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Let’s really talk about assessment

picture of highway ramp with white line on the left and yellow line on the rightThis is the picture of an off-ramp taken from the rear window, and cropped out of the picture is a car that has been totaled.  A car in which a group of teens were killed when they got on the highway going the wrong way. If you were to get on an offramp, going the wrong way, how would you know? The clue is the yellow line on the right side and white line on the left. The white line should always be on the right-hand side, and the yellow on the left. I’ve found that most people don’t know this, and yet that piece of knowledge can be a matter of life and death.

If this piece of information is critical, then shouldn’t it be taught in driver education? And, if it is taught in driver education should we make sure it is assessed? A common method of assessment is the use of quizzes constructed of random questions selected from a larger test bank. This type of assessment does not guarantee that the student will be assessed on critical information. If the drivers test consisted of a subset of random questions selected from a test bank, students may or may not get a question on white lines. Should they? And, if so, should it matter if they get it correct?

These are the kinds of things we should consider when constructing assessment. What is it that students need to have mastered in a course in order to pass? Do we directly assess it, and do we insure students are not passed along until they actually master it? If a course does not have specific competencies that a student needs to master, as some individuals will claim about their course, then why are we asking students to take it? There must be some skill or knowledge, at some level of mastery (even if it is on the beginner level) that we want students to get from that course.

Today, I came across a wonderful document on CBE posted on the Merrimack High School web site:


Why use competencies: 90%takeoff, 86%turbulence, 83% panel knowledge, 50% landing. Still passing, but would you want to get on the plane?

I took a screenshot of one of the slides, because I think it illustrates an important point about the weights we assign to various

assessments. I’ve seen a good many rubrics, and far too many of them don’t weigh the most important items properly. I’ve seen a good many category weights that allow students to completely fail the final exam and still pass the course–sometimes with a grade as high as an B.

A good part of the problem education now faces is due to the way we assess education, the way we credential it as well, and maybe even the way we think about it.  Much  more thought needs to go into what we assess, how we assess it, and how much weight we put on those assessments.

Value of a K-20 State-wide ePortfolio System

When I started teaching Middle School, in 1998, I was introduced to the idea of ePortfolios by an expert in education. At that time, there was a great deal of interest, in the State of Vermont (where I was teaching), around the idea of implementing them into the classroom. Well, here it is 14 years later, and the talk of ePortfolios from K-20 is still a topic of discussion, and something we’ve yet to implement well, particularly in K-12, not just in Vermont but nationwide. Why so? There are a few reasons why this is the case.

The first is that Higher Education departments of education primarily implemented systems specifically designed for meeting accreditation standards. They were difficult to use and definitely not something you’d use in a K-12 classroom to get kids excited about learning. Yet, these were the only eportfolios pre-service teachers were familiar with using.

Second is that the cost of proprietary systems are generally out of the reach of most school districts, especially when there is no mandate to have them. Even when there is a mandate, it is usually not followed by money to help with the implementation. Open Source options are often frightening to districts, and there are no salesmen at conferences pitching their products.  Schools have been on there own to come up with a solution, and then try to help the teachers learn how to build ePortfolios into teaching & learning in the classroom.

All of which leads to the third reason: teachers were never taught how to use ePortfolios, nor the purpose of them. To me, this is the most troublesome thing of all, because ePortfolios can be extremely powerful tools when used properly.

And finally, ePortfolios aren’t easily ported from one system to the next, but students are. And this is the primary reason that a state-wide portfolio system K – 20 is the ideal way for these to be implemented, most especially if this is taken on by a State University system that could host the application for all schools in the state. AND, if it was an Open Source solution, students of the system could have access for life. The State could host it, and charge a cost recovery fee for schools to use it. Precedence has already been set in New Zealand where the entire country is on the Mahara system. The social networking components of the system allow educators and students to interact with each other on a national basis as well as a regional basis. Students can move from school to school and their work follows them.

The benefits to the State System would be the ability for students to move throughout the system, from Kindergarten through life and take their portfolios with them wherever they went. They would have a complete record of their learning, their skills, even their dreams. Pre-service teachers would be using the same system their students would use. Portfolios could be used to meet entrance requirements for the University system. And the list goes on and on.

In the fall of 2010, while I was at Plymouth State University, we hosted a state-wide K-20 ePortfolio Day. It was extremely well attended. It was clear that educators from Elementary, to Secondary, to Tertiary education needed to collaborate with one another in the effective use of ePortfolios and participants expressed an interest to keep the dialogue going. http://www.plymouth.edu/office/online-education/531/eportfolio-day-2010/

There are a number of states that are currently poised to take this on: Being that I’m now in New York State, my hope is that NY State will see the value in this idea, and it will be the first state in the nation to implement a state-wide comprehensive K-life ePortfolio system that really works. NY’s current system (MyPortfolio) is focused on career and technical abilities, and is set to fail because of this. ePortfolios can be used for teaching & learning, for building projects, for critical thinking skills, etc. Here is a perfect example of what can be done on the K-12 level: http://myportfolio.school.nz/view/view.php?t=TpvU3eGSIOzy64aP7Kbn

As we wait for the dawn of this new year

Every year, at about this time, I make a list of all the things I accomplished during the year. It helps me to reflect on the year, stimulates my memory, and encourages me. So, as the New Year has arrived in various parts of the world already and is moving around the globe, I wanted to add my two cents to all the other two cents on what were the big “things” in education this year. My vote goes to the continued development around open education and the particular focus on credentialing: OER University which held its first meeting of the anchor partners this year, the Badges for Learning  (Open Badges) initiative, and the announcement of the certificate program soon to be offered as MITx. I believe these will impact education in ways we’ve yet to imagine. There are some tides of change that happen regardless of those who would like to stop it. The cost of education, and the importance of it, are driving new ways of achieving what’s necessary. The future, though it is right outside our door, is yet to be seen.

Happy New Year everyone!

MITx: a game changer!

The Open CourseWare movement began in 2002 when MIT began offering its courses for free online. Since then, the Open CourseWare offerings have increased significantly, and the effects of that growth have spawned calls for credentialing of learning achieved via OCW.  This year has seen some pretty spectacular progress towards this with the founding of OERU, Badges for Learning, and the offerings of Stanford, to name a few.  But, the year is not over and so it seems fitting that in these final weeks of 2011 MIT would announce MITx.  There are two parts to this announcement: a new learning platform, and the credentialing of learning through MITx.

MITx will offer a portfolio of MIT courses through an online interactive learning platform that will:

  • organize and present course material to enable students to learn at their own pace
  • feature interactivity, online laboratories and student-to-student communication
  • allow for the individual assessment of any student’s work and allow students who demonstrate their mastery of subjects to earn a certificate of completion awarded by MITx
  • operate on an open-source, scalable software infrastructure in order to make it continuously improving and readily available to other educational institutions.”

There are two important parts to this announcement, the biggest being that MIT will be offering certificates for those who complete coursework through MITx. At at time when there is fierce competition for students, when many colleges are seeing enrollments declining, and the number of online offerings increasing, this is HUGE!  Why? Because it is quite possible that obtaining a certificate from MITx would be as valuable, or more valuable, than a degree from many other institutions.  And the cost, though it has not yet been announced, is sure to be competitive as well.  As I said in the title: a game changer.

The less noticeable point of the announcement refers to a new platform for learning. Those who’ve followed the world of LMS (Learning Management Systems) will remember that MIT was one of the institutions involved in the development of SAKAI–an Open Source LMS that, while picking up some market share, never was a big competitor for Moodle.  The announcement today talks about a new platform stating:

“MIT will make the MITx open learning software available free of cost, so that others — whether other universities or different educational institutions, such as K-12 school systems — can leverage the same software for their online education offerings.”

The question is, will this go beyond the LMS and even ePortfolios to a new Personal Learning Environment, an idea that has risen to the forefront of many discussions on what learning platforms need to look like? What MITx and its platform will look like and do is yet to be seen, but there is no doubt it will change a great deal in regards to education in the future.

New Zealand’s ePortfolio system

New Zealand Silver FernYes, you read that title correctly.  The New Zealand Ministry of Education saw so many benefits in having a nationally sponsored system that, in collaboration with Catalyst, they developed an ePortfolio system and offered it to every school in New Zealand.  They even host it for the schools.  Aside from the benefits that ePortfolios bring to teaching and learning, a nation-wide system makes it easy for students to transfer their work from one school to another, insuring smoother transitions and more continuity in assessment.  The system also provides collaborative spaces where teachers and students from around the country can discuss topics of interest and share ideas.  In fact, through their collaborations they make recommendations on features and functionality to the Ministry and Catalyst–recommendations which find their way into the various upgrades.

I recently visited Tawa Intermediate School in Wellington, and was very impressed with the work students create in their portfolio.  One student showed me the system she uses for writing reflections on her work.  The system is a series of colored hats (based on Edward de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats”) that represent various ways of reflecting on a particular work/artifact.  For example: the red hat asks how you feel about the artifact, the yellow hat asks what is good about the artifact–perhaps what you like, etc.  The student enjoyed discussing the hats with me and how it helped her to reflect on her work.  She said that she sometimes applies that type analysis to other things in her life, not just her schoolwork.  Another student showed me a research project he was doing on nuclear energy.  I was impressed!  Honestly, the level of writing and critical thinking exhibited in his work was exceptional.  This work will stay in their portfolio, and may later become part of a presentation portfolio.  Regardless, if these students transfer to another school, their work will go with them and they can continue on their lifelong ePortfolio.  And, the new school can see evidence of the students’ true level of performance in a way that report cards and standardized tests simply can’t convey.

So often we here about mandates that are not backed with funding.  What a truly inspiring thing it is when a Department of Education’s mandates are totally and completely supported by the Department making the mandates.

The ePortfolio system that came from the work of Catalyst and the Ministry of Education is called Mahara, and it is available to everyone because it was released as an Open Source system.

The New Zealand Curriculum Online
Tawa Intermediate School
deBono’s Six Thinking Hats