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Aurora Institute

New Innovation Spotlight Episode – Assessments in Student-Centered Learning with Maria Worthen and Alexis Chambers

Education Domain Blog


In new models of teaching and learning, assessing what students know and can do looks very different from the traditional model of education. In the latest episode of our new podcast series, Innovation Spotlight, iNACOL Vice President for Federal and State Policy Maria Worthen and Policy Associate Alexis Chambers recently discussed challenges and opportunities to rethink assessments.

“Educators have known for a long time that assessment requirements are ‘out of sync’ with what they know about teaching and learning,” Worthen told Matt Shea and Courtney Belolan, who run the Voices Hub at the annual iNACOL Symposium. Educators’ voices have been heard and have made their way to the highest levels of policy through new opportunities in ESSA, including the innovative assessment pilot. However, much work remains to achieve complete coherence between what is needed for instruction and learning and measures needed for policy and accountability.

“In a competency-based classroom environment that is personalized, assessment can support individual student learning and achievement outcomes that matter,” said Worthen, “It can empower educators to facilitate student progress…and provide feedback on the depth and breadth of learning as well as provide valid reporting on progress, so students know where they are in their learning, and they get that feedback in a timely manner.”

“The ultimate goal,” said Chambers, “is to equip teachers to adapt learning experiences and adjust how and what they teach, when and where they teach, based on the assessments they’ve conducted.”

“This allows students to play a more active role in their learning. Assessments are a chance for us to get some valuable information on where we are and meeting our goals, both as educators and students,” she said. “And from a policy standpoint, we want to create a space at the top to support what the educators and students are leading on the ground.”

Still, an unfortunate conflation of assessment and accountability must be reckoned with.

“We talk about accountability and assessment like they’re the same thing because with past policies, like No Child Left Behind, we have attached big stakes to the assessments. So, the test did, in fact, become an instrument used for accountability,” said Worthen. “We’re trying to change that conversation and elevate the notion that assessment is a vast concept that, when done well, is critical to learning.”

“To get there, we must advance educators’ assessment literacy,” Chambers, a former teacher, said.

“Teachers have to play a leadership role in designing new systems of assessment,” she said, “because if teachers don’t understand how to assess our students, how do we expect students to learn and grow and master content? Teachers are the most frequent and important point of contact for students and for student learning.”

Educators need to know what assessments are measuring, what skills and knowledge students need to be successful not only in the classroom and beyond. “That’s done by training educators on how to read assessment data, how to align what students are learning with what they’re being tested on, and making content and content really relevant.”

Chambers shared her experiences as a history teacher to share how all these factors come in to play in a learning environment. She shared how her students had great interest in social justice issues, and they often asked her to offer culturally relevant learning experiences. To honor their interests, while knowing students would be assessed on certain points, she built a unit on World War II, that shared all the necessary standards, but through the lens of African American soldiers.

She knew “a multiple-choice exam where you’re just bubbling in ABC, or D, wasn’t going to capture the richness and the engagement of my students.”

Instead, she used project-based assessment. Students worked in teams to come up with creative ways to showcase what they’ve learned. Some wrote and performed songs and produced music videos and short films. Some did a standard poster or a gallery walk. Chambers also worked with English and social studies teachers on a rubric to ensure the students were assessed on reading, writing, and other critical standards. Groups of teachers watched the presentations, and together they would score groups against the rubric.

“I was just so impressed with how my students took ownership of what they were learning, and it turned out to be the best unit I think I’ve ever taught in my career,” Chambers said. “I had students who wanted to show me what they had learned. This illustrated for me that when we listen to our students, and we equip our teachers to do what they need to do for kids, we can transform the way that they engage with education and learning.”

Listen to the full podcast here, and watch the Education Domain blog for more conversations in the Innovation Spotlight series. And if you will join us at the 2019 iNACOL Symposium, stop by the Voices Hub to share your experiences with Matt and Courtney.