First Person

Outcomes-Based Assessments

Midway through my third year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, not too long after our disappointing school quality review, the principal asked all teachers to read a long article on the limitations of “traditional” methods of assessments for underperforming students. The paper, written by a public school teacher from Chicago, detailed how one school increased student achievement by doing away with grades and report cards in favor of records assessing student performance in very specific areas. Our principal invited a guest speaker from this school to promote this form of assessment, and teachers were asked to join a pilot group on a voluntary basis.

I opted out of the pilot group, preferring instead to remain consistent with the system I’d had in place from the beginning of the year. I tallied grades according to student performance on exams, projects, daily class work and homework. This approach to assessment acknowledged many factors of student performance beyond particular learning goals. A student who worked hard and always turned in homework had a chance of receiving the same or better grade than a student who skipped classes but still demonstrated understanding of class material. By contrast, with an outcomes-based assessment system students need only demonstrate “mastery” or “proficiency” of specifically articulated “learning outcomes.” Students have multiple pathways to demonstrate such outcomes (essay writing, oral exams, etc) and can do so at any time in a given marking period. Class attendance, homework, and effort are not necessarily assessed.

At the end of that year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, we were informed that all teachers would be required to use outcomes-based assessments the following year. I even heard that our school had paid $10,000 to a consultant to help set up an on-line computer program that would organize and track our student’s performance on each outcome (this program was decidedly not user-friendly, as I had to click from student to student when entering data, instead of being able to press tab like I could using “Gradekeeper”). The administration asked us to write 12-15 outcomes for our classes for each semester and encouraged us to align them with “key cognitive strategies” as outlined in David Conley’s book “College Knowledge”.

This task proved quite difficult. At least within social studies, our curriculum, as standardized by the state of New York, is organized by content. Thus, we had to think about how to write outcomes that spoke both to content and skills. As a result, I wound up with the following outcomes for my first unit about political systems:

  • Students can demonstrate an understanding of multiple points of view by comparing and evaluating their own cultural and societal values (about parenting, gender, government, etc.) to those of Confucian China
  • Students can explain the basic philosophies of both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and can use evidence to support an argument about which philosopher’s ideas more accurately describe human nature
  • Students can evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of both democratic and totalitarian societies
  • Students can apply knowledge about governmental systems by designing a school based on the principles of democracy, monarchy or totalitarianism.

For each outcome, I then had to write a rubric of what it meant for a student to be “highly proficient,” “proficient,” or “not yet proficient.” These rubrics were difficult to conceptualize because students could submit many different forms of evidence for each learning outcome. For example, for my outcome about Hobbes and Locke, would a detailed Venn diagram be considered evidence of proficiency, even if it led to a poorly written essay? If the student filled in the Venn diagram accurately but could not articulate his or her ideas orally, has he or she shown adequate understanding? It was challenging to provide clear criteria to my students for what they needed to show me to be considered proficient or highly proficient in a given outcome.

Though returning teachers had been told to write outcomes over the summer, the new teachers were finding out about it near the beginning of the school year and had to scramble to compose them. There was little coordination between the outcomes written by teachers in a given department. For example, there was no clear coherency between the ninth-grade global teacher’s outcomes and my own for 10th grade global, since we both wrote them independently of one another.

Our department was instructed to create a scope and sequence of outcomes that would scaffold the development of specific skills as students moved from the ninth grade to the 12th grade. We worked on this during twice-weekly department meetings throughout the course of the year, though without ever having a model of what the end product should look like. Meanwhile, we taught our current students using the learning outcomes we came up with on our own.

I still taught historical content-knowledge that I hoped would cultivate a deep understanding about certain places and times and the ability to make connections between them. I simply adapted my own way of teaching to a new method of assessment. Similarly, there was no paradigm shift in the way my students approached their schoolwork. The outcomes-based assessment system may have been meant to break the institutionalized norm of doing schoolwork in order to gain points and make a grade, but many of my students just treated HP as the new A and NY as the new F.

But, at least for the sake of the school and its upcoming SQR, the school could now point to a system of data collection that charted specific academic strengths and weaknesses of the students in each of their teachers’ classes. After last year’s “underdeveloped with proficient features” SQR rating, the administration was determined to not be rated so poorly again, and outcomes-based assessments was only the beginning.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.