An interview with Jennifer Deenik, Living Systems Science Teacher, Souhegan High School, by Jennifer Poon, Innovation Lab Network Director, Council of Chief State School Officers.
Last month, New Hampshire’s well-known Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) pilot passed a critical milestone: participating teachers, leaders, and national experts gathered to participate in the first PACE quality review process since the pilot’s approval in March of this year. Held at Sanborn Regional High School, the quality review allowed teachers across the pilot districts to review student work, calibrate scoring, establish comparability, and further develop and refine common performance tasks. It was against this backdrop that I had a chance to meet one of the pilot’s teacher leaders, Jennifer (Jenny) Deenik.
Jenny is a biology teacher and Critical Friends Group coach at Souhegan High School, where she has taught for 18 years. In July, she was recognized by President Obama as a recipient of the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Now, as a member of the original cohort of teachers who were trained in using and facilitating protocols to develop common performance assessments for PACE, Jenny helps make sure fellow pilot teachers receive the supports that they need.
I asked Jenny about what it’s like to teach amid the school, district, and state’s efforts to radically rethink how student learning is assessed.
JP: When did you start teaching, and what led you to become a teacher?
JD: I started teaching in the outdoors leading 17-day backpacking courses for the National Wildlife Federation Teen Adventure program. Through these courses I taught lessons on wilderness first aid, environmental science, and low-impact camping. When I graduated from college I worked at a private school in New Jersey as my first formal teaching position. I realized early on in my experience working with adolescents that I loved sharing my love of nature and science while teaching important life skills.
JP: When did you start using performance-based assessments and/or competency-based practices as part of your classroom practice, and what led you to do so?
JD: About six years ago, I engaged in a three-year inquiry-based research project on assessment. The research that I did showed me the importance and significance of assessing a student’s performance and skills in addition to content knowledge when determining their progress and measuring their learning. Although I had used performance assessments prior to this project, I became much better at developing the tasks and making them much more authentic at measuring various skills.
JP: What does “competency-based education” look like in your classroom, school, or district?
JD: Souhegan has had a local version of competency based education since its inception, which we call the Academic Learner Expectations. We want our students to graduate with a core set of competencies such as Effective Communication, Complex Thinking, Skilled Information Processing, Collaboration, and Self Direction, to name a few. As a member of a four-person teaching team, we share a grading system where students are assessed based on these “competencies” and are then asked to reflect on their growth as learners. In my classroom, I am constantly highlighting the skills that students are using in their daily learning activities. We might stop in mid-activity to analyze the skill that is currently being used, or I might frame a lesson on a specific skill and students will know from the beginning which skill is being highlighted in that activity. Now, as a school and as a state, we are shifting to a different form of competencies that are more formally linked to a school-wide grading and state-wide accountability format, which will inevitably create greater equity for all students across the school and the state.
JP: How do your students feel about performance-based assessments?
JD: I consider performance-based tasks the next step in the evolutionary process of assessment, one that values what students and teachers do as part of their everyday work in the classroom. Students want what they do to be valued and to matter. When classroom learning is authentic and rich and engaging, kids do their best work. We all know that standardized testing is a hard sell. Students prefer performance-based assessment over standardized testing because they are richer, more engaging, and more informative. The students prefer the performance-based assessments even though they realize that they take more time and are more challenging. The fact that our educational and accountability system is catching up and supporting the everyday work of students and teachers, means that students are being measured in a personalized setting and based on work they care about.
JP: In what ways has the use of performance-based assessments impacted student learning?
JD: Right now at Souhegan, we are really focused on pushing the “level of rigor” in our performance assessments. As a school we have embraced performance based assessments because we have always valued student engagement. But now we can push ourselves to create more challenging curriculum with the tools and support we have been given to develop new performance assessments. We use tuning protocols to push our thinking as teachers and to validate the tasks we create. In addition, we are so much more informed about our students and their learning progress by these tasks. The student work that we get from these shared tasks is real data that is much more accessible than standardized test data, which we can use to constantly push student learning. Because the student work is real-time data from real tasks, I have to do less translating then I would have had to do when using data from standardized testing. This creates continuity for me and therefore my students. Data from one task in November absolutely informs my practice and my student’s learning immediately going forward in my curriculum planning.
JP: If you were to give advice to other teachers looking to implement performance-based assessments or competency-based education, what advice would you give them? What are the “must do” steps they should take, and where should they start?
JD: I would advise three things:
- Build on what you know works. Find your entry points from your students’ interests and abilities as much as from the standards and competencies.
- Be ever transparent with your students: say, “This is the task, these are the skills, and here is the process.”
- Be collaborative. Use a few tools well. Work with your colleagues to ensure that your tasks are valid, and the data is reliable.
JP: What have been some of the most challenging aspects of participating in PACE?
JD: We are building the airplane in flight. As one of the early adopters in the state, our school is helping develop the process for a state-wide accountability system that incorporates performance assessments. So the work we are doing with other districts is highly collaborative. With that comes messiness, very tight timelines, and time-consuming conversations. We are also a school that is in the process of developing a school-wide grading system to reflect our philosophy and values. Building the accountability system at the same time we are building the grading system (upon which the accountability system rests) is challenging, to say the least.
In my own practice, as a science teacher involved in PACE, I am investing a lot of time in the Next Gen Science Standards, trying to figure out what that looks like in terms of competencies, but also in terms of rubrics and grading. It’s very time-consuming to write rubrics that everyone agrees on for tasks that are as complex as performance tasks, and that address the breadth of competencies a student is expected to master in a year!
JP: What have been some of the most rewarding or promising aspects of participating in PACE?
JD: It is so important that we regain some balance in students’ lives between teaching and learning and assessing. When I think of a child’s life in school between grade 3 and 12 and how much time is spent testing, and how little of that investment pays off in directly helping them become better learners, I see performance assessment as a way for students to gain back some precious learning time. When students work on a performance assessment, the learning doesn’t stop. They are learning through the task. Assessment shouldn’t stop the learning process; it should be part of it. I am also encouraged to think that when students leave school, they will have a much better sense of themselves as learners, not just performers. Competency-based education keeps the skills and concepts in front of students where it matters - their transcript. My hope is that they will see “Creativity,” for instance, on their transcript and know that it is valued in school, in college, in the workplace, in life. Who remembers their GPA from sophomore year? Probably a few. But when our students reflect on their abilities as complex thinkers and knowledgeable people, they have a much better sense of themselves than a percentage shows. That’s always my hope. This is also the reward obviously of participating in PACE--having students know themselves well and having teachers understand them as a whole rather than a mere vessel of discrete facts.
JP: What advice would you give to other district or state leaders who might be interested in launching their own PACE-like pilots?
JD: Any work with performance assessment and competency education has to reflect a school’s core values and beliefs about how kids learn best. It has to build on classroom practices that value personalization, student engagement, deep and rigorous learning, authentic tasks. It is a big shift to go from pencil-and-paper multiple-choice tests at the end of every unit to a valid performance task that asks students to demonstrate important skills and concepts in complex and authentic ways. It requires a commitment both from teachers and administrators. Teachers need to commit to collaborate on sharing curriculum, developing assessments, and scoring and analyzing student work together. But districts and administrators need to provide the structures that allow teachers time to collaborate, and the training and support for teachers to lead the work themselves and see the successes.
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