Assessment Opinion

Knowing What Students Know: The Power of Documentation

By John T. McCrann — December 17, 2015 4 min read
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I sent the following request out to my networks: In this era of high stakes assessment I’m hoping to raise educators’ voices around a simple abd profound question: how do you know what your students know? We want to hear from folks who seek to answer this question with tasks that go beyond bubbles or fill-in-the-blanks. What do students DO that tells you they’ve mastered a concept or standard. Please share your adventures in performance assessment.

Angela Stockman, a New York Educator Voice Fellow, responded with the great ideas below. I love her discusion of the science metaphor as a vision for how we can embed meaningful assessment into schools by “scooping up” data and moving forward. Be sure to check out the links for further discussion and application.

There is no denying the testing mess, and recent efforts to reduce our dependence on testing have renewed conversations about what it means to assess in ways that serve learners as much as they serve educators and the systems they work in. This allows us to pursue the Common Core Learning Standards in ways that engage and motivate students and teachers.

At least this is the case in my small corner of the world, where I spend most days facilitating professional learning in schools throughout western New York State. The purposes for my work vary from one system to the next and yet, regardless of the topic under investigation or the work at hand, one question remains constant:

How do we truly know what our students know?

Dissatisfied by the potential for quantitative data alone to address that question, many of the teachers that I support have begun embracing documentation for learning. This practice distinguishes itself from testing in several critical ways. Let me explain.

Studying Learning vs. Evaluating Performance

Hilda Borko, Brian Stecher, and Karin Kuffner suggest that when scientists want to study the earth’s crust or the ocean floor, they don’t require our planet to stop spinning in order to produce lab samples. Instead, they simply scoop up what they need in order to examine it. Likening learners to planets and teachers to scientists, Borko, Stecher, and Kuffner challenge us to assess learning in process through the use of scoop notebooks rather than disrupting it in order to test. Much can be learned about the power of documentation from their work.

The advantages are compelling:

  • Learning is not interrupted in order to complete testing. Instead, teachers document learning made visible.

  • Students and teachers have the opportunity to study why and how learning happens rather than merely evaluating the product of it.

  • It’s easier to weave feedback loops throughout the experience, increasing the likelihood that learners will reap the greatest rewards from the assessment process.

  • Capturing a wider view of learning invites teachers and students to discover the unexpected and form hunches and theories that testing cannot inspire.

Documentation provides a solid start for those interested in studying learning. Experienced practitioners typically move through each of these steps in a relatively recursive fashion, using what they discover about learners and learning to refine their purposes as well as their instruction.

Documenting to Study Learning: 8 Steps in a Recursive Process

1. Defining a Meaningful Purpose - teachers work with learners to establish a focus for the study that is relevant and meaningful.

2. Establishing Habits of Documentation -they begin planning the documentation process by considering when the learning will be made visible, how, and which processes and tools will be used to document the experience.

3. Making Learning Visible -this involves distinguishing learning from its products by making learning processes, reflections, and metacognitive moves visible.

4. Displaying the Evidence -teachers and students work together to code, categorize, and organize the data for analysis.

5. Amplifying the Learning -technology enables us to invite the feedback and perspectives of those outside our system.

6. Interpreting the Evidence -teachers and learners study the evidence and speak to what they see, using varied protocols that insure quality analysis.

7. Theorizing -teachers and learners test varied interpretation protocols and improve the quality of their analysis work over time.

8. Using Our Learning to Inform Practice and Refine the Study -good scientists know that the findings from their documentation work serve as catalysts for different and perhaps deeper investigations far more often than they provide clear answers. Similarly, great teachers use what they learn from their documentation efforts in service to students, but more importantly, they use their discoveries to define what they want or need to learn next. This renewed commitment to learning, sharing, theorizing, testing, and relearning often ignites enthusiasm, inspiring them to seek company among professionals who share their passion for this work.

Submitted by Angela Stockman, New York Educator Voice Fellow, Founder of the WNY Young Writers Studio, author of Make Writing: 5 Teaching Strategies that Turn Writers Workshop into a Maker Space, and professional learning service provider to districts throughout western New York. Email: stockmanangela@gmail.com Web: http://angelastockman.com Twitter: @angelastockman

Photo: Stockman suggests that teachers should be more like scientists, sampling learning as we work rather than stopping the learning process to take an assessment. “Watersampling” by Ashjaymohsin - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Watersampling.JPG#/media/File:Watersampling.JPG

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