By Morgen MacDonald, teacher and Literacy Intervention Co-ordinator, Salmon Arm
Communicating student learning and assessing student progress is an ongoing inquiry for many teachers around the province. A group of teachers at Shuswap Middle School in Salmon Arm, BC, have spent the last two years participating in an inquiry project where we questioned, “How do we make reporting and assessment more meaningful to students and parents?” Our inquiry was guided by the Provincial Assessment Pilot goals, including flexible communication with parents, descriptive feedback, an emphasis on student reflection, and a shift away from letter grades to a strength-based proficiency scale.
In the first year of our inquiry, with support from school and district administration, we worked together to establish a framework for reporting. Since we were embarking on a journey to explore new ways of assessing and reporting, our group needed to select and create all the documents we would use throughout the year.
Strength-based proficiency scale
The first building block of our new assessment framework was the proficiency scale from the Provincial Assessment Pilot. Rather than the finality of letter grades, which say little about a student’s ability or understanding of subject matter and focus more on achievement, the move to a proficiency scale allowed for a shift in mindset toward growth and improvement.
Each teacher was given a copy of the proficiency scale, which included kid-friendly language, to post in their classroom. From these anchor charts, students learned the meaning of each stage of the proficiency scale. This language was used throughout class time to ensure students and teachers were gaining confidence in this new way of thinking about assessment.
Students were encouraged to see themselves as ever-growing learners. Students gained confidence and comfort knowing that the focus was to see progress and growth. As the inquiry project progressed, we noticed students were better able to identify themselves on the scale and use proficiency language as a way of self-assessing. Overtime, we noticed a change in personal teaching practice, an increase in student engagement in assessment and learning, and a shift in how we, as teachers, viewed assessment.
Points of progress reports
Many of the teachers in the group felt pressured writing traditional report cards. These traditional report cards covered subjects in isolation from one another and were due by specific deadlines that did not always align with natural breaks in the learning cycle. To allow for more flexible reporting, we created points of progress reports. Points of progress reports give the opportunity to report on units of learning as they finish rather than two or three months later, as is sometimes the case with traditional report cards.
Megan Weir, vice-principal and Grade 8 teacher, noted that descriptive feedback is a powerful way to affect student learning. Each point of progress report that is sent home includes:
- the big ideas that were covered in the unit.
- the core competencies the student practiced and developed throughout the unit.
- the curricular competencies the student has gained.
- specific feedback for the student related to engagement, behaviour, and progress.
- next steps and goals for future learning.
By setting out the reporting document in this way, we were able to give specific feedback about each student as it applied to the unit or project. We were also able to integrate units and report on cross-curricular progress in a single document. This allowed students and parents to more easily see how subjects are connected.
The group noted that this shift in reporting also resulted in a shift in planning style. Shannon Thio, Grade 6–7 teacher, stated, “I started using the point of progress report as a planning tool. By setting out what curricular competencies a unit would cover I was able to think purposefully about how to include these in my teaching.” This backward design planning led to more purposeful use of language as teachers made sure to state the competencies and big ideas while the class worked through a unit.
Sue Whitehead, Grade 6–7 teacher, noted, “This project pulls together my favorite best practices: backward design, establishing common language for clarity, intrinsic goal-setting practices, and student ownership of learning.” We noticed that students were increasingly aware of what they were learning and why. As a result, when students were asked to self-assess they could do so using language from the curricular competencies and the proficiency scale. Teachers in this project took different approaches to self-assessment: some used rubrics that mimicked the points of progress and used the proficiency scale, while others gave students their own copy of the points of progress to write on. It was great for the group to hear about the various and diverse ways teachers were using self-assessment to connect students to their learning and growth.
Quinn Olson, Grade 8 teacher, observed that, “This style of assessment and reporting resulted in students and teachers sharing the responsibility to monitor progress. The teacher is no longer the sole keeper of grades; we work together to move forward.”
Personal tracking sheets for teachers
As teachers, we were still required to meet Ministry of Education reporting requirements throughout this inquiry project. We created personal tracking sheets to share with school administration to show that we met provincial reporting guidelines throughout the year.
The emotions of change
As with any change, this exploration of assessment and reporting has been a challenging one. Grade 8 teacher Ryan Kenny noted, “The project forced me to feel frustrated, overwhelmed, and, at times, fed up. It also allowed for tremendous camaraderie and shared learning with my colleagues.” Ryan’s feeling of frustration and overwhelm were shared by all of us as we worked to transform our reporting and teaching. Having access to the BCTF Teacher Inquiry Program time allowed the group to work together, support each other, flesh out ideas, push and challenge one another, and come to a consensus about how and why reporting is important.
The group dug deep into what assessment means to teachers, parents, and students and gained a greater sense of confidence in both their assessment and teaching practices. Throughout the process, classes were aware of the learning taking place and changes in engagement were noted in all grade levels. Teachers watched as students became active participants in their learning and through self-assessment were able to identify areas of strength and stretch. The work done in this project has helped to inform and support some of the new reporting practices being implemented in School District 83, North Okanagan Shuswap, notably the use of personalized, meaningful feedback. As this worthwhile inquiry ends in May, the participating teachers at Shuswap Middle School hope that our new learning will continue to influence reporting practices in our classrooms, and that we can act as mentors for others as they embark on journeys to challenge traditional ways of assessing and reporting.