Setting the PACE: Teacher Assessment Practices in a Competency-based Education System

PACE Picture(Wordle created by Ellen Hume-Howard)

I continue to be amazed and impressed by our staff’s progress over the past five years related to our implementation of a competency-based education system. Our grading, assessment and instructional practices have changed significantly during this time, as our teachers have continued to push forward in their quest to impact student learning.

Over the past two years, our focus has been on assessment. Our staff’s knowledge and growth related specifically to the assessment of students’ competency has grown significantly. Memorial School, an elementary school in Newton, NH, is part of the Sanborn Regional School District. Sanborn was one of four districts to participate in a first-in-the-nation accountability strategy called PACE (Performance Assessment for Competency Education) that was recently approved by the US DOE. This joint venture between the NH DOE, the Center for Collaborative Education, the Center for Assessment and the four participating school districts (Sanborn, Epping, Rochester, and Souhegan) entails a reduced level of standardized testing (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium in NH) and involves the creation of locally developed, rigorous, comprehensive performance assessments by teams of teachers. These high quality performance assessments are designed to support deeper learning, and will be integrated within the units of study that students are currently engaged in, thereby creating no disruption to the learning process.

The benefits of this work are numerous. First and foremost, this effort is reflective of educators at literally every level within the State of New Hampshire working in unison to better educational experiences for our students- from teachers in the classroom to Commissioner Virginia Barry and Deputy Commissioner Paul Leather. Everyone involved truly felt that a single standardized assessment should not be the only factor determining a school’s and its students’ success. In the PACE model, the standardized assessment for reading and mathematics would be taken once at each level (elementary, middle, and high school), with complex, multi-part performance assessments administered to allow students’ to demonstrate and apply their knowledge in quite sophisticated ways. The performance assessments were created by teams of teachers, and were developed as part of the units of study that students would be engaged in during the mid-March to May timeframe, thereby allowing the assessments to be integrated within the daily activities that students and teachers were engaged in. Additionally, the assessments have been vetted by local, state, and national assessment experts and have provided teachers with the opportunity to look at their assessments through a critical lens of their own, something they are doing now on a consistent basis.

The concept of a performance assessment as an end-of-unit assessment was not necessarily “new” when we began our training through the Center for Collaborative Education and the NH DOE two years ago. Many of our staff had undergone professional development related to an Understanding by Design model and were utilizing this within their units of study. But what we were now learning required significantly more consideration of a number of factors as the assessments were being constructed. As our team of five educators went through the initial training, it became apparent to me as the building principal that we would need to take the process slowly, concentrating on each specific portion of the template to learn together how to build the best possible process for learning, as well as the best possible product to assess learning. We focused intensely on each stage of the process during the 2013-2014 school year (Looking at Our Work Through an Assessment Lens) and each team of teachers successfully built a Quality Performance Assessment by the end of the year.

Our teachers, as they always do, have risen to the challenge yet again. A team-by-team report out during a recent team leaders’ meeting provided proof of our progress on building multiple performance assessments over the course of this past school year. Our school had set a goal to build, validate, administer, validate again through student work, refine, and submit three performance tasks within each grade level throughout the course of the year. Additionally, our specialists were responsible for going through this process with at least one task individually.

Clearly, this process is an extensive one. It would not be possible to accomplish any of this without highly functioning Professional Learning Communities, as this work demands a collaborative effort from everyone involved. The majority of all of our professional time this school year has been dedicated to this work, and our knowledge of student learning, competency, and assessment of competency has grown extensively.

Building multiple QPAs over the course of the year included the development of a common assessment that would be administered by specific grade levels at all schools within each of the PACE districts. Teachers from each school from these specific grade levels met to collaboratively build the PACE assessments, then validated them within their own teams or as a PACE team, depending upon the grade level. At the elementary level, our third grade students took the Smarter Balanced ELA assessment and were administered a PACE Math assessment. Our fourth grade students took the Smarter Balanced Math assessment and were administered an ELA PACE task. Our fifth graders were administered both an ELA and Math PACE assessment. The chart below, shared by our Director of Curriculum, Ellen Hume-Howard, outlines each grade level’s responsibilities (K-12) related to PACE, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, and ongoing district assessments.

PACE Chart

Rose Colby, Competency Education Specialist in NH, defines competency as “the ability to transfer content and skills in and across content areas.” During our team leader meeting, after each team member had reported out what they had accomplished, one of our teachers remarked that every summative assessment they were administering in their grade level was a performance assessment requiring students to demonstrate their competency through the transfer of their learning across content areas. This was a significant statement, because it is very clear to our teachers that the best performance assessments integrate multiple subject areas and are requiring students to be engaged in deeper levels of learning, precisely as Ms. Colby has described. Our teachers are now building cross-disciplinary assessments that require students to demonstrate varied competencies whereas initially we were generally focusing on one subject area. Our specialists play an integral role in building these assessments, and our classroom teachers are tapping into their expertise in PE and the arts to create learning experiences for students that truly span, and require proficiency in, multiple content areas.

Each performance assessment that I see being constructed is of higher and higher quality. This is due not only to our teachers overall increased understanding of assessment in general, but also to their increased understanding of the nuances within each assessment. Considerations such as specific wording of a question, students’ background experiences, ability to provide appropriate accommodations, and the level of the depth of knowledge are intuitively included. Additionally, the formative assessments that occur leading up to an end-of-unit performance assessment are providing vital information for the teachers that they can (and do) immediately act upon to ensure each student’s success. As one teacher stated, “There should be no surprises when they take the summative. Everything leading up to that has been monitored closely. It’s their chance to show us everything they know and can do.”

Furthermore, teachers recognize the incredibly powerful data they are gleaning from these types of assessments. Their assessment practices as a whole reflect this understanding, as performance assessments have become the norm. Teachers are building a bank of assessments that they will continue to go back to year after year. But each year, each assessment is scrutinized and further developed based off of what the needs of the students are, what worked well when the assessment was given last, and most importantly, the student work samples from the last assessment (student work doesn’t lie!).

Our teachers continue to model our mission and guiding principal, “Learning for All.” They are refining their work on a continual basis, providing students with increasingly rich learning experiences, and creating assessments that are more consistently capturing our students’ ability to demonstrate their competency. And as their assessment literacy increases, instructional strategies and practices continue to develop. This has been a vital byproduct of our assessment focus. Students are provided more opportunities to demonstrate critical thinking at a higher depth of knowledge prior to the summative assessment. The formatives that are occurring along the way are providing vital information for teachers to provide the remediation and extension that each individual student needs.

Our teachers are willing to continuously examine all practices and adjust as appropriate, because we realize that there will always be room for improvement. The work of creating the optimal learning experiences for our students is never done, just a work in perpetual progress.

Tackling Work Study Practices in a Competency-based Educational System

Our teachers started some really difficult work recently. It was somewhat messy because there was not a lot we could point to in the way of research for what we were doing. Undertaking this type of work can be quite challenging, because intrinsically, I believe educators want to know that there is an endpoint-something we can focus on that can help to guide us where we are trying to go.

Our district, the Sanborn Regional School District in southern New Hampshire, has been implementing competency-based education for the past five years. During this time, our learning curve has been quite steep, but our teachers continuously rise to the challenge and delve deeper into their work because they recognize what the next piece of the puzzle is and they see the benefit of their ongoing work as it relates to student learning.

Last year, our teams became deeply involved in building Quality Performance Assessments, assessments designed to truly assess a student’s competency, or transfer of learning. Our teachers have worked incredibly hard at building high quality, engaging assessments. Their overall assessment literacy, and the learning that has occurred throughout these processes, has been significant. But, it has also raised additional questions.

The most recent questions have had to do with Work Study Practices, (also referred to as work study habits, or dispositions/behaviors). The State of New Hampshire defines the four work study practices in New Hampshire as Communication, Creativity, Collaboration, and Self-Direction. For the past six years, our district elementary schools have identified the Responsive Classroom CARES (Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, and Self-regulation) as the behaviors we will assess in each student. These fit in well with the work study practices the State has identified. Within each performance assessment, teachers have been identifying a specific behavior as the one that will be assessed within the performance assessment itself. For example, a performance assessment may lend itself to having cooperation/collaboration of students assessed, so teachers are including this to be assessed, complete with its own indicators within a rubric as part of the scoring within the assessment (separate from the assessment of academic competencies).

Questions have arisen because teachers have recognized that it does not make sense to always assess students on the same work study practice all the time. Students, as we know, have different needs in different areas. We may have a student who we know is going to be able to demonstrate high degrees of cooperation within her/his group, but this same student may have difficulty asserting her/himself (while giving a presentation, for example).

As we discussed how to include this differentiated rubric within the performance assessment, a teacher commented that it would be great if we had a common rubric, K-5, that we could access at any time for any student. That way, we would not have to continue to build these rubrics each time we were going to assess. And when we thought about it further, we realized that this was very similar to the change-process we experienced five years ago with our academic assessments. There sometimes was not horizontal continuity with teams, and many times there was not vertical continuity. We had to honestly ask ourselves: “Is what we expect from students aligned K-5?”

My colleague, Ellen Hume-Howard (Director of Curriculum), and I attempted to determine how to go about this work related to work study practices. We thought that it would make the most sense to take each area one at a time and build a continuum for this particular behavior that could be translated to a rubric. But then the questions started coming: How many levels should it have, 6 (for each grade level)? Is what we expect at the beginning of the year different than at the end? Can we pull the grade levels out of the picture once it is complete so that it stands as more of a developmental continuum? How do we build this so that it is truly K-12? And finally, is there a developmental continuum we could reference so that we know that what we are expecting is appropriate?

I decided to just put it out to our teachers. I have an incredibly high degree of respect and trust for our staff, and I knew that although it may be difficult, they would persevere and their feedback would help point us in the right direction. We ended up breaking up into our vertical PLCs so that each grade level was represented at each team and we developed a chart that could be completed for one of the behaviors (self-regulation). The guiding question was, “What are your expectations related to a typical student’s self-regulation at your grade level?

Our teachers all reported that the process was difficult, and that they struggled to put into words what they knew intrinsically. I likened it to the time five years ago when we asked them to identify why the academic grades that they were recording were given, and that everything needed to be backed up by evidence, and that what we were attempting to do was provide students with the clear pathway to their success (If I’m here, and I need to get to here-what do I need to do?). The following Friday I asked our team leaders for specific feedback. The feedback they provided was spot-on, and has given us direction as we move forward.

We will attack each of these areas throughout this coming year (and beyond), and we will start at team leaders so that they have the background information to assist their groups as they move forward. Will it be perfect? I would expect that whatever we develop will continue to morph based upon our experience using it in the years to come. But, this is part of the learning process for all of us. Regardless of how many times it does change, I know that it will be more descriptive than what we currently have, that it has made us think and communicate with each other about something we had not been previously, and that it will provide students with a more objective measure of where they are and what they need to do to continue to improve within their habits of mind.

Teachers as Expert Trainers

This past August I had the opportunity to participate in an incredibly effective model of professional development hosted by our school district. It consisted of workshops and presentations from national, state, and local experts focused on various topics related to assessment, including competency education, building Quality Performance Assessments, and the development of high-quality rubrics.

The varied roles, responsibilities, and experiences of the many presenters added to the uniqueness of our “Assessment Summit.” Participants and presenters included Rose Colby, Competency Education Specialist, Rob Lukasiak, mathematics and assessment specialist, district and building-level administrators, and teachers from grades K-12. This allowed for differentiated PD for the 100-plus participants, while supporting the professional development needs identified in our district related to competencies and Quality Performance Assessments.

Our district, the Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire, has continued to push forward in the world of competency education. Despite the bumps we have experienced, we fully realize that this is an educational practice that truly captures each student’s ongoing growth and progression within their learning. Teamed with instruction that is differentiated, personalized and based upon a solid understanding of the Core standards, students are engaged in learning that is focused, are provided with opportunities for support or extension as needed, and understand their role and responsibility in their learning.

In the spring of 2014, our curriculum director, Ellen Hume-Howard, posed an opportunity for a summit in which some of the “expert” speakers would consist of the teachers in our classrooms who are engaged in this work on a day-to-day basis. This was the next logical step of the “training team” model that was created four years ago which provided the teachers within our schools the opportunity to participate in training and workshops from various professionals within our own buildings who had familiarity/expertise in curriculum, differentiated instruction, technology, and various assessment practices. This model of PD was incredibly valuable and effective, and Ms. Hume-Howard felt that it could now be extended to the district level.

Focus areas for the summit were: Building Quality Performance Assessments, Developing rubrics (basic, interdisciplinary and student exhibition), Identifying Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) through a data cycle process, Utilizing Tech Tools for Assessments, Assessing Reading Comprehension, Online Resources for Assessment, and Assessing Work Study Practices. Didn’t it make sense to have our teachers be involved in sharing their knowledge with their colleagues in a larger forum? Given the varying needs of each staff member in every building, this type of workshop would allow teachers to step into training based upon where they were and what they needed, and receive practical feedback and guidance from someone who was deeply involved in this work in their daily practice.

One of the keynotes during the summit involved walking through a Performance Assessment Review Protocol. Four teachers within our district, Gail Gwynne, Jennifer Manning, Lisa Collibee, and Amanda Welvers, planned and led over 100 teachers (below) through a protocol to validate teacher-created performance assessments. Their work was indicative of the summit as a whole; teachers sharing an area of expertise to help others continue to develop their understanding, all in our combined effort to improve student learning. One of our staff members remarked to me that she brought a performance assessment to validate that had already been through the process once, but that this time she received “different feedback that definitely made it even better” because this new group of colleagues looked at it through a different lens and provided feedback from their unique perspective.

QPA Presentation-Teachers

Another teacher within our school shared her ongoing work with assessing work study practices. In a previous article (https://jonvanderels.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/the-advantage-of-separating-behaviors-and-academics-through-a-competency-based-grading-system/), I shared how fifth grade teacher Terry Bolduc continuously assessed students based upon their work study practices. This provided an accurate and timely assessment of these practices or “behaviors” on an ongoing basis rather than one assessment at the end of a trimester. And they are separate from academic grades, resulting in a “pure” grade in both the core academic areas and the student’s work study habits. Terry and her colleague, Donna Moseley, shared their work related to assessing work study practices during their sessions. This allowed teachers at various levels of understanding to see how the assessment of work study habits literally looked like (Terry provided screen shots of her grade book to demonstrate-picture below) within a colleague’s classroom, and consider how it could work in their own classroom. They left with a point at which they could start incorporating this practice within their own classrooms.

Terry Bolduc-WSP

Another unique aspect of our summit was the opportunity for teams to access the available staff members for coaching during their Team Design Time. The team time was a part of every day of the summit, and allowed teams to either work together to build performance assessments, for example, or to work with one of the presenters/trainers in an area of their choosing. Many of the teams accessed various resources and came away from the team time with a completed Quality Performance Assessment that they could utilize. In many cases, this was the culminating work indicative of the week’s summit offerings.

In our district, we’ve always believed that teachers are the driving force behind improvement. We have strategically selected three important ideas (Collaboration, Competency, and Culture and Climate) to focus on as a district and we believe these ideas guide and anchor our work. The topics and learning opportunities during our summit were framed with these ideas in mind. We’ve encouraged teachers to try new ways of doing things knowing that what they glean from their experiences will be applied and adapted to better their instructional and assessment practices. When given the opportunity, they will share this learning and help others improve their practice. This model of learning and growth has impacted our staff and will have an even greater impact on the learning of our students, any educator’s ultimate goal.