struggled with how to assess higher order thinking tasks. In Biology 12 for example, the teacher wanted his assessment to not just focus on the student's knowledge of specific terms, but more importantly their relationship with each other and how entire different systems were interconnected. In Literature 12 a key goal was not just for students to memorize key themes and literary devices in the poetry, but at the end of the course to recognize trends across time and historical events and to identify relationships between those events and the poetry. These types of questions and connections are more difficult to assess, and harder for teachers to break down and explain to students what exactly needs to be demonstrated.

Overall Reflections:

To be honest, I think we ended the meeting with more questions than answers but everyone was excited about the discussion generated and the ideas presented. We plan to meet again at the end of April.  All of the teachers have tried alternate assessments at least once and are looking to revise things again this June. These are some of the key questions still to be worked through: 

1. Are these assessments doing what we want them to do? At a meeting a few weeks ago with Maureen Dockendorf I wrote down her comment "Whatever we say we VALUE,  that's what we need to be assessing." Are teachers asking themselves: "What are the most important things I want my students to take away from my course? Am I assessing those elements?"

2. Is this assessment preparing our students for their future paths? This question must be asked for students who are both pursuing post secondary education and those who are not. What are the most important things our students will need when they graduate? 

3. How does this relate to the future direction the ministry is heading in and future graduation requirements? Where do the cross-curricular competencies of critical thinking, communication, and personal and social awareness fit in?

4. Is one final assessment adequate for what we want students to take away from their education? Perhaps there is no such thing as a single assessment for an entire course. Perhaps one assessment cannot demonstrate everything we want students to show us. (Our discussion briefly touched on "combination assessments" that used more than one element such as interviews, portfolios, projects and written assessments or presentations). 

I was inspired by the teachers at my school who shared both their successes and challenges, and I know we were all grateful for the support and feedback from everyone who was there. This is an issue that many people are working on throughout the province. See Chris Kennedy's post here for a good summary of thinking in B.C. right now, and please feel free to comment on this post to share your ideas. Looking forward to the next meeting!