Friday, February 4, 2011


I have spent much time reading all kinds of information about the need for change in school, and I agree with much of it.  A special concentration seems to be focused on technology, and for good reason, since it is such a powerful tool, and is changing the game for learning and teaching.  What surprises me, however, is that in all of this discussion, not enough seems focused around the topic of assessment, and regardless of what changes we make in attempts to improve the educational experiences of our students, without making some improvements to our assessment practices, I am not sure how much success the changes will result in.

The Richmond School District has decided to put assessment at the top of its priority list.  Superintendent Monica Pamer, has a blog about the subject, and the district is now looking at having schools develop their own statement of purposes and practices surrounding assessment and evaluation.

The school board has come up with some guidelines still in draft form, to be brought to school staffs for discussion. The first area (Policy 607) for discussion looks at the purpose of Assessment and Evaluation, and recognizes that it is not for ranking, sorting or categorizing students, but rather to support their growth, and enhance student learning and achievement.  Another element (Policy 607-G), also still in draft form, discusses Assessment for and as learning having a purpose in guiding instruction and enhancing student growth, and the last section (Policy 607-R) looks at feedback as the key to student learning.  The goal for the district in bringing these topics to the forefront is to have each school develop their own statement of purposes and practices related to assessment and evaluation by initiating these conversations through a series of guided discussions that staffs will engage in.  Making schools create their own statement helps develop a shared sense of what schools are and should be doing, and involves the students and the community in the process.  Creating this shared vision of purpose and the practices involved in moving toward that purpose is important, and consistent with what Terry Ainge is writing about being done in Delta.

Some of the guided discussion questions include looking at research on the topic of assessment, discussing Damian Cooper's 8 BIG ideas of assessment, and discussing individual practices and successes with one another.  Also, discussion will look at some of the work by Ken O'Connor and his 15 fixes, as well as the strategies involved in Assessment FOR learning.  All of these conversations will be based on the principles of assessment and evaluation that indicate assessment should:  Be focused on clearly identified curriculum outcomes and criteria;  Inform teachers as they plan for instruction; Include a clear description of learning intentions and standards for students and parents; Be ongoing and offer many opportunities for students to receive descriptive feedback; Respect the developmental differences of the learner by differentiating instruction and recognizing that students learn at different rates and in a variety of ways, as well as many others.

Ultimately, the conversations with school staffs and community will result in a common understanding of purpose and practices regarding assessment for teachers, parents and students.  This is a massive undertaking in Richmond, and once each school has developed their own statement, it is to be reviewed annually with staff and community members.  It will take some time, but in the long run, is a huge step forward in improving the educational experiences of our students, with the hope of moving assessment and reporting away from simple numbers or letter grades used most often for sorting and ranking, into more prescriptive feedback for parents and students.  As a colleague often recalls, "When I get my kids' swimming lesson report cards, I know what they do well, what they need to improve, and why they did or did not meet expectations.  In high school, I too often get a number or letter and a comment that does not always share much information about areas of strength or ways to improve."

It is an ambitious, but very worthwhile, conversation and project for the Richmond school district to undertake.  Other districts have likely already begun similar initiatives.  Does anyone have any thoughts or suggestions for how to get the conversations started, or where they see them going?  I look forward to getting your feedback.


  1. Hi Jason,
    Interesting post on an important issue. It's good to see that Richmond is looking at this conversation at the policy level. Formalizing a common understanding around the purpose of assessment and grading practice is ambitious but needed. Years after the dialogue began, we are still having it!

    You've probably seen it, but this video with Dr. Douglas Reeves on Toxic Grading Practises is a good conversation starter...

  2. Thanks, Terry. It sounds familiar to what you are engaged in in Delta. Ours is focused on assessment, while yours sounds a little more holistic. Important conversations indeed.

  3. Nice post here, Jason, and on a topic that I am very interested in. We have started down this pathway in Kamloops, and specifically at our school. We have worked with Damian Cooper, sent groups to the Portland Assessment Institute, and spent extensive amounts of time looking at the Professional Learning Communities Model. Initially, it was incredibly challenging to confront some assessment practices that have been commonplace and traditional. However, the benefits that we are seeing as a school in terms of recognizing the purpose of assessment as well as the changes in student achievement have made any struggles more than worthwhile.

    Doug Reeves is an excellent resource in the area of grading practices as well. His YouTube Video on Toxic Grading Practices, and his article called "The Case Against Zero" are excellent for schools and districts to look at.

    I will make sure to keep my eye on Richmond over the next months!

  4. Thanks for the feedback, Cale. Sounds like you are well underway, and we will likely be following some similar steps. I am pleased to see so far that some of the more traditional assessment practices in certain Richmond schools are not as commonplace as I worried they might have been. However, there is still much to discuss, and formalizing a commonly understood purose and guidelines for assessment practices will be very valuable in the long run. It should be quite a journey.

    I have seen the Doug Reeves video, and we have begun discussions around the topics he questions as well as those surfaced by Ken O'Connor and others. We will continue to do so.

    I look forward to learning more from people like yourelf as we move through the process.


  5. Hi Jason,
    It is interesting to see how much this conversation is happening around the province. In Coquitlam we are starting a process of re-examining our assessment and reporting practices with the goal of no longer having letter grades K-7 and perhaps beyond. Just as the comment made about the swimming report card, letter grades are too vague and take away from the learning, progress, individual goals. The comments can be too vague, and are at times limited in how useful they are for parents to know what their child's strenghts, areas of progress and areas that need additional focus are. Too often it is felt that the letter grade tells enough of the story.

    We cannot talk about personalized learning or 21st century learning without first addressing assessment. Most teachers are now using much more formative assessment than before, but I think that we still have a way to go. We also need to look at whether letter grades can be used in a report card when much more formative assessment is what is what should be used in the classroom. Schools are about engaging the learner and helping them grow, not about ranking.

  6. Thanks for the feedback, Remi. I agree with your comment that too often people feel the letter grade tells enough of the story, and that we can't truly move forward with our 21st century learning initiatives until we update our assessment practices. I am, however, optimistic, since I see great turn out at study groups and other professional development groups discussing the topic. We have a way to go, but have begun the process.