One of the first things about making the transition to evidence-based assessment is letting go of the idea that tests are the gold standard when it comes to determining whether or not the student really understands the material. As teachers, we know this already. How many times have you had the experience of having a student who is able to explain everything in class, answers all of the questions, clearly understand the material completely...and then bombs the test? If the tests and quizzes are the main contributors to a semester grade - as they usually are - then this student ends up with a much lower grade than they deserve. They understand the material better than the grade shows, and you know it.
Traditional assessment focus on answering the question "Has the student shown that they know that material in a way I have prescribed?" Evidence-based assessment focuses, instead, on answering the question: "Does the student know the material?" The big difference is that it is up the the teacher and the student - instead of the teacher alone - to come up with ways by which the student can demonstrate their understanding. Yes, this is intentionally vague. In removing the restriction of "you can only show me you understand the material on the tests", I didn't want to indirectly place another restriction in the way. The only requirement was: "Show me you understand."
To that end, here are the directions that were given to the students on the syllabus at the beginning of the semester:
"Your semester grade will strictly reflect your ability to communicate your understanding of the material, both verbally and in writing. Throughout the semester we will gather evidence of your learning, and based on the evidence we will determine the letter grade that will be placed on your transcript. The evidence I will gather will be my observations of the daily discussions, the checkpoints, and the final exam. The evidence you gather and present can take on any form you wish; for example: second-chance projects (similar to those you did on Google Docs after the checkpoints last semester), presentations of discussion exercises in class, leading the discussion of a review exercise as we prepare for a checkpoint, and other pre-approved projects. Please keep in mind that your grade will depend on your ability to communicate your understanding of the material both verbally and in writing, so the evidence you gather should likewise include both."
The only reason the other projects needed to be pre-approved was to make sure what the student wanted to do would actually demonstrate an understanding of the material. I didn't want them to waste their time on something that from the beginning wasn't going to meet the requirements.
So, what we needed was a way to capture all of this evidence in one place so that we could easily look at all of the evidence at the end of the semester. The answer we found was an online portfolio and assessment tool called FreshGrade (www.freshgrade.com). Th strengths of the site included:
- students had the ability to contribute to the portfolio anywhere, anytime
- the folders in the portfolio were labeled with the skills we were working on, rather that with "unit 1", so the students were focused on the material
- parents had access to the portfolio, and so had the ability to see the progress their child was making in real time
- parents also had the ability to see whether or not their child had contributed to the portfolio
- the site provides the ability to report progress without putting a letter nor a number to it ("meeting expectations", "approaching expectations", and "not meeting expectations" was what the students and parents saw regarding the student's progress)
- apps for Android and Apple, with slightly different apps for students, parents, and teachers, so everyone had access anywhere, anytime
While there was a bit of a learning curve and there were some glitches with the site itself, it did what I needed it to do. The students placed samples of their written work, links to a Google Doc that contained their work, videos of them explaining their work (both in class and at home), etc., in the portfolio, in the folder specific to the topic they were covering. If the work did not match the topic, then I directed them to put the work in the correct folder and did not give any other feedback until this had been done. If it was clear from the work that the student independently understood the material, then that category was finished. Otherwise, we began the feedback loop, with me pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of the work the student had turned in, continuing until the work was up to par. If too many loops were needed, then I had the student prepare another piece of evidence to demonstrate that they really did understand the material independently.
By the end of the semester, the students were asking questions such as, "Before I make my video, could you look this over to make sure it will work for demonstrating my understanding of how to solve a linear system by elimination?" Seriously, freshmen in algebra 1 were asking me this. And among the questions I didn't hear was, "What do I need to get on my final to get an A?"
The portfolio helped focus the students on the material, and not on the grades - just like I wanted it to.
Next time: Reflecting on the fact that yes, we still gave regular checkpoints (tests) in class.