Modernizing Assessment: What I Learned from Tom Shimmer | Barkley
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Modernizing Assessment

Tom Shimmer, the co-author of Grading From The Inside Out: Instructional Agility and Standards Based Learning in Action, joined me on a podcast and explained his use of the term, “modernizing assessment.” He suggested that like in any industry, education continues to grow and evolve.

computer screen for online test

“We continue to learn about the roles that all the various practices and systems and structures and strategies play in advancing achievement.  In the late 1990s and the early part of the 2000’s, we had this renaissance in assessment practices. I think there are stark contrasts in terms of what we need to do from an assessment perspective versus what has traditionally been our assessment paradigm……the traditional point accumulation, all of the factors and facets that went into producing grades and the kind of inadvertent or intentional grade grubbing that was produced from environments that we’re so fixated on scores and percentages, et cetera.

We have been needing to modernize assessment for the past 10 to 15 to 20 years. But modernizing assessment, for me, really means just bringing assessment practices into alignment with what our current goals and outcomes are for our students. Helping students develop 21st century skills or competencies like critical thinking, collaborative thinking, creative thinking, innovation, social competence, digital citizenship, requires us to lean on our assessment fundamentals and practices that are timeless and universal, but at the same time force us to think about assessment in a different light. For example, it’s very hard to produce a percentage score when you’re assessing critical thinking, which is most likely to be done through performance criteria that’s in the form of a rubric. So those are the things that require change.It’s not as though rubrics are new, but it’s the increased use of criteria that is clear and transparent.  Project based learning or problem-based learning with students digging into authentic environments are forcing us to continually modernize our assessment approach. It would not be far-fetched to think that there are some grading practices in some classrooms that resemble 1958, even 1935. Some of those things have not changed.  I think the majority of teachers have evolved in their assessment practices, but I do think those remnants are there and I think there’s enough of them to kind of put a drag on the system.”

Consider changes like Anne Arundel County Schools in Maryland who recently joined Montgomery County and Fairfax County in dropping class ranking. The effort was promoted by the board’s student member, Josie Urrea, who is also the board’s vice-president. She spoke out against ranking’s impact on student mental health as well as a lack of equity for low socio-economic, English Language Learners, and special education students. Some people feel that students striving for rank, chose a weighted course over an internship because of points, rather than a consideration for interest or the greatest learning impact or opportunity for their future. Anne Arundel will continue to have valedictorian and salutatorian identified but they will be awarded on high grades along with leadership, extra-curricular engagement, and character.

“Some good students are bad test takers, particularly under stress, such as when a test may grant or deny college entry.
Multiple-choice tests don’t reveal much about a student.”

— Jonathan Lash, Hampshire College President

I believe there is a need for continuous dialogue in PLC’s, departments, school leadership teams and coach-teacher conversations around the impact of assessment and reporting decisions. NASSP (National Association of Secondary Principals) has posted position statements regarding class rank, GPA, and grading . Here are a few NASSP guiding principles for conversation starters:

  • Schools should hold high expectations for all students and should promote academic excellence for each and every student, not just a select few.
  • To be able to prosper in an interdependent world, each student should acquire a body of essential knowledge and skills, including literacy and math skills. To this end, schools should encourage students to assume a well-rounded, rigorous, and challenging course of study that consists of core academic courses as well as a variety of elective courses. (My emphasis)
  • Schools should encourage and recognize academic excellence in a spirit of cooperation, not intense competition that sets one student against another.
  • Grading policies and practices reflect the culture of the school.
  • Grading policies directly impact the delivery of instruction.

Hampshire College, a liberal arts school in Massachusetts, has decided not to accept SAT/ACT scores from applicants (Hampshire College drops ACT SAT) While there is a growing list of colleges and universities who allow students to apply without submitting SAT or ACT scores, Hampshire refuses to accept the scores. Here is a statement from their president:

“We completely dropped standardized tests from our application as part of our new mission-driven admissions strategy, distinct from the “test-optional” policy that hundreds of colleges now follow. If we reduce education to the outcomes of a test, the only incentive for schools and students to innovate is in the form of improving test-taking and scores. Teaching to a test becomes stifling for teachers and students, far from the inspiring, adaptive education which most benefits students. Our greatly accelerating world needs graduates who are trained to address tough situations with innovation, ingenuity, entrepreneurship and a capacity for mobilizing collaboration and cooperation.”

In the podcast with Tom Schimmer, he made the following recommendation to instructional leaders and coaches, “I would say wherever you are in your assessment journey, continue to grow your understanding of sound assessment practices and principles because that will only help you coach others on how to use assessment practices that are on point.” I believe he is right on!

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