A Better Feedback and Assessment System?

I’ve been reading Robert J. Marzano’s “Formative Assessment and Standards-Based Grading,” and though I’m nowhere near done with the book, it has sparked a bunch of ideas which I’m not done digesting. Chief among my concerns is making sure that I build a system that works for me in my classroom, meeting my goals and helping my students be successful, regardless of what name, if any, is applied to the system.  SBG, SBAR, formative assessment, skills-based grading – the name isn’t what matters, and perhaps what I end up with isn’t truly any of these, or maybe it’s part of all of these. What matters is that the system meets my goals.

So then, what are my goals?  That’s taken quite a bit of thought to understand what I truly want out of an assessment system.  Following several days of contemplation, here are my initial goals:

  1. A system that easily illuminates the strengths and weaknesses of each student.
  2. A system that allows me to differentiate instruction and activities across individual needs.
  3. A system that provides students a greater sense of ownership over their learning.
  4. A system that promotes responsible independence.
  5. A system that provides me with improved data for planning future instruction.

Sounds simple enough, but when considering all the implementation costs and struggles, I definitely have some concerns and worries.  In principle, a skills-based system where I assess students on individual skills developed from course, district, and state standards, broken down to a fine enough level that students can see exactly where they need to focus their efforts, could be assessment nirvana. Not only would such a system provide terrific insight into individual strengths and weaknesses, but this system would lay the foundation for a more freely structured classroom, with lessons, activities, challenges and further assessments pre-defined and available for students to work through at their own pace based on their own needs!  Think of it – in theory, every individual student in the classroom could be focusing their efforts on the activities that will make them most successful – personalized self instruction with ongoing support and direction from the instructor!

Could it actually work, though?  Are high school students mature enough to handle this responsibility?  I realize, of course, that a vast majority would require ongoing assistance and direction, but this recipe for my idealized classroom could be a recipe for disaster if not implemented very carefully with extremely well-defined boundaries and expectations. And is my idealized classroom truly what’s best for students, or just what I think would be best for students? Am I delusional in considering such a massive change in an already successful classroom?

On the other hand, if I don’t keep pushing forward, taking risks, and attempting change, in many ways I may be neglecting my job as an educator to do everything I can to help my students be successful. My administration has consistently allowed me to take educated risks, knowing I have weighed the costs, potential benefits, and done a reasonable risk assessment.  But this is a big one – high reward potential, absolutely!  Huge investment of time to prepare for such a paradigm shift… and risks which are substantial, and therefore must be carefully considered and mitigated to the best of my ability.

Even after thinking through the downside if my utopian vision of a physics classroom begins to resemble a thermodynamics experiment gone wrong, I think this is a move I have to make. I have colleagues in the teaching community who have implemented or are implementing similar changes… maybe not with quite the same vision, but certainly considerable potential synergies. I have supervisors and administrators in my school willing to support my risk-taking. And most importantly, I have the drive to become the best teacher I can be, to help my students become the best they can be. The moment I’m no longer true to that goal is the moment I should look for a career change.

So, I continue to explore, research, and develop guidelines for next year’s classroom. I have a long way to go toward alleviating my three main concerns at this point, and would appreciate any feedback or thoughts those of you who have already jumped into the SBG/SBAR pool could provide. The current top 3 concerns:

  1. How to efficiently implement varied assessments to streamline data collection across multiple skills with more than 100 students I see each day.
  2. Communicating the system and its advantages to students and parents clearly and precisely.
  3. Fitting my assessment system into the school’s automated grading portal system.

Like I said, a lot more work to be done, so I’d best put down the computer and do some more research.  Thanks for your comments and thoughts!