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 spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.