Transforming Assessment

by Sandra Herbst

Students often find themselves in the position of responding to questions about their work and what that work provides evidence of.  Sentence starters like “Prove to me that…” or “Show me from your work that…” may be used.  Elementary students may talk about how their work used to look and what that work looks like now, after they have learned more.  Secondary students might need to prove that they can think critically or that they are able to make connections between the content of the course and ‘real world’ examples or other disciplines.  These are just a few examples of the ways in which students are prompted to talk about evidence of their learning to others.

In order that we can more deeply understand what it feels like to invite students into conversations about evidence of their learning, we might consider engaging adult learners and ourselves in a similar process.  This builds alignment in our systems; that is, all learners, regardless of their age or position, experience similar things.

Recently, I was with a group of principals, vice-principals, teachers, and district staff. Prior to our time together, I asked participants to each bring along an artifact that, as they reflected on it, provided evidence of something that they have learned since the beginning of the school year. For example, it might be a picture of a group of students in an activity, some notes from a professional learning opportunity, a book or an article that they had read and found thought-provoking, a note from a parent, student, or colleague, their professional growth plan, a quote that they can’t get out of their mind, or a memo that they privately or publicly questioned.  In other words, the possibilities were endless.  It needed to be something that they felt comfortable talking to others about, as we would use their artifact to discuss reliable and valid evidence of learning.

In chapter 7 of our book, Transforming Schools and Systems Using Assessment: A Practical Guide, Anne Davies, Beth Parrott Reynolds, and I write about evidence.  We state, “Gather evidence from multiple sources over time.  When we triangulate our evidence and collect it over time, valuing both qualitative and quantitative evidence of learning, we can be confident that our findings are reliable and valid.  We are then able to share our findings, using evidence that people value.”

In the professional learning session which I referred to earlier, we spoke about the three sources of evidence – product, conversation, and observation.  We listened and watched clips of students talking about the ways that their products told of what they knew and understood.  As a group, we reflected on the ways in which these conversations led to increased teacher knowledge about what students had learned.

And then it was our turn.  Learners retrieved their artifact.  They found partners and entered into a conversation about their artifact.  I presented them with five questions that were projected one at a time; people had about three or four minutes each to share their responses with their partners before I advanced to the next question.


The questions that I used were as follows:

Ici des questions, en français :

As you read through these questions, you notice that they represent various ‘levels’ of Bloom’s Taxonomy; they prompt us to look more deeply at the artifact and to reflect on its significance within our leading, teaching, and learning.

After completing this “Evidence Interview,” we talked about the ways in which it informed our understanding of the collection of evidence of student learning.  We also considered the kinds of questions that we could ask our students in order to have them think and talk about a piece of their work or their learning process.  The picture shows some of the questions that were formulated.  (A translation of some of them follows the picture.)

“Why did you choose this artifact?  What did you learn?”

“In what ways does this artifact show what you have learned or that you understand?”

“You have chosen this piece.  What would you like me to look at or pay attention to?  What are you proud of?”

It is important that, as educators, we deliberately place ourselves in the role of active and intentional learner.  This act reminds us of what we ask our students to do on a daily basis.  A simple interview like the one that I have just described can do just that – remind us of the importance of talking to our students about representations of their learning, of posing questions that ‘dig deeper,’ and of engaging the student in reflecting on what a piece of evidence is really saying about the ways that he or she learns.