Intersections: Quietly Revolutionary

October 26, 2016 by Bill Ivey

Varied Assessment: Continuous, authentic, and appropriate assessment measures, including both formative and summative ones, provide evidence about every student's learning progress. Such information helps students, teachers, and family members select immediate learning goals and plan further education. - from This We Believe, the 16 research-based characteristics of successful middle schools, published by the Association for Middle Level Education

Dear Middle School Team,

I sit here with a feeling of quiet pride. What we accomplished yesterday would be considered revolutionary in many schools, not just the decision we took but also the means by which we came to this point. And, as is always the case with us, it was a decision that put our students front and center while also keeping in mind and having consideration for the multiple perspectives of everyone involved.

It’s the logical next step of a journey that really began over ten years ago, before most of you had even come to this school. I had read, loved, and been inspired by Rick Wormeli’s landmark book on assessment, Fair Is Not Always Equal, and had asked him if I could share extracts of it with my middle school colleagues in our end of school meeting back in 2006. He responded as he always does, in person and in conferences and workshops, with a generous blanket “now and forever and for anything I ever write permission” to copy and share (with credit) his work. As we were discussing the pros and cons of various alternatives to letter grades, Linda Beaudoin, who taught art and math, suddenly, said, “If this would be so good for the students, why don’t we just do it next year?” Mindful of the notion that summer break was only hours away, we ended up deciding to keep letter grades for one last year and to work on our own in the background to set up the new, standards-based system.

One of the most crucial discussions we had along the way to implementing the new system was the question of what to write at the top of the page. As quickly as we latched on to the idea that standards-based assessment would allow the kids and ourselves to dig deep and look in greater detail at how they were learning, the desire to look at the global significance of a single moment (be it quiz, lab, essay, etc.) is strong in people used to traditional means of assessment. Over time, though, we gradually realized that there’s no meaningful way to integrate individual assessments on specific skills into one generalized whole. To keep ourselves, our students, and their families focused on learning as a continual journey and each student as a unique and individual person with specific strengths and weaknesses in different skill areas, we had to completely drop the notion of giving an overall assessment of a specific piece of work. All the useful formative feedback we were giving, and students were generating for themselves, was already happening at the skill level.

Thus, perhaps without fully realizing it at the time, we set ourselves on the path to yesterday’s decision.

Over the past years, we have written and rewritten and further revised our standards, keeping what works, searching for what’s missing, adjusting the wording as needed to refine the focus, redoing the scale. In our own assessment of our students’ work, in their self-assessment and self-reflection, we have managed to create a culture that is genuinely and meaningfully focused on learning as a lifelong process. Progress reports are our principal means of sharing this information with families, and we struggled to make them reflect and support our philosophy and our work. Gradually, we realized that nearly everything useful in the progress reports - our own overview of the process of students’ progress, follow-up conversations with students and advisees, follow-up conversations with families - was centered on our narrative comments. That’s partly because of the hard work we put into making our comments as comprehensive, specific, descriptive, and helpful as possible. That’s also partly because of the inevitable hierarchical nature of any scale being used in assessment, be that letter grades or standards-based.

And so, yesterday, we made the decision to no longer give an overall rating to students on individual skills in their progress reports and focus exclusively on narrative comments. Alfie Kohn among others has been urging schools do this for years. Research backs up this practice. Yet, few schools have the courage to take this step. We do. Furthermore, few schools come to these decisions about assessment and reporting as a unified team. We do, and we do so with nuance, attempting to ensure that all perspectives (in and out of the room) are considered and respected. The consensus we reached felt organic and natural. And we know that deeply thoughtful formative standards- and skill-based student self-reflection and teacher feedback remain at the core of our daily learning.

This is who we are as a school, and this is why I feel daily gratitude that I can work here and work with you all. Inspiration can feel like a grandiose thing, but one form of inspiration is simply to act from and among our authentic selves with respect and kindness and in so doing, cause other people to do the same. In that sense, you inspire me.

With thanks,

Take care,

Bill

Written by Bill Ivey

A dedicated member of the faculty, Bill Ivey is the Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. He teaches Humanities 7 and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program. Among his many hats, Bill also coordinates social media for Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

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Filed Under: Education, Middle School, Middle Level Education, Intersections, Assessment, Rick Wormeli