Assessment Opinion

Chasing (and Catching!) Butterflies: Empowering Learners Through Standards and Personalized Assessments

By Contributing Blogger — January 27, 2015 3 min read
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This post is by Virgel Hammonds, Superintendent of Kennebec Intra District Schools (KIDS), Regional School Unit 2, Maine

Regional School Unit Two (RSU2) is a consolidated school district in Central Maine established in 2009. Students from the communities of Dresden, Farmingdale, Hallowell, Monmouth, and Richmond attend its ten schools, which we now call “learning communities.” Upon the district’s inception, the RSU2 board of directors and administrators held numerous meetings with stakeholders in each town to codify a vision for how effective learning communities would function. We aspired to develop a system that ensured mastery of all standards by all students while empowering each child to take ownership of his or her individual learning process. The vision was ambitious, yet the school board, administrators, instructional staff, and community members agreed it needed to become reality for every student.

By the third year of its existence, RSU2 had fully implemented a K-12 proficiency-based, learner-centered system. All children are now required to show mastery of each standard before progressing along the learning continuum. The most difficult aspect of this radical change was not defining and implementing the proficiency standards and learning targets, but establishing a transparent, flexible, and readily accessible process for evaluating learning that supports students’ interests as well as confirms competency.

RSU2 quickly realized the power of student agency and capacity that was unlocked through this access.

All standards at each level are defined using Dr. Robert Marzano’s taxonomy: “Retrieval, Comprehension, Analysis, and Knowledge Utilization.” Our learning communities explicitly make our expectations of rigor clear to every child, and we teach them how they can measure and assess their own progress through the curriculum. RSU2 students have learned that the taxonomy is a tool that can empower and motivate them to create uniquely individualized learning experiences while meeting assessment and learning expectations.

Using the standards in concert with the taxonomy, students and teachers collaboratively devise educational experiences that ensure proficient, or more than proficient, levels of understanding while also making learning relevant to the passions, abilities, and interests of each child. Some students began proving their knowledge of geometry by designing ramps inspired by the ESPN X Games. Others have proved mastery of English and history content standards by researching, reenacting and reflecting on historical events, or identifying how contemporary global issues affect Maine. Other students aspired to achieve the “Knowledge Utilization” level of the taxonomy by presenting their concerns about Maine’s economic trends to the state legislature’s Appropriations Committee. These are only some examples of the countless learning strategies and assessments developed by children and teachers to provide innovative, academic experiences in all our learning communities.

In describing the growth of RSU2’s learning framework, a community member from Richmond related how the people of the Anishnabe culture (Algonquin Indians living in Canada) have long shared a story in their mythology about empowerment. In this story, children upon birth were first taken care of by animals. The animals protected the children, providing food, shelter, and friendship. The children imitated the animals as they followed their every movement including walking on all fours just as the animals did. One day, Nanabush, the god of the tribe, decided it was time for the children to grow as humans. Nanabush scooped up a handful of pebbles and tossed them into the air. Before the pebbles could descend, each one turned into a butterfly. The children looked up in wonderment and quickly raised themselves onto their two feet so they could excitedly chase after the colorful, winged creatures.

The power of a learner-centered, proficiency-based system lies within each learner and teacher. Once curricular standards were articulated and the learning taxonomy (rigor) was made transparent and understood by all, RSU2 learners stood on their own two feet and chased after their own learning butterflies. With formalized yet open learning structures, rigorous yet customizable assessment processes, and a learning structure that fostered the alignment to the passions and interests of each child, RSU2 has developed an educational system limited only by the powerful imagination of our empowered children.

Note: Maine is a member of the Innovation Lab Network, facilitated by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.