How do you talk assessment?

“The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to a student but goes on inside students…
Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school.
How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort.”

Ron Berger


Trying to change assessment practices in your classroom? Where do you start? How to begin?

Part of changing my assessment practice was driven by altering the words I used with students. When I first embarked on this change, I was intentional and purposeful with “assessment talk.” Like learning a new language, I had to stop and think rather than reflexively rely on words I had used in the past. I found the intentional and consistent use of these words over several months helped to shift both my mind-set and students’.

Previously, my “assessment talk” had consisted of numbers on a spreadsheet, printed up, neatly tacked on the classroom wall and emailed to students and parents. I saw numbers as unemotional, objective and transparent. I believed sharing numbers frequently made me an effective teacher. Over time I realized I had blurred together assessment (which comes from the Latin assessus meaning to sit besideand evaluation. Regretfully, the predominant use of numbers to talk assessment, did not help students learn at all. Numbers signaled the learning as done and the numeric calculation was my evaluation of it. Numbers indicated a finality which made the focus of class culture centered around how to collect of points…rather than on understanding, exploring and unpacking the cognitive processes occurring for and inside each student. To explore learning with students, numbers had to be removed from the everyday conversations and I had to find simple direct words to signal this shift.

I now realize my practice of using numbers to talk assessment prevented, rather than encouraged, meaningful dialogue about student learning. Evaluation of the student learning had to happen later in the learning journey (when students were ready) after a significant amount assessment. But how to talk assessment? What words could replace the numbers I had grown dependent on? I had to find them. I had to practice them. I had to learn a new language to talk assessment with students


Below are some of my favorite catch phrases and convo snippets:

1. This is not for marks…it is for learning.
Student’s query to any activity is “Is it for marks?” Students use this question to decide on where to focus their efforts. To shift their focus to learning strategies rather than on point accumulation strategies, activities need to be about learning and in the service of student learning … choose to do these activities in the service of your learning not in the name compliance and playing school.

2. YET…
When a student says: “I am not good at writing, reading, graphing.” Offer the simple word, yet, to the end of their fixed mindset sentence to change it to a growth mindset one (Watch Carol Dweck’s short video on yet here).

3. Explain to me how you think your learning is going in this unit, topic, or semester.
If I had a dollar for every “What is my mark?” question I have heard I would be a rich woman! Every time a student asked me this question I had to clearly put it back on them. They had to be able to talk about and describe how the course was going for them and if they couldn’t explain this, then we had to spend more time talking about their learning (this is not to say I withheld marks, it is to say evaluation has to come when it is relevant and useful to do so).

4. Are you ready to show me what you know/understand? When do you think you can be ready to demonstrate your understanding? How can I help you get there?
Many struggling students are not willing to engage; it is too risky to try only to fail yet again. Allowing students decide when they are ready to be evaluated removes the stress and game playing that goes along with avoiding it.

5. What does quality…writing, presentation, conclusion, lab design, questioning…look like, sound like, and feel like?
Students need to recognize what quality looks like, feels like and sounds out.  Understanding quality comes from experiencing the process without fear of  being penalized for not being at quality yet. Students need to know they will get another chance or opportunity, they need to know they have time to grow and develop towards quality.

6. Show me your evidence for/of your learning.
I recognize my learning  when I develop a mental picture or story about of a concept or idea. When I can explain or map out this picture, I feel like I have done some learning. The mental picture is my evidence, the tracks of my thinking. Students need to make tracks of their thinking in their own way and have a chance to talk about this process. Learning is not a set copied teacher notes, or a set of worksheets they mechanically and thoughtlessly filled in.

7. Show me how you figured it out.
Asking students to unpack their thinking, makes learning about what is going on in their brains, not something a teacher does or does not do. 

8. What is your plan to get there?
Many students are uncertain how to navigate to quality. Providing them opportunities to make and talk about specific actions portrays learning not as accidental (or just for gifted people) but requires strategies, habits, and specific situations. Many variables contribute to learning. Students need to know and decide what variables they need to support their learning.

9.  Let me know when you are ready for feedback.
Having the opportunity and time to do quality work is intrinsically satisfying. Quality work is not work done by gifted students but by students who have the gift of time with useful and specific feedback.

10. What do you notice about your brain when….you get confused, you feel confident, you are engaged, you are make sense of the problem.
Talking about what goes on inside our brains, invites students to connect with the mental process they are experiencing.  Learning is a process going on actively inside of them rather than something passively happening to them.

What are your fav words or phrases to use with students? What words have shifted your mindset and invited students to explore their learning as a journey rather than a destination?

Getting started with #SBG in Bio #flipclass – Not perfect YET!

Last summer I worked to rewrite learning outcomes of Biology 12 into “I can” standards  and move away from point collection. I wanted to have student friendly language that described what the student should be able to do by the end of the course. I say by the end of the course, as all standards are in play all semester and students may demonstrate mastery of standards at anytime.

I divided the standards into core (students need to show mastery in all these for B range) and advanced (into the A range). I decided on this division based on what students have struggled with in the past. When we cycle back (as I do several times throughout the course of the semester), some students have breakthroughs and are able to put it all together in a flash.

We established 4 levels for the standards: Mastery, Progressing, Starting, and No Evidence.

Note – This student used BLUE instead of GREEN.

I then gave all the standards to students in a duo-tang so they could track their progress throughout the semester.

Students used highlighters to track themselves (red=stop, yellow=caution, green=go) and the duotangs were the catalyst for our “hot seat” conversations as a student headed into an assessment.

Example of standards for cell biology unit:


A1. I can recognize and explain the function of each organelle. I can relate the role of the organelle to parts of the body.
A2. I can look at micrographs and diagrams of organelles and correctly id them.
A3. I can write, work with and explain the balanced chemical equation for cellular respiration.

A4. I can explain how organelles function to compartmentalize the cell and move proteins and lipids through the cell.

I like how she moved to colours in the second column.

What worked well:

1. Students used standards to have conversations with each other.

2. Students could ask for help in specific areas.

3. Students have a strong awareness of where their weaknesses and strengths lie.

4. Students focused on what they could do rather than on their mark.

What I want to improve:

1. How to do justice to the standards and generate a meaningful percentage.

2. Standards are still too “raw” and obvious, which leads to students consuming content in bite size pieces rather than knitting it together into something of more depth, interest and meaning.

3. Find a way to use standards to communicate with parents in a meaningful manner.

4. Let go of more of the trivia of the course and replace with enduring understandings.

5. Increase my confidence when working with SBG. I still was shaky on how exactly it was going to work; students DO NOT like that.

Note: My work on Standard Based Grading is modified, blended and adapted from @kellyoshea, @samevns,  @bennettscience and @mrsebiology and I thank them for their diligence in documenting and sharing their work.

Dear Points….We need to break up. Inspired by @MrPicc112

Dear Points,

We have been together for many years and we have had an intense relationship. When we first began I thought you were everything, in fact, I built my entire world around you.

Almost everything I did was to serve you, to meet your needs. I set up my classroom (in rows and purchased dividers) to service you.

I spent endless hours making up NEW elaborate tests every year and every semester just so I could collect you. Each time thinking, this time I’ll get it right.

I would display columns of you to parents, students, administrators and even other teachers! Believing you had the same intentions as I.

I wrote policy after policy on how to collect you. Each September anew, believing I could finally make sense of you and get a handle on how you impacted my life.

I spent days of my life deciding who should get you and how you should be shared. I discussed, explained, analysed, collected, emailed, and compared you; it was endless and never-ending.

You demanded so much of me, that at times I had to take days off of work just to manage you.

I gave you all of this and more and look how you have treated me and others in return?

You told me you were going to help children learn, you promised. These are children here!  Ones who are full of curiosity, passion and raw enthusiasm.

You made a mockery out of my intentions to share my joy for learning with children. At first I believed that you had everyone’s best intentions at heart. Now I realize that you are manipulative, self-serving and controlling. Instead of caring about learning you cause children to become mindless point collectors who care for little more than “is it for points?” and “how many points is it out of?”

You single-handedly caused children to become highly developed point-gathering-strategists, who care nothing about learning, NOTHING. Instead they’ve become fixated on the mindless manipulation of you and how you are acquired. You are the direct cause of cheating, stealing, truancy, stress, mistrust and homework clubs (where one student at a time does the work so the group can acquire points).

You make students, say aloud and right to my face “Well if the lab is not for points, I don’t want to do it! Why bother?” Do you know how much that hurts?

You have made me say things like “Get it done or I’ll take it in for points!”. Or even worse “I’ll have to take points off for that!”

But you know what is worst of all, the final straw and the biggest insult?

It is that you made me begin to hate what I love most.

I love to learn, I love it!  Even more so, I love learning with children. It might sound corny to you, but I feel exhilarated when I see a child light up when they are fully engaged in the magic flow of learning.

Over the years, you have demanded more and more of me. In fact, I have no time for anything else; you have kept me from learning, interacting, and growing as a teacher and as a person.

I wasn’t confident before, to break free from you and stand up for what I believe in. I doubted myself and everyone told me I could trust you.

But points, I am ready to break free of you and the ball and chain that is holding me back.

Hear that SBG? I am on the market.

Good bye multiple choice! Good bye?

I happily said sayonara to multiple choice tests this year in my Biology 12 classes. In their place I moved to paragraph style questions that focused on bigger picture concepts. In the past I had produced tests that were 50 multiple choice and 25 marks of short answer questions. I found over the years that many students could often blow the multiple choice out of the water but struggle on written questions. There were many reasons I decided to make this change but my 3 main reasons were:

1.  Emphasis on the enduring understandings of the course and move away from the trivia and regurgitation cycle.

2. Offer students re-assessments opportunities quickly and easily. Yes, I have heard of Moodle, but this seems best suited to multiple choice testing and I wanted to stick with emphasizing the big picture understandings (see 1. !)

3. Students over the years had communicated that written questions had enhanced their understanding of Biology. The process of preparing and writing the test had been useful to their actual long-term understanding.

As I transitioned this year to a full flipped classroom with my Biology 12 classes I had wanted to move away from “points collection” assessments and move towards standards based grading. When the BC government announced the end of provincial exams over the summer, the door to change opened. I started out full on board trying SBG (standards based grading) in September but backed away from it as we hit some bumps in the road as students and I transitioned into the flipped class.

So after 4 solid months of trying this “no more multiple choice” experiment I have noticed the following:

1. All test materials can be returned to students. I dislike it when students don’t get to see their tests so teachers can keep the test bank out of circulation. To me it is blatantly obvious that the only purpose of the test is to allow the teacher to collect points and not for the student to learn.
2. Time to make a test up is greatly reduced.
3. Less paper used to photocopy tests.
4. Cheating and or copying is almost impossible.
5. Student can rock the test and receive 100% on the tests.
6. I have a better understanding of what students know and what they are struggling with. The conversations I have with students have become more meaningful as now we are discussing a question of some depth rather than arguing about the meaning of a multiple choice question.
7. Students are preparing for tests several days in advance of the test as they realize that cramming does not translate into a quality written answer.
8. Students have FINALLY started to catch on to the idea of re-assessment and some are coming in to do the first unit again. I like that ALL the learning outcomes are on the learning table ALL semester long. I see that for some students the light is now going on and they are excited to challenge the material again.

1. Longer to mark (I would like to have students get more involved in this process and decrease my role as “marker in chief”).
2. Some students lack skills for quality written work. Perhaps using a laptop might off set some of this and will consider this possibility next semester.
3. Students (especially grade 12’s) have a high level of skill around points acquisition strategies but fewer deep learning skills. This discovery was an eye opener for me!  Due to the lack of skills some students were frustrated and angered by this change in assessment practices  (I can’t blame them only help them to transition). The students want to “play points”; they do not like or understand “the rules of learning” so well.
4. Students needed to develop new study strategies. Many of them were memorizing demons who live to cram the night before. I will spend more time on this right at the start of the next semester.
5. Students that know nothing have nowhere to hide! This is both good and bad, but it is hard on some students. Again, I hope that next time through I can help students work on the skills they need to be successful consistently throughout.

Next steps.
I am still not sure about how to perfectly determine if students have an understanding of a concept in an efficient, fair and reasonable manner. I do know that making this change has given me insight into how student view their learning. The most startling realization from this change was how addicted to points I was and as a consequence how this influenced students. I do know that points are something I want to move away from and find a way to communicate what students have learned specific to the curriculum and to more importantly pin point where they are struggling.

What do you think? Can we do away with multiple choice or are they still a useful assessment tool?