New assessments help teachers innovate in classrooms

Alec Barron, works on badge workflow with Natalie Martinez, Sarah Estrada, and Ms. Wallace during class at Del Lago Academy in Escondido, California on Friday, September 15, 2016.(Photo by Sandy Huffaker/AP Images for Hewlett Packard)

Teens are often cautioned about what they post online because their digital profile will follow them well beyond their youth. Students at Del Lago Academy, a public high school in Escondido, Calif., are counting on it.

Their teachers are embracing an innovative approach to assessment using digital badges. Similar to scout merit badges, these online symbols of their learning — certified by local industry and college partners — act as resumes for internships, college applications and job-seeking.

The concept is part of a bigger change that’s occurring in education, as new formative assessments help teachers shape their classroom instruction. By asking students to showcase what they’re learning as they go along, teachers find out what students know and can shift their teaching practice accordingly, rather than waiting to receive the results of an end-of-year bubble test.

“Kids have a choice, as opposed to having a test plopped down in front of them. It helps me understand how they’re developing their skills and knowledge. I can see where they need help,” said Alec Barron, a science teacher who shaped the Del Lago program, Competency X, which was piloted last spring and went school-wide this fall.

Senior Natalie Martinez hopes to earn a few of the 28 varieties available before graduation in June. “You can take videos and pictures and someone else can go onto your badging profile and see everything you’ve accomplished,” she said.

For junior Sarai Estrada, the digital badges “teach you to enhance your skills that you’ll need in real life — like how to speak in public or how to communicate better.”

The badges, with names such as Skeptic and The Elevator Pitch, encompass various abilities from science to engineering to overall communication. Students must demonstrate the aptitude needed to get a specific badge. Barron says this approach grew from a realization that students needed a better way to illustrate proficiency since “kids weren’t transferring their knowledge and skills to contexts like internships.”

Del Lago is among a dozen innovators across the country awarded a total of $2 million in grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As part of the Assessment for Learning Project, each grantee’s cutting-edge approach to formative assessment moves away from rote learning and single snapshots toward ongoing feedback as a way to gauge student performance. The result is a more nuanced measuring stick. Although these ideas are in their infancy, some could well become replicable in public schools across the country.

Teachers leading change

As the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) takes full effect in the 2017-18 school year, educators across the nation are primed to reinvent educational practices. ESSA replaces the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which focused on high-stakes testing and school rankings. Instead, ESSA calls for novel assessments to evaluate a whole suite of skills beyond English and math.

“We’re trying to target how is a kid learning to think. Are they developing deep thinking and problem-solving skills? We look at the development they’re making in terms of tackling a problem. It’s very difficult to assess, but it’s probably more important to know than whether you remember at age 30 how to divide two fractions,” said Katie Mancino, a fourth grade teacher at Two Rivers Public Charter School, a network of two elementary schools and a middle school in Washington, D.C.

Two Rivers has created “homegrown deeper learning assessments” — performance-based tasks that can be done in an hour or less, once a semester, which will help teachers monitor student progress.

“We’ve done pilots and are pretty confident the questions we have for the assessment are sound ones. We’ve done whole-school professional development around the rubrics so teachers know what language to share with the kids,” said chief of staff Khizer Husain.

Eighth grade English teacher Mo Thomas said these tasks help teachers determine their students’ expert thinking and allow teachers to shift instruction if need be.

Two Rivers serves approximately 700 students preschool through eighth grade, with about 45 percent of those students considered economically disadvantaged. The learning approach emphasizes expert thinking and complex communication. Educators have already spent more than two years developing the first two of five assessment areas.

Preparing students for real life

The varied assessment approaches offer a menu for scaling that could truly benefit teachers and students. And by focusing on deeper learning’s goal of preparing students for real life, these schools offer original perspectives that stress critical thinking, an academic mindset and self-directed learning alongside traditional academic goals. Surveys of employers and Fortune 500 companies show the skills most valued for 21st century employees are teamwork, problem solving and oral communication — all elements of deeper learning.

Students apply to Del Lago with just a name and address and are selected by lottery to attend this trailblazing campus. Two Rivers is an EL Education school, where 10- to 12-week projects in science and social studies called “learning expeditions” require students to solve problems with higher-order thinking. Henry County Schools, a 50-campus public school district in metro Atlanta, Ga., follow a personalized learning model, tailoring education to meet the needs of its 42,531 students.

Henry County district is working to use feedback as an essential element for improving assessment of its student population, which is over 50 percent African American. The aim is district-wide implementation, but the pilot is scheduled for six schools and is now underway at three. By illustrating the power of classroom relationships — whether it’s peer-to-peer, teacher-student or administrator-teacher – feedback is the focus.

“The premise is to look at feedback loops with students to increase student ownership over how they learn, where and why they learn and with whom they learn,” said Melissa Thomas, who oversees the grant at Henry County. “We want to get to a place where students have that voice in what they need.”

Fourth grade math and science teacher Tiffany Early, who’s in her fourth year at Bethlehem Elementary School in Henry County, said the assessment training has taught her to be “more purposeful and deliberate” about contact with students. She’s making “an extra effort to learn about what a student likes and what their interests are, and make sure I can send several positive notes home.”

“We’ve always set goals, but they’ve been more long-term and more academically based. Because of this program, they’re more life skills or personality — How do I interact with my environment, the people in it and what’s my contribution?” she said.

This fresh take is just the beginning, as these pioneers in education make what they hope will be the first steps toward substantive change in the way students are evaluated. These new formative assessment models can work in concert with more ingrained summative approaches to prepare students for the future.

“Ultimately, we need students to be able to walk into a job or into college knowing how to advocate for themselves. ‘I know I know this and here’s how I know this,’ said Thomas, of Henry County.

The benefits extend to teachers as well, said Husain, of Two Rivers. “You’re teaching to the right test,” he said. “If you make the right test, you should teach to it.”


Editor’s note: Sharon Jayson spent a decade at USA Today covering national trends, including education and research. Now based in Austin, Texas, she is a freelance journalist.

Search Our Grantmaking

By Keyword