Taking On New School-wide Assessment Initiatives
Elizabeth Schlieger, VAC Chair
It has been an interesting year for my colleagues and I in the world of assessment. Our high school is involved in a transition from a form of assessment that utilizes formative and summative assessments that are translated into a letter grade to a Standards Based Grading System (SBG). I opted to be part of our SBG pilot group, just like I opted to be part of the grading team when we switched to our current formative/summative system. For me, it is essential that I am part of this change so as to assure what is being developed works for the arts as well. Below is an overview of what I have learned so far about the SBG assessment system.

The theory is fairly easy to buy into. Develop a grading system that is about communicating with students in a way that will facilitate learning directed at identified curricular standards. Most teachers will find that a SBG system is consistent with the research practices of Marzano, O’Conner, and Guskey and what they define as effective grading practices. It is the practicality of developing a system that does this while fighting the standard question—what’s my letter grade?—that becomes the challenge.  At the beginning of this process I also felt that there was a need to translate the standard grades, which are recorded with a number from 1 – 4, into a letter grade at the end of the semester because of the implications secondary grades have on post-secondary school. It has only taken me 3 months to no longer feel it is necessary. In fact, I believe that it gets in the way of one of the main theories behind SBG—communicating student learning on identified standards. Retaining letter grades is just about an inability to let go of the past and a language that is no longer sufficient in communicating out to students what their learning is.

 The next obstacle is, which standards and how many? This is a seemingly overwhelming task in a sea of State and National content standards, no matter what your content is. Our district has given us a guideline of 6 or less, which helps. Thankfully the recently released National Visual Arts Standards (NVAS) help as well in narrowing this down and developing a language that can be effectively translated into a SBG rubric that can be utilized by both the instructor and the student. In addition to clear standards, the NVAS have been established with different levels within secondary education; proficient accomplished and advanced. It is just a process of deciding which standards fit with which course and at which level. Easy right? But then the real work begins.

Each time we adjust our assessment we have to look at our entire curriculum, the lessons we use as part of the learning process, and ultimately we need to reflect on if we are connecting with student learning in its desired capacity. Some positives that have come from being part of this pilot include that I have had to evaluate how I use each moment of instruction within my classroom, making my instruction more effective in the process. I have developed an additional feedback tool to go along with the basic SBG assessment that includes self-reflection and instructor feedback on specific elements of projects to help students understand how they apply to the standards, which essentially pulls the student into the assessment process more.  I have developed additional learning tools that require students to engage in more content writing, so I am finding a better balance between studio and reflecting/critique for my students. In general I feel more connected to what my students know, when they know it, and how I can individually address those students who still need more help in showing that they have mastered the essential standards of the course.

So far it has almost been like developing a new language, but when your goal is about more effective communication of student learning I guess this makes sense. I’m still learning and still adapting.

If you are interested in finding out more about SBG in the secondary art room please feel free to contact me at eschlieger@marshallschools.org.

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