Students, We Are Listening!
Students asked to help in the development of rigorous assessments that test 4Cs and higher-level thinking
CASTLE ROCK – In the past, little, if any, thought was put into how students felt about the tests they took. While they are the single most important factor in their own academic success, they were left out of the process altogether.
The Douglas County School District (DCSD) is changing this, seeking feedback during the development of assessments to ensure assessments are not only measuring what they are supposed to, but that they are also engaging the students and providing them with the feedback they need to grow.
“Not many teachers in my experience have wanted to listen to what I’ve wanted to tell them,” said Mesa eighth-grader Kaylee Berglund, who was asked last week to provide direct feedback on an assessment that was recently created by her math teacher. ”It’s a nice change to have teachers ask you questions and what you think.”
While other students were taking the critical thinking assessment individually in the classroom, Mesa math teacher Anya Zavadil-Hill brought Berglund into a nearby office to capture her thoughts as she worked through the problem. As she explored why the tomatoes in a specific garden weren’t growing, she was prompted to share every thought that came through her head, as well as her reasoning.
“While a little awkward, I think it was pretty cool because no teacher during a test has ever asked me what is your way of thinking and why are you thinking this,” Berglund said.
“I really like that I hear what they think about [the assessment]. Is this interesting? Is it engaging? Is [Berglund] using the resources I gave her? Is she using them in the way I expected? Did I leave out something she feels she needs in order to complete the test. Is the test too easy or too challenging? It is giving me everything I need to know about my test,” explained Zavadil-Hill. “I think so many times we give a test and if they do poorly we say, ‘well, you did poorly,’ but now we’re actually taking that extra step of asking, ‘you did poorly, what did I do wrong? How can I fix that? I want you to do well, I want to see what you’re thinking. I want to see what you know. I want to see the skill that you have. If the test does not get you there, we can tweak it before we use it for an entire class.’”
During a performance task assessment students are given a simulated problem to solve within a classroom in a given amount of time. Zavadil-Hill says a well-designed task allows her to ‘peek inside’ her students’ brains, as well as providing her with data on the things that matter most.
“The beautiful thing about this task is that I can use it and they can use it to monitor the 4Cs. Instead of just math skills or writing skills, we now can monitor things like critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration,” Zavadil-Hill said. “[A performance task assessment] enables them to do some immense work in a really short amount of time. I provide them with the materials they’ll need in order to solve this problem for me, so I can throw in bias if I need to. I can give them skewed data to see if they can identify it. I can withhold some information to see if they catch that.”
Zavadil-Hill, who is part of two committees led by DCSD teacher-leaders working to build performance tasks that can consistently and rigorously test high-level thinking and then use these important life-long skills, says the work is not easy, but is important. Unlike traditional tests, these performance task assessments are intended to provide students timely feedback, helping them to grow.
“We will talk about this task next class period, so they can get that feedback right away,” Zavadil-Hill said. “[The performance task assessment] really gives me a concrete way to have a conversation with students [about the 4Cs], did you notice this? Could you have thought about it this way?"
The world has changed: focus is on skills, rather than knowledge
Previously, quizzes and tests were designed to assess a student’s ability to memorize and regurgitate facts. The focus was ensuring that a student got the singular ‘right answer.’
“If you look at an older education model, you’re looking for ‘do they know how to do this very simple process or can they remember a bunch of these things,” explained DCSD Assessment and Data Specialist Corey Papastathis. “The easiest way to do that is to get that bubble sheet, fill in the blank or standard response type of answer. Whereas, these tasks are really trying to hit a skill that you have to elicit from students.”
As explained in our story, A Case for Change, companies and colleges are now looking for the 4Cs (Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration and Communication), as well as other 21st Century Skills in prospective employees and students. Therefore, it is essential that DCSD and other school districts work towards helping students strengthen these skills, even if those skills are harder to measure than knowledge.
“It is easy to look at the answer and say they solved the problem and therefore they must have this skill, but it is very hard to give feedback on that skill,” Papastathis said. “For example, if they have this high level problem and they say, ‘here is the answer, boom!’ You don’t know if they took 50 steps to get there or four very precise steps to get there. You have no clue. We develop these performance tasks in a way that we can elicit that process part and look at their thinking and look at how they are getting there and give them feedback on the thought processes, not just whether or not they got the right answer.”
As you might imagine, getting to that level requires the active participation of students, something that really wasn’t a concern before.
“Without having students as part of that process, you are taking them out as decision makers,” said Papastathis. As he explains, in most traditional classrooms, the power was in the hands of teachers. "You’re not the decision maker, I’m the decision maker. I’m going to assess you and decide what decisions I need to make for you.”
“I don’t think [students had] been incorporated, because we didn’t want designers. We wanted implementers and factory workers—people that would do a job the way they were told to do it. That is not today’s economy, that’s not today’s industry,” Papastathis explained. “We need designers, we need people who think outside the box and change the way business is done.”
DCSD is working to empower students, not only by giving them voice and choice in their learning, but also assessment. The District believes students should receive timely feedback about their work, so they can focus on areas in need of improvement.
“The assessment is there for them to see,” explained Papastathis. “They will be able to say, ‘this is where I am, how can I get to that next target and the decisions I need to make as a student.’"
Like the real world: The more authentic the better
In order to make assessments more relevant for students and to prepare them for future careers, DCSD plans in coming years to partner with industry representatives to create authentic tasks.
“We are going to ask our business partners to come in and say, ‘here is a task that we do in our business day-in and day-out that is a high level skill that we require in our industry.’ We then work with them to create an assessment based on the task and have them give feedback for the students,” said Papastathis.
The act of simply incorporating corporations will make it more engaging for students.
“They know ‘oh, hey, this is a task that came from Microsoft and I could probably work in an environment like that,” Papastathis said.
These type of authentic experiences are already being created at more and more schools across the District. Below are just a few amazing examples:
- Students studying meteorology at Highlands Ranch High School launch weather balloons that collect data that can be used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- ThunderRidge High School’s ProStart students serve meals to one of the ski teams during a national competition
- Participants in Rock Canyon High School’s Fire Science program experience the real-life dangers of firefighting, whether it is ice rescues, vehicle extrications or fighting an actual fire.
- Dress designs by students at Chaparral High School grace the runway during a local competition.
Additionally, students are also being encouraged to make their own connections to experts in the community as they envision and develop student-led projects.
“There are a lot of teachers in the District shooting for that authentic experience for their students,” Papastathis said. “They are striving to give their students voice and choice, allowing them a choice to pursue their passion and to find someone in the real world to give them that feedback.”
These types of projects, while overwhelmingly beneficial, can be rather consuming in terms of time and energy, so teachers are also working to create scenarios that can give the students the same sort of real-world feel, but can be conducted inside of the classroom and graded by the teacher.
“Really the one thing that makes it authentic versus a simulation is where the feedback is coming from,” Papastathis explained. “Is the feedback coming from the teacher or is the feedback coming from the real world?”
The exercise in Zavadil-Hill’s class was a simulation. Students asked to give feedback about a real life problem -- how to improve the plight of some wilting tomato plants in Mrs. Zavadil-Hill’s garden.
“We try really hard to build in pieces that make it real and authentic, as well as urgent and important,” Zavadil-Hill explained. “When they sit down with the task, we want them to be engaged and to say, ‘I want to figure this out.’”
Just like an authentic project, the students were highly engaged as they worked through the problem, solving math problems and providing insight into the students’ critical thinking skills.
“I hope to see more of this, because this is more engaging and fun and I actually learn things from this instead of repeating what I already knew. It’s a good gauge of how your mind works,” Berglund said.
“With normal math you can’t really see how it is applying to your normal life, but with this you’re helping to grow plants, this might be helpful in really anything you do,” Mesa eighth-grader Phoenix said. “This kind of test can be helpful because it helps you to discover real life situations through math.”
Zavadil-Hill says she is glad the students are enjoying the assessments.
“That is what it is about, right? I want kids to come here and be excited to learn,” Zavadil-Hill said. “They’re still kids, so it is important that we make it so that they enjoy their learning and they are engaged in what they are doing, because it makes it fun.”
“I really feel like it has been such an ‘ah ha’ for me and a lot of teachers at Mesa,” Zavadil-Hill added. “We can have them do amazing things in small amounts of time and we can give them feedback on true big picture skills.”
Building a library of assessments
The best part is that these simulated performance tasks can be packaged up and given in other DCSD classrooms. That is why groups of teachers, including Zavadil-Hill, are now working to create a resource library that can be used by their colleagues across the District.
“That is what we are working on in the District right now,” said Zavadil-Hill. “We are working on creating a bank for teachers, so without a ton of work we can start integrating these into our classroom more and more.”
Concurrently, teachers are using this same model as they create a District Interim Assessment for fourth, seventh and tenth-grades. Unlike the PARCC or other standardized tests, which continue to focus on subject-based knowledge, these focus on measuring what matters most here in Douglas County—the 4Cs, 21st Century Skills and World Class Outcomes. Once completed, this will provide DCSD with an ability, at participating schools, to get an apples-to-apples comparison of students in those grades across the District.
“The interims that we are developing are not going to be required. We are a District of choice and schools are building their own assessment library. We are hoping to build quality assessments that they’ll want to use,” Papastathis said. “When I think about PARCC and some of those assessments that students take, I don’t think that the feedback is timely and I don’t think the feedback is helpful to students to get better at those skills. It is just an assessment of learning.”
Given the long period of time teachers, students and parents must wait for the PARCC and the fact that they do not measure what matters most in DCSD, Papastathis says they’re not terribly helpful to daily learning, but the interims will be.
“I think these interims will help the students make decisions for themselves about high level skills,” Papastathis said.