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More than just a number

Changing the focus of assessment from ranking students to supporting their learning and growth

CASTLE PINES – If you’ve ever been in a kindergarten class, you know that when children start school they are wide-eyed and excited to learn. Unfortunately, in our educational system, this changes for many students at some point during their school journey.

DCSD Data Management Specialist Austin Mueller believes our education system’s focus on labeling students with grades and scores may be to blame.

“We can have the best curriculum in the world; we can have the best teachers, the best leadership — but if assessment comes back and tells a student that they are not smart enough, then none of that matters,” explained Mueller. “Ultimately, if a student believes they can't understand something or they are not good enough, then they stop trying.”

While he says it is crucial that students are provided feedback to help them grow, our focus previously has primarily been rendering judgments on student progress.

“We are very quick to assign value and grades to what a student has produced,” Mueller said.

The impact is that students often focus on their letter-grade or scores, rather than on what they can do to improve.

“Students just think of themselves as that number. ‘I am just a 40-out-of-100’ or ‘I am just a 7-out-of-10. Even students who do perform well, believe they have to be a 100-out-of-100 every single time,” Mueller said. “We want to provide a context for students that says you are more than just the number that is on the paper.”
 

What does that number mean anyway?
While numeric scores and their corresponding letter grades are ubiquitous in education, Mueller questions whether they actually are the best way to size up student progress.

“Just because numbers are able to accurately represent money and all sorts of other things, we suddenly feel it can accurately represent a student's cognition,” Mueller said. “ I believe it is more complex than that. It is much more nuanced.”

While he encourages teachers to consider any data points available to them, whether they’re from standardized tests or classroom assessments,  he says if you assign a number to a student or their work, you should know what that number means.

“We had tables and spreadsheets full of numbers and we asked people, what are the patterns you see? What do you notice? There is definitely a place for being able to do that,” Mueller explained. “It, however, is incredibly difficult to take action, if you didn't know why we were ascribing specific numbers to a student and their work.”
 

Assessment helped rank and order students
In the past, it didn’t matter much what the numbers meant. Designed a century ago, the modern educational system used grades and scores to help industry and higher education sort students out like widgets, determining if they were best suited for management or the factory floor.

“For one hundred years assessment was about ranking and ordering students,” Mueller explained. “You're smart or you're not smart enough. Students were considered more valuable or less valuable based on how you did on this assessment.”

In the past couple decades, especially after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002, the focus of assessment shifted to providing state and national governments with information about the performance of students. The goal was to hold schools and school districts accountable.

“It is this idea that if we can crack down hard enough, people will change their behavior,” Mueller explained. “It hasn't really produced any of the results we were hoping for.”
 

Focusing on student success
The Douglas County School District embraces accountability, but is committed to building a system that is focused primarily on a student’s success. That means in addition to measuring what matters most, as defined by our Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum (GVC) and our new teacher and leader evaluations, it must inform the important instructional decision-makers – the student and their teachers.

READ MORE: DCSD embraces accountability, committed to an assessment system that measures the most important outcomes

This year Mueller and DCSD Assessment Coordinator Tammy Melanson are working with teachers across the District to support school-level efforts to build assessment systems that will do just that.

They have begun by facilitating discussions at schools across the District about student work. Mueller says the material produced by students can provide teachers with a wealth of information.

“It can be transformative to our practice to take a step back and take a look at student work and say, what value would I want to define in here? What would be the feedback that would be meaningful? What feedback is this providing to me?" Mueller asked. “Ultimately when we assess, we are trying to get info. We should use that data to help us make better choices.”

At Buffalo Ridge Elementary, the teachers have chosen to focus on writing, after noticing resistance towards the subject from students.

“We’ve had a lot of frustration among teachers regarding a lack of student engagement and with kids fighting the process,” said Amy Jaramillo, a fourth-grade teacher at Buffalo Ridge Elementary School. “We were trying to find ways to improve their writing skills, while also helping with engagement and motivation.”

This week, Jaramillo and her fourth-grade team gathered in Buffalo Ridge’s conference room to review work from students and discuss their insights. Mueller and Melanson facilitated the discussion, prompting questions and challenging the teachers, but ultimately, the goal is for these teacher-leaders to decide the best means for engaging students and supporting their growth.

“I’ve been very impressed with Tammy and Austin, because that is exactly what has happened,” Jaramillo said. “They did not come in here and say, ‘this is what we are doing.’ They say, ‘What do you see? What would you like to do next? What can you conclude from that?’ I feel valued, just like we are trying to value our kids.”

Students are a valued part of the process
Perhaps the most revolutionary part of this process is that students are encouraged to give direct feedback to their teachers.

“Our very first task was giving teachers a piece of paper for their students,” Mueller said. “In the center it had a circle that said, 'thinking.' The question at the top is, 'what is happening in your head? What are you thinking about when you are reading, writing or doing a math problem?”

Often teachers are surprised by just how honest the students are about their strengths and struggles. At Buffalo Ridge, it was pretty clear that many students dread writing.

“Most of the kids don’t like writing,” explained Buffalo Ridge fourth-grade student Isabella.  “If you don’t want to do it, why work on it? I know that sounds kind of bad, but that is the way kids think.”

On sticky notes, the kids wrote direct feedback for their teachers, explaining what they liked or sometimes did not like about writing.

“I’m excited, surprised and happy that they want to know what we want,” said Isabella. “The teachers are trying to make it fun, so they are asking the kids about their favorite writing prompt.”

“They’re excited because you’re asking their opinion,” said Buffalo Ridge Principal John Veit. “You’re asking, what do you think about this, so it adds a whole new level of ownership for the kids. They’re excited. They get a lot out of sharing, because they love being heard.”

“As soon as you start asking questions, then you actually change things based on their feedback—then they feel like they’re being listened to and they feel like you care," added Jaramillo. “The more engaged they are in what they’re doing, the more they care about what they’re doing, the better the product they will produce.”

“If you [like what you are writing about], then you spend more time in it,” Isabella said. “You want to make it better, just because you like it a lot.”

This kind of feedback also gives teachers like Jaramillo a method of communicating back to students the importance of writing and other lessons, tying the lessons in to student interests, goals, and personal development. Jaramillo and the rest of the teachers at Buffalo Ridge are adjusting their practices to meet the needs of their students and hope that will lead to more interest in the tasks and, as a result, student growth.

“I’m hoping that my kids will like to write, that they will feel really good about their writing, and I will see that they are communicating clearly. Not only can they express themselves, but they can get their message across effectively,” Jaramillo said. 

Our A League of Its Own Series Continues Next Week: How student feedback is transforming assessments.
Read other stories from our series on The Big Picture page. 

October 21, 2015 | By rmbarber | Category: Assessment and System Performance

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