Helping Students Level Up

Formative assessment takes many forms. I generally put these forms into two categories: formal and informal.  Informal formative assessment happens all the time, planned and unplanned through questioning and observation.  As I float through the room and look at student work, I am assessing struggle and success.  As they work together to calibrate their work and communication, they formatively assess for struggle and success. 

Formal formative assessment happens when my learners are challenged to scrimmage with the information we are learning, when they go one-on-one with assessment items.

We’ve been struggling with the traditional descriptors for the Guskey-style 4-point rubric.

Level 1: Beginning
Level 2: Progressing
Level 3: Proficient
Level 4: Exceptional

How do you explain to a 13-year old that they are progressing rather than beginning? How do you explain to a parent that their child is proficient but not exceptional?  Do you have time to sit down one-on-one with every child and counsel them with the level of feedback to help them improve?  Feedback is powerful and necessary for growth.  We have 15 essential learnings with multiple learning targets for the year.  How can we develop an assessment system that helps our learners self-assess and calibrate their understanding?  How many times does a child come back after school and say “I don’t get it.”  They can’t ask a question.  They don’t know what to ask. 

We have been saying…

Level 1 is what was learned as 6th graders.
Level 2 is what was learned as 7th graders.
Level 3 is the target; it is where we want you to be as 8th graders. 
Level 4 is the challenge for those ready for more. 

While not totally accurate, it has helped our young learner understand and gauge how much work needs to be done.  These descriptions worked well as long as we were learning about linear functions.  These descriptions failed me this week.  My descriptions failed us this week.  Modeling learning, we try again.  Here’s the new attempt. 

Level 1:  I’m getting my feet wet. 
Level 2:  I’m comfortable with support.
Level 3:  I’m confident with the process.
Level 4:  I’m ready for the deep end.

The success we’ve had offers our students the opportunity to level their understanding of each learning target in the progression of an essential learning. 

We started our linear functions unit using asking our learners to identify their understanding of each learning target using the Graphing Linear Functions Rubric shown below. 

We then gave them a diagnostic assessment to help them calibrate what they thought with what they could produce.  (It was very interesting, and the process prompted many discussions about what we think we can do versus what we can do.)  They immediately asked to complete the Graphing Linear Functions Rubric again.  They asked to chart their own progress!  After each formal formative assessment, students returned to the Graphing Linear Functions Rubric to chart their progress and to seek intervention or enrichment.

As we progressed through the unit, we used leveled formative assessments to continue to self-assess and calibrate.  The components of these formal formative assessments include

  • Assessment questions.  Questions are leveled using the language of the essential learnings.
  • Answer key (answers only).  Students self-check and then correct in teams.
  • Table of Specification.  Students calibrate their work level with the expected level.
  • Solutions.  Students can use our work to improve their communication and understanding.
  • Differentiated Homework.  Students are assigned (or choose) work at an appropriate level, working to level up.

The table of specifications helps our learners self-assess and calibrate their learning and understanding as we are working through the targets and skills.

The change in response from our students is remarkable.  The improvement in our communication is incredible.  Students now come in after school, sit down with me, and say “Ms. Gough, I can write the equation of a line if you give me a slope and a point, but I’m having trouble when you give me two points. Can you help me?”  Look at the language!  We are developing a common language.  Our learners can articulate what they need.  Regularly in class a child will ask “Is this level 3?”  They are trying to calibrate our expectations.

We are now able to differentiate and intervene for and with our learners.  I have always struggled with what to do for my fastest learners.  I need them and their peers need them to coach and work collaboratively; they need to learn more.  Finding the right way to balance these needs has been a struggle until now.  My favorite story about enrichment happened last week.  MR – very quiet, hardly speaks in class – literally skipped down the hall talking to me from 2 doors down.  “I left class yesterday confused about level 4, but I used your work from the webpage last night and now I’ve got it!” 

Self-assessment, self-directed learning, appropriate level of work that is challenging with support, and the opportunity to try again if you struggle are all reasons to offer students formative assessment with levels.  Making the learning clear, communicating expectations, and charting a path for success are all reasons to try this method.

Sending the message “you can do it; we can help” says you are important.  You, not the class.  You.  You can do it; we can help.

In addition to reading the research of Tom Guskey, Doug Reeves, Rick Stiggins, Jan Chappius, Bob Marzano and many others, we’ve been watching and learning from TED talks.  My favorite for thinking about leveling formative assessments is Tom Chatfield: 7 ways games reward the brain.

If you are interested in seeing more formative assessments, you can find them sprinkled throughout our assignments on our webpages.

The TI-Nspire files shared during my T³ International Conference in San Antonio are linked below:

I’d love to know what you think; do you have suggestions or advice?

14 thoughts on “Helping Students Level Up”

  1. I like this, and am going to put some thought into trying to “level” my concepts for next year. One thought—aside from the rather obvious final exam, do you ever check to see is students are retaining their level of mastery on a concept? Also, how do you have students track their own levels? Are they keeping sheets in their notebook?

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  2. Fabulous, detailed, thorough post about the essentials of leveled assessment. Thanks for encapsulating a complex topic in a way that makes sense and seems so very translatable and implementable.

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  3. I just wanted to know how level up is working. I love the idea and our text book are actually set up seperating the levels. My question is, do you differentiate the actual lessons? Also, on a side note, have you heard of livescribe, the pulse pen and do you use it??

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