Growth Doesn’t Just Occur on Trees and Flowers

LaRonge I started this post in June.  Spring is my favorite time of year.  The vibrant green leaves and beautiful, fragrant apple blossoms in my back yard represent renewed growth.  Ice out was not until June  in northern Saskatchewan this year.  In the picture above, the leaves had just sprung forth.  I can still smell that new growth.  I can’t help but relate this picture of new growth to my working world of assessment.

Assessment, from a growth perspective makes success a driving force in the lives of every student.  RPS staff administered the spring Value Added Assessments in May and June.  A hugely positive aspect of these assessment is being able to show growth.  I know that with good instructional practice, every student I teach can grow.

Achievement focuses on where the student is relative to curriculum outcome expectations.  Eventually a grade is provided.  While assessment experts agree that this is something that will not go away soon, they also advise us to ensure we examine and report on growth of students.  Why growth?  It focuses on student success.  A reading benchmark is one of the best ways that I know to show growth.  This involves hearing a child read and paying attention to what they do to understand what they read.  As they read new texts at their appropriate levels (yes the reader needs to read the text) and more deeply learn and practice strategies to help them examine, analyze and question what they read, we see growth.

Fall is not my favorite time of year.  As the days get shorter, I know that winter and cold weather will soon be upon us.  However, the educator part of me loves the fall.  We get a whole new bunch of students whom we can grow as readers, writers, mathematicians and responsible citizens.  Current technology allows us to see their past growth quickly and this helps us to plan for continued growth.

No educator I know would argue with the idea that their job is to help students learn and grow.  One challenge though is to help educators see the importance of sound assessment practices in helping students to learn and grow.  If you are wanting to sharpen up your assessment practice I would like to recommend you consider this Saskatoon conference.

Leading for Assessment Excellence

I have attended sessions with 3 of the 4 presenters and have never been disappointed.  To top it off, it is right in Saskatoon….just out our back door.  For me, good relevant professional learning has been a key to success and continued professional growth.


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There’s Power In Formative Assessment

Assessment is referred to as those activities undertaken by teachers and by their students assessing themselves that provide information to be used as feedback to modify or adjust teaching and learning activities.  Assessment should be used to help us get smarter about teaching and learning.  Think about a wellness physical.  Doctors tell patients where they are healthy and they also give feedback about areas where they are not so healthy.  My  doctor gives suggestions for how to improve the conditions that are interfering with my overall health.  Just as a physician treats her patient based on multiple pieces of information, an educator makes decisions regarding instruction based on multiple pieces of information.

When I began my career, I definitely did not have tools to adequately assess and diagnose difficulties and provide interventions.   I now know that assessment and learning must be a place to address opportunities for growth for all learners and I am thankful for the bank of tools available to professionals that helps with this. We must use data consisting of multiple pieces of evidence (student work, student talk and assessment results) to make informed decisions about next steps for learners.

Many of us have children involved in sports.  My son’s baseball coaches both past and present, plan their practices so the players do the majority of the work.  They model for their players the skills and strategies they want their athletes to master.  They plan their practices so the boys have lots of time to rehearse what they are taught.  During practice and games, they give real time feedback consisting of  suggestions and ideas for improvement.  Game day serves as the test.  What our coaches do for our athletes on the field, is the same thing we need to do for our students in the classroom.

Students in RPS in grades 1 – 10 receive a common reading assessment that is meant to give teachers a snapshot of a student’s reading behaviour.  If we think like a coach of an athletic team or a doctor, we then take the assessment results along with other evidence that we collect to address teaching and learning with regards to decoding, fluency and comprehension.  We use this information to help the student succeed with reading (a coaching role).  By coaching, I mean:

  • Showing how to read content (modelling)
  • Giving opportunities to read (practice) what has been shown
  • Circulating and giving feedback during practice
  • Modelling again if necessary
  • Supporting synthesis of the big ideas.  This includes understanding purpose (why a certain text is being read) and being metacognitive and reflective about what has been learned (What did we accomplish?  How did we get smarter? What do I need next?)

Many students can read the words on the page but are not able to understand and respond critically to what has been read.  Let’s break the fake.  Let’s allow lots of practice time for the game of life by having students do the majority of comprehension work that includes and goes beyond who, where, what, when and why.  AND let’s do this by deliberately planning instruction that will help the student apply thinking strategies to make meaning for themselves.

To access support for assessment for, as and of learning, RPS teachers can click here.

To access support for teaching of reading strategies, teachers can click here.

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Assess and Reflect: Keys to Active Engagement and Improved Achievement

There are two/three assess and reflect outcomes at every grade level in the SK ELA curriculum that deal with monitoring, self-assessing and setting goals for improvement.  Below are examples from grade 1 & 6

  • AR1.1 Identify what good viewers, listeners, readers, representers, speakers, and writers do.
  • AR.1.2 Set and monitor goals for more effective viewing, listening, reading, representing, speaking, and writing experiences.
  • AR6.1 Consider which viewing, listening, reading, representing, speaking, and writing strategies work best for each task and situation.
  • AR6.2 Appraise own viewing, listening, reading, representing, speaking, and writing skills and strategies, and set goals for improvement.
  • AR6.3 Appraise own and others’ work for clarity.

Wiliam states that promoting reflection of one’s ideas is essential to good learning and if students have a clear picture of the target that their learning is meant to attain, they become more committed and more effective as learners.  Their own assessments become an object of discussion with their teachers and with one another.  (Inside the Black Box, 2001). Schimmer (2012) explains that students’ ownership is about students becoming active partners in the learning process.  The teacher creates the conditions that empower students to authentically feel as though their education is something on which they have input and influence.  To effectively self-assess, students must

  • understand the value of self-assessment
  • be taught how to self-assess
  • share the teacher’s understanding of quality
  • have the support needed to improve their work

Self-assessment leads to a deeper understanding of concepts taught and allows students to be part of the management team of their learning.  Helping and guiding students to take ownership and involvement in their learning maximizes learning of required skills and content and of themselves.  Self-directed, independent, lifelong learners are able to

  • communicate intended learning outcomes and criteria for success
  • describe the progress they have made in relation to the criteria or outcomes
  • self-reflect and assess to set future learning goals

I receive emails indicating that the assess and reflect outcomes are not included on the progress report.  This is true and here is why.  Self-assessment should focus on improving features of the work as it relates to learning targets, not on getting a better score or grade.  Damian Cooper refers to this as bumping it up.  Thanks to LD for providing a link that so clearly explains and shows “Bump it Up“.

A good way to work with self-assessment outcomes is to use a portfolio.   The portfolio is a process of collecting, selecting, organizing and reflecting.  A student is actively involved by creating a story of himself.  The collection demonstrates what the student knows and can do and provides a record of accomplishments.  It should also be a process – specifically, the process of generating new or deeper learning by reflecting on one’s existing learning. 

Check out my portfolio page for documents that can be used with your students to help them learn to self-assess.   This Assessment For Learning site is a work in progress.  Please share ideas, documents etc that you think would be helpful to others.

Check out Saskatchewan’s Cathy Cassidy and her class to see how blogging is used for student portfolios.  Nicola’s e-portfolio documents her middle years learning journey.  She has demonstrated through the use of web 2.0 tools what she knows and can do.  These senior portfolios are great examples of the potential of portfolios in highschool.  For a wealth of information on e-portfolios click here.

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Help Me Tell My Story (It’s More That Just an Assessment!)

ASKI goe to schoolExciting days this week in our division.  We are about to provide training to more than 40 educators for the Help Me Tell My Story Assessment.  Eleven schools will now be involved with Aski and all those Aski’s are just waiting to become part of their new schools.  I have never been involved in an assessment initiative that is so well received by educators AND is just plain old good for kids.  This assessment was created by Saskatchewan educators for Saskatchewan educators.  It is delivered by a turtle on an ipad.  If you have just said “What?” or uttered some other form of surprise, fear not.  That was exactly my reaction when I got involved with the project.  It is not an uncommon reaction.

I recently received an email from Principal Greg via Teacher Brenda.  She has introduced Aski to her Kindergarten students and I sense that the classroom community loves having Aski in their midst.

“I’m tying in the first book about Aski (Aski & Turtle Island) in with the circle book that is part of the treaty curriculum.  Aski comes out to tell his story from the book to the children and answer the questions.  They are just oblivious to me.  One asked “where is Teacher?”  I was behind the book.  The kids really like him and talk about him often.  He sleeps in a place we can see his shell.  He has talked about missing his family and friends and mentioned that he will be going to visit them soon.  

The kids usually make puppets fight, but are amazingly gentle when they touch him and they hug him goodbye when he leaves.    So far,  it’s going well.  I’ve told them he is an old turtle.  We’ve been learning about turtle life cycles and other facts as well.  We also talk about respecting adults, personal space and manners when he is here.   

I made a coloring book for them to add pictures to as a follow up for our time with Aski.  They are remembering his information very well.  We have a turtle craft planned too.  I will share the other Aski stories with the projector and ipad (all books available as an ebook from the Apple App store).”

My heart warmed when I read the text in that email.  The contextual piece to this assessment makes it part of every day classroom practice.  No better way to assess our Littles, I’d say!

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Levelled Literacy Instruction Makes a Difference

We are just into our second year of Levelled Literacy Instruction.  Quantitatively, we keep track of results through the progress monitoring feature of our data warehouse.  It allows us to see pre and post benchmark levels as well as see progress over time.  It is necessary to examine both quantitative and qualitative aspects relative to a particular resource.

The following three students received LLI for a six week block.  They were reading just below grade level but were making no progress in small group literacy instruction.  In six weeks of LLI in addition to their small group literacy instruction, these three students made 3 – 4 levels of growth.  They are now reading at or above grade level.  Warms the heart!

Student #1 began reading at level “L”.  Six weeks later the student is comfortably reading Level “O” books and is at Grade Level Benchmark.

Studnet 1

Students #2 & 3 began at Level “L” and six weeks later are reading at Level “P” (above grade level Benchmark).

Student 2Student 3Qualitative data is also important when examining these student’s growth.  Thanks to Brenda, (the Learning Resource Teacher) who summarized why LLI works so well.  LLI allows for students to read at their instructional level.  However, for many students when reading at their instructional level, they are actually finding the reading frustrating or challenging.  LLI provides for easier reading by building reading of books at the independent level into the instructional reading.  The opportunity to get good instruction with easier reading material is very important.   AND built into the LLI program right within each lesson is a comprehension component, teaching kids how to get meaning from their reading.

Levelled Literacy Instruction (Fountas & Pinnell) is a reading intervention that is based on good reading pedagogy and a resource that has all components at the instructor’s fingertips.  The data, both qualitative and quantitative, documents growth and gives credibility to the resource.  In this case, these students have had an intervention provided that has changed reading from being frustrating to successful and enjoyable.  Yeah!!

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Only Learners Can Improve Learning

bike tourNational Library – Flicker Commons

Everyone has a destination or goal in mind when they start out on their bicycle.  The destination when biking can be either a long term or short term goal.  The same applies to assessment.  Assessment is a process of gathering ­evidence of student learning. It is not limited to a single event; rather, it consists of a series of events that take place over time. Although assessment may include formal tests, it more often involves different ways of obtaining feedback on work in progress.  Classroom assessment can help students become engaged in their learning and be more confident with new learning.

Assessment for learning, assessment as learning, formative assessment and peer feedback describes assessment processes.  Teachers begin the process of assessment by carefully planning their units, lessons and assessment tasks to ensure they can gather evidence about mastery of curriculum outcomes. Students know the learning ­target through clearly articulated expectations or criteria for the work. Rubrics are often provided and samples of student work may be used to help ­students more clearly understand what is expected.  Assessment is about teaching, planning, instructing and reporting and helps the learner improve his/her learning.

Students learn how to reflect on their work and make adjustments during their learning to improve the quality of the work.  It is less effective to wait until the assignment is given back or graded by the teacher. When teachers provide ongoing feedback and coaching to students, and peers help each other improve the learning, learners take learning into their hands.

A report card is only one way to share information.  It is essential to make sure that conversations focus on the learning that has taken place.  Term grades provide teachers, students and parents with information about how well the student is progressing towards meeting the expectations of the curriculum.  They are a reflection of what the student has already learned and what still needs to be learned.  Teachers and parents can strengthen the partnership between home and school by taking time to explore assessment strategies and encouraging the child to reflect and self-assess.  Encourage the student to use assessment criteria such as rubrics to talk about “my strengths and my challenges” and then focus on what needs to be done next.

An outcome is a destination and where the planning process for instruction begins.  Real planning is messy.  We need to understand:

  1. The big learning goals or the purpose of the outcome.  What do we want the students to learn (the knowledge skills and the dispositions towards the learning).
  2. Evidence of the learning or what we expect students to be doing and saying.  How will the student show that the expected outcomes have been achieved?  How will the students be involved in developing their understanding of these criteria?
  3. Assessment tasks that are valid (accurate) and reliable (consistent & fair).  How will students be enabled and encouraged to understand the assessment, provide evidence of their learning and how will they get feedback to decide their next steps.
  4. Engaging teaching and learning.  What teaching and learning activities will enable and encourage students to learn and practice the desired skills and content?  How will these activities be differentiated?
  5. Recognizing prior learning is helpful.  How will the student’s prior knowledge be identified and built upon and previous misconceptions addressed.

Messages about assessment and feedback are at the heart of the teaching process.  Strong formative assessment leads to greater student learning.  We need to make sure we become a good team in a good league with regards to assessment.  Teachers, parents, students and division staff need to work together to ensure there is common understanding about what mastery means.  The title of this blog “Only Learners Can Improve Learning” is a mighty strong statement that involves change.  We must work to prepare ourselves and figure out how to support our learners through effective assessment and instruction.

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Virtual Learning Communities

Nothing is more fulfilling that good professional learning.  I have always believed that the learner improves his/her learning and therefore I need to be involved in high quality professional discussions.  For thirty years, I have had opportunities for professional learning in face to face sessions.  When I began my career in 1983 in the far north, we looked forward to our annual 16 hour trip to Winnipeg where educators from across the province gathered for PD sessions.  During these years I attended sessions with excellent mentors like Donald Graves, the father of the writing process.   I can’t help but wonder what kind of PD Donald would offer today in regards to online learning.

While completing my masters degree (later in my career), I was introduced to online virtual learning communities by Alec Couros.  I learned how to use a variety of online tools such as blogging, online video, wikis and began using them with my students.  Students seemed to be more engaged.  Upon reflecting, I think I also became more engaged in both teaching and learning and I have been passionately advocating for the use of these tools both in our professional lives and in engaging our students.   I have to admit that when introduced to Twitter, I  found it to be somewhat annoying and could not figure out how to learn from messages of 140 characters or less.  Renee recently suggested I reconsider.  Although I hadn’t tweeted in a number of years, I began exploring Twitter again and have no regrets.  Why?  Because virtual learning communities provide 21st century learning for adult learning.  (Check out this introductory online session re Twitter)

For me a virtual learning community is:

  • professional development that improves the learning of students
  • collaborating to learn together about a topic that has been identified as important
  • the use of technology as the tool that drives the learning (discussion, video, podcasts, wikis, blogs, social media, drop boxes)

When I relate these key points to Twitter, I can say that I am glad that Renee suggested I rethink Twitter.  Twitter keeps me connected with people both within and outside of my division.  I like that the tweets are short but often take me to deeper learning through a link provided or by me investing in a topic that I consider matters in my professional learning.  I follow people who I consider masters of assessment and have been led to blog posts that clarify thinking and practices around grading, reporting, formative assessment.

We have begun to create virtual learning communities in our division.  Using Adobe Connect the sessions provide information and conversations regarding PowerTeacher GradeBook and Inform.  Chat rooms are open for teachers to backchannel and share practices/questions with respect to assessment and instruction.  If you find that the time does not work, the recordings for these sessions are available here.  Recorded sessions include:

  • Personal Social Growth Rubric – Includes an overview of how this works in GradeBook.
  • Using GradeBook to Organize for Outcome Grading
  • Getting Reading for New Term Grading
  • Attaching Document to Tasks/Assignments
  • Special Guest Hosts – See live teacher GradeBooks and hear about their grading practice
  • Inform – The Results Panel

My hopes are that we continue to communicate and grow our online presence through meaningful content.  Join us for these webinars please, provide us with topics, and make your own virtual connections with people both inside and out of our division.

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