PBL Assessment

Today I’m continuing a series of posts about Project-Based Learning (PBL). I first wrote a bit about the difference between doing a project and PBL (see that here). Then I wrote a bit about the process of developing a PBL Unit (see that here). This week’s post is focused on assessment in PBL. Before I get started on explaining the process of assessment, I need to share with you a bit about my journey related to the assessment of project work.

As a classroom teacher, I considered myself a person who understood assessment. I remember team meetings in 2005 discussing the question “What does a grade mean?” I felt like I had a firm grasp on formative and summative assessment. But as I reflect now, I think that my definitions of assessment would have been a bit too close to the idea of assigning a grade.

As an assistant principal, I was asked to be a part of a committee to revamp the intermediate report card in our district. As part of this process, I read the book A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades by Ken O’Connor. I probably read that book a little too late! As I learned more, I began to realize how many “grading mistakes” I made as a teacher – averaging grades, grading group work, focusing on deadlines, and other compliance-based measures in my grading. This book led me to more about assessment from authors like Alfie Kohn, Thomas Guskey, Bob Marzano, Rick Wormelli, John Hattie, and Thomas Reeves.

Over time, I grew to understand that there is a difference between assessment and grading. When I think of assessment, its goal is to improve student learning and move students towards mastery. Grading on the other hand is typically about placing an evaluation on the current level of performance. True project-based learning is going to lean more toward the assessment and feedback side. I’ve heard it said that the moment a teacher puts a grade on something, it narrows students’ focus. The first thing they look at is what their grade is, the next thing they look at is how their classmates did, and then if they do look at the feedback you put on the assignment, no matter how well thought out and meaningful, they probably don’t take any of it in because the grade tells them that learning is done, so they put the paper in a folder or the trash can, never to be seen again. If we really want our students to learn from the feedback we provide them and want them to move closer to mastery of a skill, feedback with no grade given is the key!

Today, I was going back through some files and found this:

This is a typical and traditional rubric I created for my students during the 2006 school year for a planet poster project. In a previous post, I shared a quote from Chris Lehmann that says that when everyone turns in the same thing, you don’t have a project, you have a recipe. And I would say, when I look at the standard that I was trying to meet and then reflect on this rubric, it is probably closer to a recipe than a true project. At the time that I created this, I didn’t have the knowledge that I have now in terms of assessment. Let me point out a couple things I notice about this rubric:

  • I included time management, appearance, and whether it was on time as 18 out of the 50 points. In A Repair Kit for Grading, Fix 1 says “Don’t include student behavior (effort, participation, adherence to class rules, etc.) in grades; include only achievement.” And Fix 2 says “Don’t reduce marks on ‘work’ submitted late; provide support for the learner.”
  • The accuracy section, which is the only part that ties to the main purpose of the project, is only 12 out of the 50 points. Another 20 points of the project (Research fact sheet, bibliography, and spelling, grammar, & punctuation) are all academic and important, but do not relate to the standard this project was focused on. In A Repair Kit for Grading, Fix 7 says “Don’t organize information in grading records by assessment methods or simply summarize into a single grade; organize and report evidence by standards/learning goals.”
  • Appearance making up as many of the total points as the accuracy of information is just flat out embarrassing. Yes, we want what we share to look nice for our audience, but to be equal to the value of the learning? Nope. I’m sorry to my students from 2006!

As I have learned more, I would totally revamp this rubric. My first step on this rubric would be to remove the columns labeled 4, 3, 2, and 1. These categories tell students very little about what I was looking for in the project. I would also remove the column for scoring, because as I shared above, the moment we put a grade on something, students stop looking at any of the feedback provided. Instead, I would have a rubric that had 3 columns based on the Progress Assessment Tool developed by Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy:

  • Learning Targets: If you read the post last week, I talked about learning targets. These are the student-friendly statements of what we want our students to learn or be able to do at the end of the project.
  • Success Criteria: This column would define what it looks like for a student to hit each of the targets. Ideally, this would be developed in a collaborative process involving students and their teacher. If possible, developing this might involve looking at exemplars that you have pulled from past projects, or elsewhere (for example, if there is a learning target related to writing a persuasive letter, you might have examples of well-written persuasive letters for students to reflect on).
  • Feedback: This is the location for you to give written feedback to your students at various waypoints through the project. When students see that your notes are formative and meant to guide them to higher quality work and learning, they will begin to look at feedback as part of the process of learning. I would also build in points for the students to do some self-reflection on how they are doing on each of the learning targets.

Ideally, I would create the Project Assessment Rubric as a shared file that my student and I could both access and edit. I would be able to add notes and see the student’s reflections. Through the use of something like OneDrive or Google Drive, this could be accomplished easily!

Now, I know that projects are about moving students toward mastery, but I also recognize that when we devote periods of time to learning, some teachers will feel that they need to take grades. If you utilize a purely standards-based reporting measure, you can tie your feedback on the project to the standards on your report. But if you have a report card that requires you to assign grades to your students, feedback alone is not going to be what you need. If this is the case, you might consider using a more formal assessment to measure student learning. If I were doing this, I would put it at the end of my unit and might be a quiz or test that specifically assesses students’ abilities on the standards our project is focused on. If I were using a formal assessment, I would probably give a version as a pre-assessment, and then another version as a post-assessment to see how much my students had grown during the course of the project.

I’m going to be honest, if I were heading back into a classroom, I would do the absolute best I could to shift all the assessments in my classroom to a standards-based feedback model. I believe that this does the best to help our students move towards mastery of our content. If you are in a system that will allow you to assess your students in this way, I encourage you to begin thinking about how it would work. Could you track student growth on standards over the course of the year? Could you create learning targets and success criteria in collaboration with other teachers on your grade level team? As you learn more about assessment, you may find that your students grow much more in this model of feedback.

If you are in a system that requires grades, I encourage you to think about how you might be able to push back on this system. Go to your administrator. Tell them about what you are trying to do, and frame your plan as a pilot program. Then, begin thinking about how you might track your student learning and growth.

A word of caution though – the initial shift may be difficult for some students, especially the older they are. It may take some time, and they may even push back on you about your assessment practices, but the research really does support a classroom that focuses much more on feedback, and much less on grades.

What questions do you have? Are you looking for more on assessment practices? Do you need to think a little more about what a gradeless classroom would mean for you and your students? Do a little digging, or if you are like me, use your social media to connect with others that might be on the same journey!

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