Category: Change and Influence

Where Do I Start?: Assessment for Learning vs. Grading Practices

“If students don’t know where they are going, it is unlikely they will arrive.” – Shirley Clark

Often teachers ask me, “Where do I start?”  Five years ago I would have said you have to start by ending the use of a zero for work not seen and stop the practice of reducing marks for work that is turned in late.  It is still my opinion that these practices are in need of being revisited by those who haven’t already done so.  However, because these practices are still prevalent in schools today I now hesitate to start the conversation here because it is often where the conversation will also end.  Without a viable alternative to these practices, many teachers who use zeroes and late marks for whatever reason will balk at the suggestion they reconsider their use.

In my current role as a teacher of new teachers I have opportunities to revisit the debate about assessment.  I help my students (new teachers) grapple with assessing the work their students produce and their School Associates’ expectations of what assessment data is being collected and how a final percent is arrived at.  Some student teachers are given more license to explore and experiment with formative assessment and descriptive feedback.  Others are expected to generate a certain number of marks in a set amount of time.  Assessment practices still vary significantly from classroom to classroom, as does the ways teachers “calculate” percentages.

Bottom line, I don’t believe assessment, or assessment for learning (AFL) = marks and percentages.

Assessment for Learning, as far as I understand and have read, has nothing to do with how a teacher generates a number to “represent” a learning activity or a body of learning activities.  Eventually a teacher needs to report a mark, level or percentage for distribution to the public.  I have written about an alternative path to generating a percentage here.  If you can agree with the notion that there isn’t a direct link between “assessment” practices and the “calculation” of a percentage, then consider this:

Preventing teachers from using zeros and late marks isn’t going to change the “assessment” practices of the teacher.  It’s the old, tell me not to do something and I’ll do it…”  But, change the “assessment” practices of the teacher and I believe you’ll end that teacher’s use of zeroes and late marks.

Assessment is about learning; assessment for learning.  It is about being clear with one’s learning intentions, clear about what it looks like when the learning has been achieved and clear in the use of descriptive feedback (words, not numbers) to help students grow.   I believe that if we start the conversation by asking teachers to focus on the learning by being clear with learning intentions and the success criteria there is much more of a chance that teachers will have to revisit zeros and late marks.  By understanding that the letter grade’s only purpose is to represent what a student has learned, then erroneous use of zeros and late marks has to be questioned by teachers.

Ultimately, if teachers require students to complete the work (which negates the need for a zero) and the completed work shows they have met the success criteria, then I bet a teacher would be hard pressed to take late marks off of a student who needed a bit more time.  We want students to be successful.  We want them to not only meet, but exceed their potential.  Assessment; assessment for learning will support us in helping all students achieve their own success.

I’m interested in where you think we start the conversation.


Starting a New Chapter and Reflections on the past 4.

Today marks the end of my time at my current school.  When I started here my daughter wasn’t 3 months old.  Three weeks ago she turned 4.  Time flies.  Well as some already know, in the fall I will be working as a faculty associate at Simon Fraser University in their Professional Development Program.  I eagerly await the opportunity to get started and the many opportunities that lay ahead.  Having worked with pre-service teachers in the past I am sure this next few years will be very rewarding and will have a positive impact on my practice.  People I meet that have done the job have all said it was a highlight in their career.  For me, my path to SFU all kind of started in November of 2010.  I was facilitating an AFL workshop at an assessment conference in Whistler, BC and I was fortunate enough to meet Damien Cooper, an assessment author and presenter.  I asked him how we might change teachers’ assessment practices to better serve our students.  His response was that we have no power to change people.  We can only seek out positions of greater influence.  Since then I have taken his message and sought out different positions of influence and have landed happily at SFU.

As I reflect on the last four years I see my work at my school as fitting into one of two “categories” of sorts that leave me two key learnings that I want to share.  The first category was that I felt the need advocate for teachers new to the profession and new to the school.  Having been the new teacher in the past I knew that sometimes having your voice heard could be difficult in busy high schools.  This led me to taking on the role of the school union representative and I was able to help ensure that teachers in the school were treated fairly and equitably.  Often times my role was just to be a person to ask questions of.  Bottom line is that I believe it is so important for those of us who have been teaching and have kind of figured it out to seek out new teachers and help them adjust to their new profession.

I have also been involved in many initiatives that advocate teaching practices that I believe better support students and their learning.  Through working with others on these initiatives my professional growth in areas such as assessment, inquiry based learning, and collaboration has been career changing and has had positive impact on the students that I teach.  The message here is that working in collaboration with other teachers is key to moving our practice forward.  All teachers have much to offer each other, and it is in these collaborative relationships that we all have the opportunity to grow professionally.  Ultimately we will positively impact the students who will continue to show up to our classes each September.

So, to conclude, if we have connected or interacted in any way over these past four years I tip my hat to you.   It is these interactions that have me continually reflecting on what I do and what I believe about teaching and learning and help me grow as an educator.  These lessons I will take with me as I head up the hill to SFU.

Enjoy the summer (if it ever shows up)!

The Best Thing I Did This Year

I spent the day with other Surrey School District (#sd36learn) educators at a session with George Couros (@gcouros).  The challenge to us as teachers was this: if we are going to expect kids to do it, we have to do it first.  The world, namely the digital world, in which we live is a place that can afford opportunities to kids that we didn’t have when I was a student in school.  If we are going to ask students to blog about their learning, then we as teachers need to do the same.  George asked those of us with blogs to answer this question:

What is the best thing you did this year?

For me the best thing I did this year was to attend two edcamps.  The first one I attended was at Garibaldi Secondary School in Maple Ridge.  It was great to be in conversations with other educators from other districts as well as administrators, trustees, parents etc.  Everyone there had an interest in education and what is in the best interest for students.  The session that has had the biggest impact was one by Chris Wejr (@MrWejr) on Awards, Rewards, and Punishment.  The message was to focus on student strengths because they all have them even if we have to look a little harder in some children.  The idea of moving from an honour roll, which is related to grades, to honouring all asks us to reflect on what our purpose for school and awards is.  Is it to create winners and losers, albeit well intentioned and unintended, or to focus on the best in all students in a school?  It forces us to reflect on what we believe the purpose of school is and how we treat students in our school.


The second edcamp I attended I invited two of my Grade 12 students to attend with me.  They spoke passionately about how using inquiry gave them ownership over their learning and how they were more engaged when using inquiry to study a topic.  Chris (@MrWejr) assures me a post is in the works about the impact of their message.  What I have learned from including students in the conversation about what is working in their schooling is that we need to continue to actively seek out the perspective of those we are teaching.  We have to ask them to be honest and we have to be ready to hear what they have to say.  Students know what works and doesn’t in their learning.  Unfortunately many of them don’t make their voice heard because of fear of repercussions, often in the grade book, or because they aren’t asked.  I have learned that if I want to move my practice forward I have to have a continual conversation with my students about what is working, what is not and what we can do to make it work.

Have you solicited feedback about your practice from your students?  If so, how did it impact your teaching and learning about your teaching?  I’d be interested to hear your stories.

Reflections on AERA 2012

I was fortunate enough to attend the AERA Conference in Vancouver this year and now it’s over and I have had time to digest all the sessions, I can say I feel even more fortunate to work in BC, than I did previously.


I have read about No Child Left Behind.  I understand that states use standardized tests to assess the effectiveness of their school system.  But only now, after being in multiple sessions with American educators, do I begin to get a feeling of how pervasive testing is.  In a session on benchmark assessments I asked, “Does the state exam take precedent over all aspects of teaching?”  The short answer was yes. 

What is clear though is that researchers understand the importance of putting students at the centre of their own learning.  Susan Brookhart suggested that student self regulation might just be formative assessment.  If students are engaged in assessing their own learning, then naturally they will be more self regulated.  Unfortunately, because state standardized tests often focus on factual recall, teachers spend lots of time preparing students for the test and often that means formative assessment gets put one side.

Sol Joye and Glenda Moss presented a session called “Doing Social Studies Through Project-Based Learning.”  I left this session affirmed in my practice.  They showed that by using PBL and open-ended questions techniques that students scored higher in all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, including the basic recall level, the level at which most state assessments were focussed on.  Their message to American teachers is that using PBL can help with test scores and motivate and engage students.  Here in Canada, this is clearly more the norm.

Collaboration, PLCs, and Professional Development

It seems to me that under the weight of standardized testing American educators have to turn to one another and collaborate to help achieve desired results.  Whether those results are educationally sound is open to debate, but what they have done is forced teachers to have conversations about their practice.  “Data” can, and is, more than numbers.  One researcher encouraged us to decouple data from accountability.  Data needs to be seen as evidence, student samples, useable by the classroom teacher to inform instructions.  Data is a place to start a conversation about what is important in student learning and how to shift practice to have the greatest effect on the success of our students.

Further to collaboration at the classroom level, Fullan and Hargreaves expressed the importance of collaboration at all levels.  District and University partnerships are important in educating new teachers.  Anne Lieberman urged us to continue to see Professional Development as research supported, networked, school based and in collaboration with others rather than being complied with.  Teachers learn best from other teachers.  The theme of shared solutions between ministry officials and teachers’ unions was not lost on those of us from BC, who are in the midst of a labour dispute between with the BC government. Ultimately, the message I left with is the creation of a collaborative culture is important in maintaining a strong public education system.

Thinking Down the Road

I left AERA with a renewed feeling of optimism in BC education.  The future of BC education is bright.  When comparing our system with that of our US counterparts we have so much that we can reflect on positively.  There are still issues that need to continue to be discussed but I left the conference surer of the direction we are heading in as teachers in BC. 

Networks of Inquiry and Innovation… A place to be a Blue Fish!

“The challenge of creating greater quality and equity for all learners requires that we bring a networked mindset to our work.  The challenges are too great for any one teacher, school or district to go it alone.”

Halbert and Kaser (2012)


Whenever I have the opportunity to meet with the Networks of Inquiry and Innovation I always leave the conversation inspired and inquisitive.  Last Thursday was no exception.  After meeting Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert at an assessment conference in Whistler in 2010, I have been involved with the network and am continually inspired by teachers who are engaging in inquiry to ask questions about what is working and what could be working better in their practice, for their students.


I want to share some thoughts about Thursday’s gathering.


The network is an amazing initiative because it breaks down the walls of titles and qualifications.  In the room were Directors, Principals, Vice – Principals and teachers and from the outside listening in one would struggle to distinguish one from the other.  What would be clear is the commitment to education and to the students in their care.  This commitment is reflective in the journey that some teachers take to be present at these gatherings.  One flew in from Bella Coola! 


Judy told a metaphorical story of how in teaching there are schools of yellow fish all travelling in one direction with uniformity.  Then, if you look closely there are a few blue fish that are swimming against the tide refusing to follow the other yellow fish.  The network is a place for the blue fish to meet and share their successes and struggles, knowing there are other blue fish to support them in their inquiries.  Being involved in the network provides the blue a safe place to ask themselves the questions the network encourages us to ask our students. 


Where are you going with your learning?

          This question requires us to be clear of our learning goals and intentions.  Without a clear destination it is less likely that all students will arrive.


How’s the learning going?

          Implied here is the use of success criteria, related to a learning intention.  Descriptive feedback is also needed to help students understand how to improve their learning.


Where to next?

          Learning doesn’t have an end date.  What are the next steps?


Being involved in the Network has allowed me to identify aspects of my practice that I wanted to “figure out” and engage with at a deeper level.  Using the spiral of inquiry and these three questions I have become a more purposeful practitioner.  I encourage you and your staff to consider how you can become part of the network and see how it can impact your practice as it has mine.


The Network of Inquiry and Innovation can be found at