Tis the Season: on authentic assessments

When it comes to assessment, traditional pen-and-paper tests are pretty much as far from authentic as you can get: one student, performing in a singular modality, with the teacher as the only viewer. Projects can be more authentic, but until there is an audience outside of the classroom, it can be hard to get students to believe that the work that they’re doing is truly meaningful.

One of my goals for Comm Tech is to make the tasks that students are required to complete more authentic by providing them with a real audience for their work.

This quote is attributed to Rushton Hurley, an inspiring GAFE Summit keynote speaker who speaks often about project-based learning:

Authentic assessments give students a real audience for their work, which can lead to much higher levels of motivation.

Giving students an authentic audience for their work means allowing them to share their work with the wider world. And Communications Technology, with its focus on the tools to create rich and meaningful media works, is the perfect environment to do just that.

As part of our second unit, we were focusing on photography: we learned some of the principles of photo composition, and we learned how to use digital SLR cameras in manual exposure mode to fully control the look of the photos we took. Rather than giving students a really prescriptive task for their summative assignment, we decided to make use of an existing opportunity – the monthly Toronto Star photography contest – to make our work a bit more authentic.

The theme for December’s contest was “Tis the season”, and everyone was encouraged to submit a photo that represents that idea for them. We piggybacked on that, and while the teacher in me couldn’t resist adding a few extra requirements — that students shoot in manual exposure mode and that they include a short write up about the technical and compositional choices that they made — students were psyched to complete the task. I couldn’t believe the quality of work that was being submitted. Rushton Hurley’s quote had never been so clear to me: the authenticity of the task truly motivated students to make sure that their work was as good as it could be. When we debriefed and discussed our photos in a class roundtable discussion, students were articulate about their photos, and most of them described spending an inordinate amount of time setting up their perfect shot.

That was what really struck me most: they weren’t upset about the time spent, or the number of attempts they had to make to capture the perfect shot. They worked tirelessly because they were invested in the task, and it didn’t seem to matter how much effort they had to put into it or how many times their shot failed, as long as they ended up with something they were proud of.

What a way to end off the term!

To really cap off the assignment and make it even more authentic, I was thrilled to share with the students that three members of our class had had their photos selected to be included in one of three daily photographs featured on the Star Touch app:

Casey’s photo was featured on December 15.


Mira’s photo was featured on December 13.


Lexie’s photo was featured on December 20.

Believe me when I tell you that was among my proudest teacher moments ever! Although the students have yet to find out if they’ve won a prize (which would be the cherry on top!), they can be very proud of the recognition they’ve already been given. Authentic assessments, for the win!

Thanks to Mira, Casey & Lexie and their parents for giving me permission to share their work here.

“You didn’t test out of any skills.”

This week, I had the chance to work with the grade 7 French teacher, helping her get her classes set up on Duolingo, a web-based program that allows students to work through language lessons at their own pace. The teacher dashboard allows you to create classes, and students join the class with a six-digit code. The teacher can then track students’ work through the lessons, set certain lessons for homework, or challenge students to gain a certain amount of “xp” to “level up”, much like in a video game. Duolingo also has a mobile app, and is available in many languages, making it a neat way for anyone to start to learn a language on the go.

As our school begins to focus on one element of our new strategic plan, which is to “support, know and inspire all students”, a program such as this one can be an opportunity to offer instruction at the students’ area of need. Students who enter grade 7 with minimal French experience can work at the basic level to catch up with their peers, and students who have come to us from a French immersion or extended French program can challenge themselves beyond what the teacher might be able to do within a regular classroom. Enrichment and support, all within a fun package that will engage students and will allow the teacher to spend additional one-on-one time with students: what more can you ask for in a blended learning environment? (Side note: I have not spent enough time with Duolingo to evaluate its effectiveness as a learning program, and its focus on translation as a learning tool has me slightly wary, but the level of engagement of students in the activities it offers seems to point to it as a valuable addition to a language program. But I digress.)

Once we got students all set up with their accounts, they had the option of starting from the basics, or completing a placement test to possibly “level out” of certain basic lessons. Because most of these students have been learning French for several years already, we asked them to begin with the placement test.

Sensing the instant anxiety that arose in the room upon the mention of the word “test”, we quickly assured students that the point of this test was not to evaluate them in any negative way, but to ensure that they would be working at lessons that are at the right level for them. We thought that would be enough. But, boy, were we wrong!

Of course, taking a language test on a computer is going to have its drawbacks. Although a student might know how to say “goodbye” in French, if they make a spelling error on a simple question like this, it is marked wrong. No big deal, right? It’s just a placement test. It would simply mean that you’d have to review the lesson on this topic again, which is only going to help you with accuracy in the long run, right? However, we had no idea how emotionally fraught this experience of being marked “wrong” would be for students!

Upon students beginning the placement test, we immediately began to hear a chorus of cries of “What? I knew that!” and “It marked it wrong but I just forgot one letter/accent/word” etc. We heard students trying to get help from their peers and us, crying out, “how do you say [x] in French??” The desperation in their voices and on their faces was obvious. At the end of the test, almost every student received this message from the program: “You didn’t test out of any skills.” And at this point, the students were beside themselves.

"You did not test out of any skills." These simple words seemed to be the worst possible news to students.

“You did not test out of any skills.” These simple words seemed to be the worst possible news to students.

We tried to reassure them. It was no use. This experience made it abundantly clear that these 7th grade students have become so entirely convinced that the results of a test defines who they are and what they are worth. How has it come to this?

How has our education system so skewered what students understand assessments such as this one to be? How might we begin to shift that notion through our practice?

Although I’m not sure it would have helped at this point, a comparison to video games might be in order. I used to be a bit of a gamer myself. My university years, believe it or not, were shaped in part by a somewhat unhealthy addition to the MMORPG World of Warcraft.

Video games can, I believe, present a much more healthy version of failure than tests in school can.

Video games can, I believe, present a much more healthy version of failure than tests in school can.

In World of Warcraft, a player would never dream of attempting a Level 60 quest with a character who was only at level 20. She simply would not have the skills and background necessary to be successful. That is certainly not to say that failure is frowned upon in the game, however. Any player, in order to level up, will attempt quests and challenges that are perhaps a little bit beyond his skill level, and he will be handsomely rewarded with additional XP as a token of that challenge. Every time his character dies in the course of one of these challenges, he will modify his strategy: maybe he’ll try a different approach, maybe he’ll attempt the challenge with a friend who can support the quest, or perhaps he’ll get a bit more XP at a lower level in order to ensure greater success moving forward.

Failure (or death), in a video game, is viewed as a learning opportunity – a chance to start over, to try again with different strategy. In a placement test, of all things, this should be even more so.

A key element of design thinking process is to “fail early and fail often”. How might we embrace this idea of failure as a learning tool rather than as the end of the road? How might we adapt our practice to make regular failure par for the course?

How might we encourage students to embrace the mindset that failure is truly a “first attempt in learning”? And do our teaching and assessment practices actually reflect this? 

What Olympic diving judging has to do with grading in schools

Sometime in mid-July, I finally finished reading Tony Wagner’s book Creating Innovators, which had been recommended to me by several Cohort 21 members as a starting point for re-imagining my classroom. While I planned to write a full review of the book, Garth beat me to it (see his review here). Instead, I began copying my favourite quotes from the book into my Goodreads account, and doing so helped remind me of several of the main reasons I had wanted to redesign my Comm Tech course in the first place.

This quote in particular stuck out to me:

“Here again, we see a strong emphasis on collaboration (versus individual achievement); multidisciplinary learning (versus specialization); an emphasis on creating things and student empowerment (versus passively consuming knowledge); encouragement of intellectual risk-taking and trial and error (versus risk avoidance); and finally, a strong emphasis on intrinsic (versus extrinsic) motivation, with the absence of grades and the faculty’s focus on encouraging students to pursue their passions.” (184)

I’ve also been following Starr Sackstein on Twitter (@mssackstein) who is a big proponent of removing grades from the assessment question, so I’ve been thinking about that possibility in my classroom. See her TedX talk here:

I don’t know if I’m quite ready to go grade-less, but I do know that the way I hope to structure my class this year will make the traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ scoring system or rubric next to impossible. How will I account for student risk-taking in my grading, in order to encourage students to take risks without the fear of being penalized by failure?

We are in the midst of the Rio 2016 Olympic games, and while I’m not an avid Olympics watcher, my boyfriend likes to have them on, regardless of what sport is on. Thus, this weekend we ended up watching a few hours of women’s 3 meter diving. Knowing nothing about diving, I was curious about how the scores were calculated, and what the degree of difficulty had to do with the score that the diver was awarded. As it turns out (and maybe I’m the only person in the world who didn’t know this!), the three median scores are added together and multiplied by the degree of difficulty, so a higher difficulty rating will allow for a higher possible final score.

A male diver performs a reverse tuck from 3-meter springboard

A male diver performs a reverse tuck from 3-meter springboard

Then, as I copied out Wagner’s quote about risk-taking versus risk avoidance, my mind returned to the world of Olympic diving. The bigger the risk divers take, the higher possible score they can achieve. Even if they are not able to perform as perfectly in a difficult dive as they would have in a simpler, less risky dive, they can still be successful as the scoring system rewards risk-taking. I wondered if there was any sort of way to do something similar when it comes to grading in my class. Could I work with the students to assign a “difficulty rating” to certain differentiated or individualized tasks, so that if a student attempts a more challenging task with a higher possibility of failure, they can still somehow be rewarded for the risk-taking in their grade? Can the work students do as part of the process contribute to their final grade, even if the final result would otherwise be considered a failure?

Should students, like divers, be rewarded for attempting a higher "level of difficulty" in their graded tasks?

Should students, like divers, be rewarded for attempting a higher “level of difficulty” in their graded tasks?

Has anyone ever attempted something like this? What might it look like, exactly? I’d love to hear some of your thoughts.