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Aurora Institute

Little Boxes: Common Assessments in the Age of Competency Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Justin Ballou

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Create Balanced Systems of Assessments

little boxes
From Wikimedia Commons

I am a sucker for quality hip hop music and the art of sampling. There is something to be said about the rebirth of something into a new generation’s culture that allows the passing of the torch. Nothing can beat the opportunity to interpret the emotion and drive of the original artist’s rendition of a song and the context of the newer creation and compare how they used the same materials to paint, often times, two totally different pictures.

Personally, my respect for the art form of sampling allows me to see both sides of the coin. As I dig through old records at flea markets and basement shops or find those rare segments on YouTube, I gain a look into a time and place much different from now. I begin to appreciate the use of the same language and instruments to create scales and emotion that on the surface are quite different, but once dug into are, more times than not, closely related.

Not too long ago, I stumbled upon this little gem, Little Boxes. Some of you may recognize it from the Showtime hit show Weeds, but long before that, it was a folk jingle written and performed by Malvina Reynolds, describing an assembly line attitude toward life that involves cookie cutter education and living in “little houses made of ticky-tacky.” In listening to it, I found myself comparing the older version and the newer version that runs during the opening credits to the show.

In this analysis, two things became evidently clear to me:

  1. The time period in which the folk jingle was written was one of great transformation. One in which the old ways of defining “right” and “success” were being challenged by a new generation that was not happy with their opportunities.
  2. The same song, used in a completely different time period on Weeds, painted a completely different picture in a similar context– and carried the same weight. The relationships of the discontented were there in both renditions, but how each of the characters showed that discontent was completely individual to the people and the time period.

I see this as the same situation we face when looking at both quality performance assessments and common assessments within our schools and districts. As we have seen competency-based education gain momentum, we have also seen a rush to define what some of these things are as well as put boundaries on them. As I have been struggling with this professionally for a brief period, I have observed two main ideas that continue to circulate as a definition of common assessments.

To some, common assessments are identified as the students creating the same product for the teacher to validate that learning has occurred. This can take many shapes (posters or essays, public service announcements, short stories…), but in the end, one teacher is requiring all students to hand in the same product.

To others, the definition of “common” is not seen in the product but rather in what learning we are validating. Students can show their ability to apply knowledge in a plethora of ways. Whether in a short story or a script, a poster or painted sneakers, students’ abilities can be identified and assessed in a way that the student finds appealing.

As we move forward, I only hope that we can start to see the power in the latter of the definitions and attempt to give as much autonomy to the moment of education as to the structure. I fully believe that guidelines should be set in place, objectives met, and requirements identified, but in a world that is moving more and more toward valuing the creativity, innovation, and personalization of opportunity, I feel we may be doing our students a disservice by trying to wrap our newer ideas in older structures and models.

We don’t need all of these “little boxes made of ticky-tacky” all looking just the same. We should listen to the message of the generation and understand that the status quo is no longer what we value; rather, value is now placed on individuality and ownership in the process. We need to allow the students to show us what they know and are able to do in their own way. If we want this generation to be able to define itself, we need to give it the guided opportunity to do so. And that starts with a more modern definition of “common.”

Justin Ballou is a high-school social studies teacher in New Hampshire. Besides teaching, he is active building/running an education startup called Socrademy, several business ventures, and enjoys spending time with his beautiful wife. With competency-based systems, edtech, and authentic learning as his go-to topics, you can reach him at [email protected] to ask questions or leave comments, and follow him on twitter (@socrademy).