Thursday, June 16, 2016

What I bring to the assessment think tank; or, what can techquity offer assessment?

My weekly calendar is bookended this week by conversations about assessment. On Monday, I had the opportunity to speak with innovative educators from the National Writing Project, the Creativity Labs at Indiana University, and LRNG. I'll be part of an assessment inquiry team forming to assess the work that youth submit in response to LRNG playlists of online content. This summer and into the fall we'll be thinking together about the possibilities for these playlists, badges, and youth interest-driven learning. This work has a national scope and may inform the local work that happens in cities of learning

At the other end of the week, on Friday, I've got an appointment to join an assessment think tank conversation in Aurora Public Schools. In my role as educational technology coordinator, I'll convene with program directors and content coordinators for an hour to discuss a full range of assessments, including diagnostic, progress monitoring, as well as common formative assessments. The appointment also indicates that we'll think about "what techquity can offer." This conversation is part of the ongoing work in APS to reorganize and reform our instructional work to foreground equity. We'll need to tie into a strategic plan that states that every student will have the plans, the skills and the credentials to shape a successful future. It is a local project that could have implications for how other culturally and economically diverse urban districts work. 

The two conversations and the ongoing projects associated have me taking inventory of what I bring to assessment work with equity aims. 

Assessment expertise made simple

Conveniently, my favorite literature about teacher evaluation and about assessment is all condensed into one little article, "Teachers as Evaluation Experts," by Peter Johnston. In it, Johnston makes a claim that approaches gospel. To paraphrase, he says that in order to test a teacher's ability as an evaluator, we can look at that teacher's impromptu description of a child's literacy development. According to Johnston, an expert will focus on process and will detail what a child can do. (Johnston's emphasis.)

Johnston recommends this as a self-test for teachers, who might ask, "Can I describe a student's literacy development with a focus on process, and an emphasis on wha that the learner can do?" The high value he places on naming what youth are able to do jives with my experience working with youth and their parents, and it extends beyond literacy as a content. My assessments are best, and best received, when I can point accurately to a students abilities, skills, gifts and talents. 

In equity professional learning in APS, we are pressed (capably, by the bow-tied Yemi Stembridge) to think about the differences between applying an asset-focused lens with our students and communities, and applying a deficit-focused lens. Having worked for the entirety of my career in the diversity of Aurora, CO, this simple framing- that we must approach our youth and their communities with an asset focus- is just as fundamental and important when we think about educating youth, as learning to stay to the right is when we are learning to drive. In both contexts, following these fundamentals helps us avoid head-on collisions. 

 Don't forget ambitious instruction

Whether I'm looking at an LRNG playlist (coming soon!) or thinking about instruction in APS classrooms, I'll bring a bias toward ambitious instruction. Here too, Dr. Stembridge has helped with a framing. In equity professional learning in APS we've looked at the Essential Supports for School Improvement from the University of Chicago's Consortium on School Research. Here's how they define my favorite of the essential supports, ambitious instruction:
Ambitious instruction couples the development of strong skills and basic knowledge with the development of keen intellectual capacity. Complex and multifaceted, ambitious instruction requires systematic organization of textual and graphic materials, a variety of classroom activities designed to meet learning objectives, and purposeful assignments for students. 
 This working definition creates a contrast to what the researchers found in the inner-city schools of Chicago.
Despite the compelling arguments for ambitious intellectual work, in inner-city schools, where children typically score below their grade level on standardized tests, policy makers and local educators often worry more about basic skills instruction because they believe that students cannot do more challenging work until they master the basic skills. 
The report closes its discussion about ambitious instruction by quoting Lisa Delpit, who said, "[If] minority people are to effect the change which will allow them to truly progress, we must insist on skills within the context of critical and creative thinking.” 

This sweet spot suggested by Delpit, between skill building and the development of critical and creative thinking, might be the real territory that assessment inquiry occupies. Strong assessment work requires a strong learning context. After all, students engaged low-level instruction, like worksheets that seek to build skills, can only demonstrate what the content and the instructor give them room to demonstrate. 

Going forward with these two inquiries, I'll apply Johnston's self-test with a strict asset-focused lens. The assets I can see in the work will tell me about the quality of the learning experiences available to youth.

When I'm assessing online work resulting from LRNG playlists, if what youth can do shines through the interest driven work these playlists catalyze, LRNG will know they're on the right track. If I'm planning and teaching in a literacy classroom and I cannot pass Johnston's self-test, I have to look critically at the opportunities in my curriculum. 

Avoid the death spiral of deficit-focused skill building

The report from the University of Chicago's Consortium on School Research says something else to me, so this is a bias that I'm bringing to all this assessment work: There is a skill building death spiral that teachers in urban settings, teachers with different cultural backgrounds than their students, must avoid the way a starship captain avoids a black hole. 
...local educators often worry more about basic skills instruction because they believe that students cannot do more challenging work until they master the basic skills. In this context, including such schools in Chicago, teachers rarely get to the more ambitious tasks...
I understand this to mean that assessment work in an environment with low level instruction is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a teacher starts planning for instruction with a deficit lens and designs low-level instruction that fails to engage, that teacher's assessment will show all kinds of new gaps and holes to fill. That is an educational death spiral. 

What can techquity offer?

A few years back, I used Twitter to express my interest in convening conversations about the intersection between ed tech and equity. Anna Smith, a colleague who worked with me on #clmooc cleaned up my first effort at a hashtag when she insisted on using #techquity over my clunky suggestion of #EdTechEquity, making the hashtag more economical in terms of characters and infinitely catchier. Since then, the #techquity hashtag has been a flexible marker of conversations about this important intersection (it has also withstood a regional hijacking by the city of Oakland, CA, when they talk about their tech sector.) 

Techquity is also the name of an emergent research partnership between the University of Colorado at Denver (UCD) and APS, spearheaded by Dr Remi Holden of UCD. Just over a semester old, that research has helped us identify problems of practice and has also inspired the development of school level inquiry projects. 

Besides bringing the fun spontaneity that made up words always bring to any conversation, I hope that thinking about techquity while we think about assessment means that we'll have a ambitious, innovative bent, and a critical lens about digital tools. 

While techquity work hasn't yielded any neatly packaged breakthroughs in assessment that I can deliver to either group I'm working with, the educators' voices we've heard can inform our conversations.

In the short history of the techquity project, a key frustration from teachers is software that is supposed to support math skill development, but always isolates students, locking their gazes to their screens, and bringing a halt to math conversations in class. For teachers who aim to foster collaboration and build on students' assets, some software is a digital version of the deficit-focused, skill building death spiral. 

Participants in the techquity project have been kind enough to take part in a "From-To" activity, where we ask them to name the shifts in practice they hope our work will bring about. The quick-writes of our participants have yielded a list that can inform my thinking about assessment. Techquity participants want to see: 
...interactive online reading
...more collaborative technology use and options where kids can choose their environment
...driving inquiry questions that integrate different content areas
...more open exploration of a variety of ways to express understanding
How's that for ambitious?  

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