“The formative assessment process is lightning in a bottle. It costs nothing. You can put it to work for every grade level and every subject during every minute of every school day. This powerful learning process enhances the learning of those who are already excelling; jump starts and sustains learners who are smoldering with potential, and increases student achievement for all students.”
Moss & Brookhart, 2009
For a few weeks recently, news from our district was making a splash across local and national newspapers, radio and TV. Headlines (click on title to locate) read:
• Getting rid of letter grades? Pass or Fail
• B.C.’s Educational Reforms are running into Resistance
• Passing on Letter Grades: The Tradition or the Alternative?
• Dozens more Surrey Schools ‘scrapping’ letter grades.
• Surrey School District extends its ‘No Letter Grades’ program
Even our Superintendent, Jordan Tinney was featured on CBC National Radio (you can find it here). In response to the flood of attention, he also wrote a blog post on the topic: What do letter grades actually mean? (click here). Behind the scenes, what were the district, schools, and teachers doing?
As with most innovative projects in Surrey, an invitation was extended to interested elementary principals and teachers to participate in exploring more effective ways to communicate student learning. Volunteers were asked to consider if they were ready to engage in examining this notion. Participants were given some guidelines to judge whether or not their participation made sense with their current practice of teaching. We were looking for teachers who were using Assessment for Learning practices, engaged in innovative teaching and learning, using performance standards and committed to the ongoing communication and involvement of their parents.
There were also some clear criteria for participation. The principals had to be willing to engage and support the pilot, there needed to be a parent communication plan (on-going, prior to reporting, at reporting time and post reporting) that would seek input and feedback from them. As well, teachers understood we were still required to use three formal reports and two informal reports as per the current regulation. We expected that in some schools, there might only be one or two teachers interested in volunteering for the pilot. If so, they were required to ensure that their process and their reporting times aligned with the rest of the school. The pilot teachers needed to be willing to develop and use an alternative template, to address all key areas of learning on the template (Literacy, Numeracy, Social Responsibility) and reflect the Core Competencies as they spoke to specific content areas (eg. critical thinking in Social Studies). We asked them to explore alternate ways of communicating achievement levels, to ensure documentation of student learning would be kept in the student file and to share their communication plan, implementation plan and template with the district. As a district, we would provide support (see slideshare below) through creating networking opportunities with other schools and assistance from District Helping Teachers.
When we extended this invitation in October we did not anticipate that five schools would jump into the opportunity for first term. David Brankin Elementary, George Vanier Elementary, Bear Creek Park Elementary, Sunrise Ridge Elementary and Rosemary Heights Elementary all rose to the occasion. In each of these schools, at least one teacher or a larger group (and in one case a whole school), began examining their assessment practices and thinking about the best way to provide parents, and their students, with meaningful feedback. As we prepare for a second term report, another twenty schools (again, not whole schools but at least one teacher at each school) volunteered to join the journey. As a district, we did not mandate a particular template or direct teachers in how the “report card” needed to be designed. We let teachers consider the possibilities using their professional expertise within the guidelines we provided. We felt that hands-on exploration would lead to some authentic, novel, and differentiated ways of viewing the challenge. We continued to focus on “the why;” the ultimate purpose for communicating student learning was to improve student learning. Finally, our intention was to provide our feedback to the Ministry of Education.
Each of the schools involved have developed very different ideas about what might work best for their parents. For some teachers, they completely redesigned the template to fit with the current changes in curriculum. Another school is exploring the question, “How might we provide parents with a digital window into their child’s learning?” using a beta Web 2.0 tool being co-developed with our freshgrade partners. And, another school is not altering the current standard district template but adding to it by providing parents with an additional report that includes students’ self-assessments, including their suggestions to their own parents about how their parents could better support their learning!
What can I tell you about the journey so far? As teachers recently shared at a meeting jam-packed with 90 educators: “this pilot gives us permission to do what we have already been doing,” “I’ve been waiting for this opportunity my whole career,” and “It has really turned our whole school focus on to what assessment for learning really looks like.” Confining student learning to a summary of a simple check box, and a few generic comments, is no longer the standard. Teachers are engaged in providing rich, descriptive feedback and students are developing ownership of their learning as they too add their own self-assessments. As a form of job-embedded professional development, it has teachers examining key questions about their practice in the context of what really matters for student learning. Our former Superintendent Mike McKay often challenged us, “When will what we know, change what we do?” For us in Surrey, we continue to take up that challenge.
Author’s Note: The Elementary Communicating Student Pilot was designed by a committee of district staff, including: Karen Steffensen, Pat Horstead, and Christy Northway, all Area Superintendents, Karen Alvarez, District Principal of Early Learning and Literacy and myself. Thank you to all of them for their creative input into developing this pilot. It is still a work in progress. Thank you to Jordan Tinney, our Superintendent, for supporting this innovative adventure. Stay tuned as we share information about our Secondary Pilot soon.