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Aurora Institute

Student-Designed Performance Assessments for Personalized Learning and Student Agency

CompetencyWorks Blog

In this third blog post of a four-part series, I will dig deeper into the Vermont Agency of Education’s work to improve personalized, proficiency-based assessment systems by focusing on strategies for supporting student-designed performance assessments.

One of our goals for the convening described here was to work with educational leaders to refine tools and investigate resources that can strengthen local comprehensive assessment systems that support proficiency-based learning in their districts.

Essential Components of Student-Designed Assessments

The convening began with this question: What do you think are the most essential components of student-designed assessments? Participants were asked to write down their initial thoughts on an index card that we would return to later in the day. The intended outcomes for the day were also explained:

  • Develop a shared understanding of what is meant by “authentic assessment.”
  • Explain the importance of student agency and its role in personalized learning.
  • Understand how to support and incorporate student-designed assessments into the learning process.
  • Understand how student-designed assessments can be an integral part of personalized learning and the personalized learning plan process.

What is an authentic performance assessment?

The need to develop a collective understanding of the word “authentic” had emerged at our previous convening. Although authentic is often associated with performance assessments, it was clear that the group lacked a common understanding. An Edutopia video—What is authentic assessment?—was used to provide background information and elicit participants’ ideas. Educators were asked to work with a partner and respond to the following prompts:

  • What needs to be in place for an assessment to be authentic?
  • What is one example of an authentic assessment?

A lively discussion ensued! In order to focus the discussion, we investigated a proposed definition of authentic assessment:

An assessment is considered authentic when students are asked to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills that are relevant and applicable to their lives outside of school.

As this definition was considered, people questioned the use of “real-world” and it became apparent that “real-world” took on different connotations depending upon content as well as grade level. The take-away from this discussion is the importance of clarifying language that is being used within educational systems. In a post by Jim Knight, Words: The Power of a Shared Vocabulary, he states, “The simple act of talking about a word like voice, and working to develop a shared, deeper understanding, can be very meaningful professional development.” Without these important discussions, educators may unintentionally create inconsistent (and therefore possibly inequitable) expectations and learning opportunities for students as a result of having different interpretations of common terms.

Connections: Learner Agency and Student-Designed Assessments

Learner agency, an essential element for student-designed assessments, is also one of six attributes identified in a Vermont Portrait of a Graduate. The related descriptors include: Students take ownership of and drive their own learning; Students develop their own voice and the ability to use it in a variety of settings; and Students have high expectations for themselves and see themselves as lifelong learners. Additionally, the quote below by Starr Sackstein, from When Students Design the Assessment, Everyone Wins, justifies the value of including students in the assessment design process:

Students must be put into a position of control over their own learning if we truly hope to make them life-long learners who are intrinsically motivated. By giving them opportunities to get involved in the design process, we allow them to show themselves that they are in fact capable of this task without our help.

Additionally, Catlin Tucker states in her post, 3 Ways to Build Student Agency into Your Lessons:

[T]he ability to make key decisions about their learning is a powerful motivator for students. If they are invited to tailor the learning to their interests, decide how to approach a problem, or determine what they will create, it makes them feel valued as individual learners.

Our next activity helped participants determine the current status of student voice, a component of agency. The figure below, from Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice by Eric Toshalis and Michael Nakkula, shows a spectrum of student voice based on the ways students can act as stakeholders and collaborators in their learning. In the figure, students’ influence, responsibility, and decision-making roles increase from left to right. After determining where they currently fall on the spectrum, educators considered what they might do to move their system further to the right.

Graphic Showing Spectrum of Student Voice
Source: Eric Toshalis and Michael Nakkula, 2012. Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice.

Acknowledging that teachers are at varying degrees of readiness and/or willingness to turn over the development of an assessment to a learner, we explored the continuum of collaboration shown below.

Graphic Showing Continuum of Collaboration
Source: Emily Laute, Vermont Agency of Education

Important decision points were then identified. For instance, who (teacher and/or student) and to what degree will they determine:

  • the standards, proficiencies, and/or learning targets to be addressed?
  • the actual learning opportunity?
  • the evidence necessary to demonstrate proficiency?
  • the evaluation process?

Please note that in the Continuum of Collaboration diagram, neither arrow is labeled as “good” or “bad.” It is important to remember that this is a journey, and educators need time to develop an understanding of the value of student-designed assessments as well opportunities to collaborate with colleagues. The article Orchestrating the Move to Student-Driven Learning by Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda thoughtfully describes how different learning and assessment opportunities can vary along a continuum from teacher-generated learning to student-generated. The discussion framed by this article helped to clarify opportunities for balancing teacher and student control in the assessment design process.

The fourth and final blog post in this series will provide examples of student-designed assessments and how to support students in their design process.

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Pat Fitzsimmons HeadshotPat Fitzsimmons is Proficiency-Based Learning Team Leader at the Vermont Agency of Education. She collaborates with educators to implement proficiency-based learning and assessment systems that are student-centered. She has worked with various stakeholders to construct a Vermont Portrait of a Graduate and co-authored numerous documents related to proficiency-based learning. Before moving to state-level work, Pat was the Science Specialist for the Barre Supervisory Union in Vermont. She also fondly remembers her first fourteen years in public school as a kindergarten teacher. Pat was the first kindergarten teacher in Vermont to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Education.