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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Assessing Students on ‘What Really Counts’

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 11, 2016 18 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

David asks:

Schools are expecting students to do more problem solving, in response to Common Core assessments. Businesses complain graduates are not creative. In response, schools have students engage in innovative design projects. Most parents, though, grew up on letter grades and lessons out of textbooks. They don’t see the value in rubrics and performance assessments. How do we assess these projects so students and parents appreciate and understand what and how well students have done?

In Part One, Kristina Doubet, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Thomas Guskey, Thom Markham and Nancy Sulla contributed their thoughts. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Kristina and Heather on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two features commentaries from Andrew Miller, Suzie Boss, Meg Riordan, Abbie Sewall, Daniel Schwartz, and Vicky Layne. I also had a discussion with Andrew, Suzie and Meg on my BAM Show.

Response From Andrew Miller & Suzie Boss

Andrew Miller (@betamiller) is an educational consultant who focuses on project-based learning, assessment and student engagement. He is on the faculty for both ASCD and the Buck Institute for Education. He is the author Freedom to Fail and also writes regularly for Edutopia and ASCD.

Suzie Boss (@suzieboss) is an education writer and consultant who focuses on digital-age project-based learning to better engage today’s learners. Her books include Reinventing Project-Based Learning, 2nd Ed., and Bringing Innovation to School. She blogs for Edutopia and is on the National Faculty of the Buck Institute for Education:

Building the Ideal Graduate

Andrew: We’ve all had conversations around what we want for our students. While we all might have some specific differences, similar themes often emerge. We want students who are self-directed, students who can innovate, students who can take on challenging problems and persevere in solving them. We want students who can present their ideas effectively, and we want effective collaborators. If we truly want that, then we must, as educators, build learning experiences that foster these skills.

Suzie: Unfortunately, too many students are missing the opportunities they need to develop these competencies during their K-12 years. In a recent survey by Achieve, a national nonprofit, only 14 percent of college instructions described incoming students as adequately prepared for college or university. That’s down from 28 percent a decade ago. Employers are similarly pessimistic about students’ readiness for careers. Looking closer, we can identify specific areas of weakness, including students’ research skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving abilities. (Survey results here)

The good news is, those are all areas that can be deliberately taught and strengthened in the K-12 classroom through well-designed project-based learning (PBL). If we’re serious about teaching these skills, though, we also need to rethink assessment. Yesterday’s tests might have been OK for finding out which facts students had learned from a textbook or lecture, but they’re poor instruments for finding out whether students can evaluate evidence or apply knowledge to create something new. Similarly, the report cards that most parents remember from their own school days--with single letter grades for English, math, and other subjects--don’t communicate how well students are progressing toward learning goals that include creativity or communication alongside content knowledge. We need better ways to help students understand their own strengths and weaknesses so they can make real progress.


Andrew: One of the key features of a high-quality project is authenticity, and there are many ways a project can be authentic. The project could actually meet a real-world need or address a real-world problem. Or, the project might engage students in using tools and processes that people in a job or industry use. However one of the most natural, and perhaps overlooked aspects of authenticity is that a project can draw on students’ personal passions and interests. When teachers create or co-create these projects with students, the work and learning becomes so engaging that students stop paying as much attention to the grade and more attention to how the project matters. Teachers should create meaningful projects that let students know the work matters.

Suzie: When projects connect to real and relevant issues, as Andrew says, students are more likely to engage. At the same time, an emphasis on authenticity offers us new ways to think about assessment. How do experts in different disciplines get feedback on their work? What sorts of products or solutions do they produce? What are the real-world standards for excellence? How can we communicate disciplinary “excellence” in language students will understand? How can we help students use rubrics and other assessment tools to support their learning? Schools that are reshaping assessment to be more authentic are talking about these questions with their stakeholders--including parents, teachers, and students themselves.

Let the Work Speak for Itself

Andrew: Powerful projects can create powerful change, not only for the audience of the project, but for the school community and stakeholders. Skeptical parents may not understand PBL and its real value of building excellent learners who innovate. However, once they discover what PBL is and see what their students can do, they will surely understand PBL as a powerful learning experience. PBL builds a student who can do more than simply take a test and get good grades. PBL builds the whole student and gives them a chance to innovate and make real-world change.

Suzie: I was recently talking with a teacher about a ninth-grade entrepreneurship project. Because his students were interested in sustainability, he challenged them to generate proposals for business start-ups that would meet their own “green” criteria. To discover how innovators think, students read and discussed biographies of today’s leading idea-generators (weaving language arts into the project). At the end of the project, students used their communication skills to pitch their green business ideas--complete with prototypes they had designed in a makerspace--to an audience of angel investors, parents, and other interested community members. The event turned into “a community-building moment,” the teacher told me later. “This was about doing something authentic. This project told students, ‘Your work has value.’”

Bringing Parents and Other Stakeholders on Board

Suzie: The learning experiences we’re describing here may feel like unfamiliar territory for your parents and other stakeholders. That means schools need to get strategic about communicating their purpose and their processes for preparing today’s students for the future. Often, students themselves are the best ambassadors for authentic PBL. I’ve visited schools that offer student-led tours or have students serving on speakers’ bureaus to address service groups and other community organizations (talk about authentic use of communication skills!). Student-led conferences offer another strategy to amplify student voice in assessment. To help parents and other stakeholders understand the changes afoot in education, invite them into the project experience as content experts. Ask them to participate in focus groups or interviews when students are gathering information they need to address real issues. At the end of projects, when students demonstrate what they know and can do, ask parents and other interested adults to be engaged audience members who ask questions, offer critiques, and celebrate the authentic learning underway in your community.

Andrew: I totally agree with Suzie on this, especially in the areas of students. The work will speak for itself. When parents and stakeholders see what kids can do - articulate their ideas, respond to and ask deep questions, and create amazing products - then they will start to ask more questions about PBL which can lead to more conversations and eventually buy-in. In addition to parents being brought in at the end of projects, they can also be leveraged through out other points of a project, including launches, critiques and feedback protocols along the way, and expert speakers to support student learning. This process of “buy-in” that takes time, but is definitely worth it. We must be creative and flexible in finding ways to bring all parents and stakeholders on board.

Response From Meg Riordan & Abbie Sewall

Meg Riordan Ph.D., is a Project Director with EL Education, a K-12, non-profit educational organization. She leads EL Education’s federally-funded Teacher Potential Project, studying the impact of EL Education’s curriculum and coaching on teachers’ instruction and students’ learning. A former middle- and high-school ELA and ELL teacher, Meg’s research interests include teacher professional learning, experiential learning, scaling school reform, and blended-learning. She is the co-author of Going to scale with new school designs: Reinventing high school (Teachers College Press, 2009) and numerous articles.

Abbie Sewall is the instructional guide (coach) and 12th grade physics teacher at MELS, an EL Education School located in Queens, NY. She collaborates with the school designer and school administration to implement professional development for teachers. Abbie is interested in designing curriculum that engages students and empowers their voices within their own communities:

It’s a Friday afternoon in May and eighth-grade students from Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School (MELS) in Queens, NY are streaming into the library where a week-long Book Fair is taking place. Students enter, find their seats at tables, and prepare to sign books they have written. These young authors are joined by family members, teachers, other students, friends, and experts (authors, publishers, historians) to celebrate them and learn from their work. A palpable air of excitement fills the room as participants receive a collection of oral histories researched and written by MELS’ students; they request signed copies from the student authors, and engage in conversations about students’ experiences producing this work of nonfiction.

The book, Queens Migration, created by the eighth-graders at MELS is the culminating product of a project titled, “Origins.” This 12-week long project is an investigation into the origins of people and how those origins reflect who someone becomes or who they want to be. Throughout the project, students grapple with guiding questions: “How do we become who we are? Who belongs?” Students read nonfiction texts about immigration, transformation, and how people appropriate identities; the books include Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos, A Step from Heaven by An Na, and Crossing the BLVD by Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan. They interview immigrants and create transcripts of their interviews, reading for themes of identity and growth. Students generate additional questions to discover the “heart” of the narrative and then re-interview their interviewee. In developing their final product--the origin story of an immigrant--they engage in peer critique and receive feedback from expert oral historians. This project and the final product are particularly powerful because, according to recent census data, over 51% of Queens residents are foreign-born with origins all over the world.

In EL Education schools (formerly Expeditionary Learning) and at MELS, school leaders and teachers believe that when students are presented with authentic, complex work (like in the “Origins” project), the quality of craftsmanship and their engagement in the work increases--leading to deeper learning. Teachers design curriculum to align projects and students’ products with the authentic work of the real-world and create opportunities for students to learn about themselves and others. Students build knowledge, skills, and character through the process of producing high-quality work. Authentic products such as a book of nonfiction oral histories help families and students value the project because:

  • It is grounded in the experiences of the local community and global community
  • It is meaningful beyond the act of writing for a teacher; families and community want to contribute to and hear the stories
  • It values families’ histories

To engender investment in deep projects like those in “Origins,” MELS’ eighth-grade teachers support families and students in developing understanding about how students are evaluated by:

  • Creating clear learning targets aligned to state and CCSS standards
  • Developing a rubric that articulates a picture of quality for students, teachers, and families
  • Sharing product descriptors at the beginning of the project and sharing these with families
  • Instilling student ownership of the learning targets, ensuring that students understand what they are aiming for
  • Sending home drafts of student writing with rubrics so that families see feedback along the way
  • Assessing for learning with learning targets aligned to the final project so that families and students see ongoing progress
  • Developing students’ abilities to speak to their work connected to the learning targets. Where is there evidence of mastery and where is there evidence of needed growth?
  • Celebrating students’ work and their growth

As the students, teachers, and families at MELS illustrate, authentic projects and products designed to transfer beyond the classroom have value to students and their communities. Real-world student projects inspire families’ investment because they see the impact on the student and on others. By integrating well-crafted tools of assessment and communicating to families the progress of their student through clear learning targets, rubrics, and descriptive feedback, teachers, students, and families collaborate to support students’ learning.

Response From Daniel Schwartz

Daniel Schwartz, PhD, is Dean of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. He has served as a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education since 2000, teaching courses in instructional methods, learning and assessment, cognition, and cognitive neuroscience. He is the author of a MacArthur Foundation report on learning-based assessments and of the new book The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them (forthcoming in Summer 2016 from W. W. Norton):

Assessments--tests--are the empirical evidence people use to decide what it means to have learned well. We can tell students and parents a million things about what is worth learning, but in the end, tests teach people what really counts.

Old tests, and to a good extent new tests, emphasize efficiency at solving familiar(ish) tasks. These tests miss the fact that a major goal of education is to prepare students for future learning. Times and jobs change. Students need the abilities to adapt and continue learning.

Ideally, tests would provide students an opportunity to learn new content during the test, so teachers could determine whether their instruction is working. Performance assessments in a science inquiry context are one example. In our research group, we have been developing other approaches, such as game-based assessments in which students have the choice of whether and how to learn. We run into the same issue raised in this question - stakeholders still want to know if the children are doing well on old-school tests.

Why do parents want to evaluate their children’s performance using old-school tests? A glib answer is that the U.S. has never managed to switch from miles and gallons to kilometers and liters. People like the comfort of measurement systems they already know. A less glib answer is that parents are right to want their children to do well on old-school tests. The SAT is an old-school test, and no matter what we tell parents about the value of our method of instruction, they want their children to get into top colleges. The only way to win is to show that students improve on both traditional and contemporary assessments.

Where reasoned persuasion fails, evidence may help. The most compelling evidence of learning is a change over time. Here is a concrete idea - let students and parents see the gains by showing them start- and end-of-the-year answers to the same problems. We taught a course in educational psychology using a project-based inquiry cycle. It did not have the look or feel of a traditional textbook course. We knew the students would think they were not learning, because it was an unfamiliar method of instruction and people are horrible at judging how far they have come. We decided to conduct a little study.

The students received the same question at the beginning of the year and the end of the year. For half of the students, we let them compare their answers from the start and end of the course. The other half completed both the pre- and post-test, but never had a chance to make the comparison. Did letting students see their improvement increase their appreciation of the instructional method? To find out, we used the university’s end of course evaluation survey. We received a 25% higher rating from those students who saw their early and late answers compared to students who never had a chance to see how far they had progressed.

Let parents and students see what they did at the start and end of the year on the exact same task. It will help everyone see the progress for themselves.

Response from Vicky Layne

Vicky Layne is a Reading Specialist and Literacy Coach in the Jefferson County Public Schools (Kentucky):

Project-based learning continues to rise as a pathway for learners to demonstrate deeper levels of understanding and problem solving skills. Performance assessments can be effective, user-friendly tools to provide an accurate picture of the breadth and depth of student abilities. Rubrics and learning continuums have become the method of choice for assessing and differentiating instruction for these experiences. Clear expectations, strong relationships with stakeholders, and consistency can open new opportunities for engagement and increased achievement.

Clear Expectations

First, the teacher must have CLEAR expectations of the task(s). He or she must understand the standard, expected outcome, and level of problem-solving required. Consideration of pre-requisite skills and strategies that students need in order to produce proficient work should follow. Schools can use professional development time to deconstruct the standards and identify these items. Then, age-appropriate language can be written for rubrics, which consider the needs of all learners, and include criteria that constitutes above and below level work.


Next, consult with colleagues. Discuss the expectations and language used with team members or a resource teacher. Create kid-friendly rubrics with the students during instruction to encourage self-assessment and dialogue. Demonstrate these with “effective” models and exemplars. Score them together and clarify how they demonstrate the standards. Once students complete an assessment, provide appropriate feedback so they can build the skills that need refinement or remediation.

Guide parents to fully grasp what represents grade level work. Build bridges by conferencing and comparing to traditional grading systems; then, send home guidelines with language that is free of technical terms. Reach out to others who can translate or have established rapport with families involved. It is a team effort.


Finally, consistency alleviates frustration and creates a climate to support the paradigm shifts required. Ultimately, the goal of any good assessment is to meet students where they are, identify the additional support needed, and guide them towards their personal best.

Thanks to Andrew, Suzie, Meg, Abbie, Vicky and Daniel for their contributions!

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