Vermont Commons School Uses Uncommon Assessments
by Mark Cline Lucey
As a high school teacher, I am often thinking about assessments. Like many of us, I have struggled with the question, “In addition to tests, what else?” A traditional test, quiz, or exam measures certain things, primarily information retention. A well designed test can even measure a student’s ability to synthesize and analyze information. A research paper or class presentation can measure the ability to gather and communicate information. But what about all those other aspects of growth? The ability to work with others? Curiosity? Respectfulness? Willingness to challenge oneself beyond one’s comfort zone? Leadership? Initiative? Openness to constructive feedback?
This past summer I had an epiphany. It revealed itself in stages one afternoon in August as I considered creating real-world, project-based learning opportunities for my students, while attending the Education for Sustainability Institute at Shelburne Farms. The first light bulb: rubrics – nifty little tools that measure the performance of a student, based on criteria that are clear to the students beforehand, and can even be co-designed with students. The second bulb: written reflections – challenging students to think about what they experienced and learned, not only about the subject matter, but also about themselves, and asking them to evaluate their own learning. The third: open-prompt questioning and Socratic dialogue, between teacher and student, student and student, and together as a whole class.
All of these tools are about helping students grow in a holistic way, and about allowing them to be agents in their own growth. They are also about recognizing different learning styles and concede the fact that traditional testing works for only certain students. These tools gauge learning as students to apply their skills and knowledge in a real-world, open-ended context. In other words, they are about authentic assessment. At Vermont Commons School, in South Burlington, Vermont, we have an academic program called Research & Service. In addition to all the traditional disciplines, students take this place-based, service-learning class for one semester each year. As the director of the program, I decided to try out these authentic assessment strategies in the classes being run this year.
During the first week of school, after explaining to the students what we would be doing and learning over the course of the semester, I asked them to start brainstorming, “What criteria would be the measures of performance in a service-based class like this?” We then took the brainstormed list and the students sorted it in to four different categories – 1) Service work 2) In-class work 3) Written work 4) General attitude. Each of these categories became a rubric, with various performance criteria identified within them. All of it came from the students.
IIt was awe-inspiring to watch their enthusiasm and the constructive dialogue as the students took ownership of their own growth/performance assessment. Rather than a teacher telling them, “This is the standard I will hold you to,” the students were setting their own standards. In many cases, the standards were higher than anything I would have come up with.
We had a fantastic semester, with students out in the Burlington community doing work that included teaching English to Nepali and Bhutanese adults and English Language Learner students at the Sustainability Academy. Back at Vermont Commons School, my students used the rubrics they had created to assess their own performance on a weekly basis. They also wrote weekly reflections, either prompted by me or free-writes, followed by reflective class discussions. Questions that sprouted from our service work and our reflections provided the Research element of our Research & Service class. By revisiting the rubrics regularly, students became very familiar with what the assessment criteria were, allowing them to work toward improvement. As one of my students recently wrote, “My experience with the Nepalese refugees has helped me grow as a person. I have learned to go outside of my comfort zone and talk to other people, become immersed in the community, and learned about another culture.” That is the kind of awareness of personal growth that all students should have the opportunity to realize.
Mark Cline Lucey is a teacher, Community Engagement Coordinator, Social Studies Department Chair, and Senior Leadership & Senior Project Programs Director at the Vermont Commons School in South Burlington, Vermont.