Archive for the ‘Assessment’ Category

Another of Dylan Wiliam’s 5 key strategies is clarifying, sharing and understanding learning intentions. Students can’t hit a moving target, so we need to make sure our outcomes (standards, for my US friends) are clearly defined for them. This process is sound formative assessment. Remember, formative assessment isn’t always a quiz that doesn’t count for marks. It can also be a classroom process. Are you tired of me saying that yet?

I used to give my students outcome checklists at the start of every unit. These were pulled verbatim from the Alberta Program of Studies and the Assessment Standards and Exemplars. I have created one for Math 30-1 (Pre-Calculus 12) Exponents and Logarithms as an example below.

As we work through the unit, I classify everything. Every single question I do and every single question the students do is labeled by outcome number and either acceptable standard or standard of excellence. This labeling occurs during class, on quizzes, in the textbook, on exams, and anywhere else we encounter questions.

I was doing this before I heard of standards based grading, and my use of these outcome checklists is similar, though not nearly as in-depth. And although I still reported holistically (different than in SBG), these outcome checklists did allow my students to articulate exactly where they were struggling. Saying, “I’m having trouble with outcome 8 at the standard of excellence” is a way better way for students to articulate their difficulties than the more traditional and vague, “I don’t get it.”

Students were expected to fill in the check boxes when they felt they had mastered the outcome at the various levels. By doing so, I was clarifying the learning intentions for them, and they were activated as owners of their own learning (another of Dylan’s 5 key strategies). It was a great way for us (student and teacher) to give each other feedback about progress to the clearly defined learning outcomes.


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The first strategy I’d like to share for embedding formative assessment (Remember, formative assessment isn’t always a thing. It’s feedback for learning) is referred to by the consultanty-types as “two by four”. While generally working in the field of consulting, I should point out that I’m not much of a consultanty-type. I’m not a fan of fancy processes and the equally silly names we give them. So, for classification purposes only, I present to you the two by four.

One of Dylan Wiliam’s 5 key strategies is to activate students as instructional resources for one another. This strategy is my go-to one, mostly because I’m trying hard to embrace the philosophy of the revised program of studies, which suggests I should orchestrate experiences from which my students can extract their own meaning. When I active them as instructional resources for one another, they learn from each other, rather than from me writing notes on the board.

This strategy is really simple, and can be used to teach just about anything I can think of in our curriculum. Two students learn something through some kind of structured activity. They check in with two more students who learned the same thing and compare strategies and results. When they agree, they move on.

Let me tell you how this worked in a class I tried recently. I was invited to model formative assessment in a Math 20-1 class (Pre-Calculus 11 elsewhere in the WNCP). The topic of the day was multiplying radicals. In my classroom days, I would have written some rules on the board, done some examples, and then given an assignment for practice. The students would not have been activated much at all.

For this lesson, I built a structured activity that I hoped the students would work through and learn what I needed them to learn about multiplying radicals. That activity is posted below.

Some notes about how it went:

  • First of all, I should point out that this does not need to be photocopied and handed out. It would work just fine as a set of questions that the teacher poses to the class. I ran it off, because I was going into a stranger’s classroom and I wanted to make it as simple as possible for the students.
  • As the students worked, I circulated and listened in. I helped when needed and as little as I could. I regrouped them at the appropriate times and with the appropriate people. By the end of class, almost all of the students taught themselves how to multiply radicals. I gave exit slips at the end (another formative assessment strategy) and the exit slips showed me that most students had met or exceeded my expectations. Two students didn’t manage to learn the material. This next part is huge. Wait for it…
  • It wasn’t my class. I didn’t know many of the student names. Despite that fact, when I saw the two exit slips that showed little or no understanding, I described to the classroom teacher exactly who I thought those two students were in terms of where they were sitting. I nailed it. Because I was circulating and working closely with the class, I knew exactly who was getting it and who wasn’t. That’s feedback, folks. That’s formative assessment, folks. The old me (remember, the one who stood at the board writing example after example) would have had no idea who was getting it and who wasn’t. Unit tests were frequently sources of great surprise for me.
  • I was fascinated by the strategies they were coming up with. On the first page of the activity, all students concluded that \sqrt{a}\times\sqrt{b} was equal to \sqrt{ab}. What they did when I introduced coefficients on the next page was really interesting. The room was split into two camps when they came across 3\sqrt{2}\times6\sqrt{3}. Many of the pairs of students got right to it and multiplied the coefficients, then multiplied the radicals, and came up with 18 \sqrt{6}. They confirmed their answers using their calculators, and moved on. The other camp wanted to rely on the only rule they knew at that point (\sqrt{a}\times\sqrt{b}= \sqrt{ab}). Their solutions looked like this: 3\sqrt{2}\times6\sqrt{3}= \sqrt{18}\times\sqrt{108}=\sqrt{1944}=18\sqrt{6}. They were converting to entire radicals, multiplying, and then simplifying. It worked, but it was highly inefficient. So when it became time to let the pairs meet with other pairs to see what they had learned, I made sure that each group of four contained one pair with the efficient strategy and one pair with the inefficient strategy. Students were taught the more efficient strategy by other students, rather than by me. That’s formative assessment.

I did something similar in a Math 30-1 (Pre-calculus 12) class earlier this year. The description and resources are available here.

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I’m working my way up to strategies for embedding formative assessment in high school math, honest. Just before I do that, let me remind you that formative assessment isn’t always a “thing”. Formative assessment is about feedback. Ruth Sutton tells me she wishes she had called it “feedback for learning” instead. The word “assessment” has too many connotations that cloud our understanding of formative assessment.


The strategies I will share are based on the work of Dylan William, and his book Embedded Formative Assessment, in particular. His book, which contains many examples from math classes, outlines 5 key strategies for embedding formative assessment. Those strategies, in no particular order, are:

  • Clarifying, sharing, and understanding learning intentions
  • Providing feedback that moves learners forward
  • Activating students as instructional resources for one another
  • Engineering effective discussions, questions, and activities that elicit evidence of learning
  • Activating students as owners of their own learning

In subsequent posts, I will outline specific classroom strategies for high school math (and very likely applicable to other subject and grade levels) that align with Dylan’s key strategies. All I have to figure out before I start doing that is whether I should share my best one first so that you keep checking back, but gradually see less and less exciting ideas. Or, should I start with a less interesting one and build to the best one I have?

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District Assessment Plan

In an earlier post, I suggested a school assessment plan, even though I have never been a school principal. In this one, I intend to outline a district assessment plan, even though I have never been a superintendent or trustee.

This plan is aimed at secondary (7-12) assessment. The elementary school world is too foreign to me to comment on its assessment practices.

I need to begin by saying that I am glad that the board of trustees in Edmonton Public Schools has voted to review their assessment procedures. Never before has assessment been such a hot topic, and we need to make sure we do this right.

The review must accomplish one thing, and one thing only. We need to emerge from the review with a clear understanding of what grades represent. By “we”, I mean teachers, students, parents, the general public, and the media. Let’s clearly define what we are assessing, and do a better job of communicating it.

I have confidence that our board and superintendent will do this right. Just in case, here’s what I think needs to be included in a district assessment plan. I’m sure theirs will be quite a bit longer.

The Plan


A grade represents demonstrated level of achievement compared to curricular outcomes.

Notes about definition

  • Notice the use of “demonstrated”. Kids have to do it so we can assess it.
  • Kids can demonstrate 0 ability compared to the curriculum. We can enter 0 if we have evidence that shows they know nothing.
  • If the student doesn’t demonstrate (ie misses the assessment) we do not assign any grade. We put in one of two codes. (See below)


In curricula that include behaviour, we will assess behaviour. In curricula that do not include behaviour, we will not assess behaviour. We will, however, report on behaviour. We will do this in the form of comments, or a grade in categories like employability, effort, ability to meet deadlines, post-secondary preparedness, or whatever other rather subjective measures will make people happy. We are limited here by our current grade book software. I won’t name them, but it is written by a giant textbook company.

Grade Book Software

We need to take over how our grade books work. They need to adapt to our needs, not the other way around. If our current provider won’t adapt, we need to find a new one. Here is what we need our grade books to do.

The grade book will allow only one of three things to be entered into it.

  • A Mark – The mark entered must be supported by evidence. Lack of evidence is reported differently.
  • An “Omit” – The omit code would not factor into student grades. This code is the option for teachers to leave out small assignments, or to excuse students who have extenuating circumstances. It should not be used for major assessments.
  • An “Incomplete” – Incomplete indicates just that. The student didn’t do the assessment, and the teacher needs him to. We need to get our grade book to function such that as soon as an “incomplete” is entered, it no longer calculates the cumulative grade. Instead, it reports the cumulative grade as, wait for it…           “Incomplete”

Notes on Incomplete

The entry of the incomplete would also automatically generate a comment which would appear on all reports, and be sent home to parents via School Zone. The comment would say something like this:

Due to missing assessments, I am unable to determine Kevin’s grade at this time. Once the missed assessments are completed, a cumulative grade will be calculated. Please contact me to make arrangements for Kevin to complete any missing assessments. Failure to complete the assessments may result in Kevin having to repeat this course.

I used a similar process in my last teaching position, and it worked wonderfully. Parents really took an active role in making sure those assessments came in to me.

How This Plan Affects Various Kinds of Students

Top End Kids

Our top end kids will react well to this plan. They tend to react well to everything we do to them. They will learn that we value performance compared to the curriculum. They will learn that the way to get high grades is to master the course material. They will learn that there are certain assessments that them must do. They will be well prepared for university life, where most courses use only a handful of assessments to determine a grade.

Our 26% Who Drop Out or Fail to Complete High School

26% of Alberta students fail to complete high school. That’s thousands of dropouts lacking the skills to be productive members of society. There are all kinds of reasons that students fail to complete high school. We need to fix the ones that are our fault. This plan will help most of them.

  • We won’t end up failing lazy students who could actually do the work. This plan ensures that lazy students are forced to do the work so we can assess them.
  • We will teach them that we expect them to do the work, which will serve them well in employment even if they drop out.
  • We will be able to extend the course for the kids who are truly struggling. A final grade of “Incomplete” is more supportive than 32%. It says, “Come back to school, and we’ll try to get you through this course so you can graduate from high school and have a better life.”

The Middle Kids

We mistakenly assume that our middle kids all want to be top kids. Some do. Many are happy where they are. Kids that are happy where they are “game” the system that allows zeros. They do the minimum amount that they can to get by with a 50 or 60 or whatever they are happy with. We have taught these kids, by allowing them to take zeros, that they can pick and choose what to do, and still get by. No wonder employers think they are lazy. We’ve taught them to be like that. By allowing them to take a zero, we may have let them believe that their employers will let them pick and choose which tasks they are willing to do in their jobs.

The plan above, whereby the kids have to do the essential assessments, teaches them the opposite. It teaches them that they have to do all aspects of their job, even the ones they may not like as much. That’s responsibility and accountability.

Who We Have to Educate, and How

To make this work, we need to get the following messages to the following people.


They need to know that they can’t skate by and do nothing. We have a set of non-negotiable assessments, and they are expected to do them.


We need to help teachers understand that many of us give kids too many little things “for marks”. We need to get deeply into formative assessment and how to embed it in our classrooms. Most of what I used to chase kids for should have been formative.

We also need to get into the notion of “professional judgement”. Proponents of zeros argue that they want professional judgment to allow them to give zeros. Professional judgement, in an assessment context, dictates that the teacher use other evidence (other assessments, observations, re-dos, etc…) to put a mark in a grade book that reflects what the student knows. See above: The mark that goes into the grade book must be supported by evidence.

If you believe the student truly knows zero, then put in zero. When you do that, you’ll realize you’ve really been harsh on your own teaching skills, though. If I had a kid who had been in my class for any length of time, and I thought he truly knew nothing, what does that say about my teaching ability?

School Administrators

For this to work, you have to be the ones chasing kids. Teachers are busy and stressed.


You need to be taught that our grades will now reflect how your child is performing compared to the curricular standards.

Right now, unfortunately, you can’t be sure. If my daughter comes home with 40% in Math 10, I don’t know what that means. It might mean she is bad at math. It might also mean she is good at math, but didn’t do all the things her teacher asked her to do. We need to clear this up, because the interventions I need to take as a parent are very different. In one case, I need to get her some math help. In the other case, I need to kick her butt.


We are not giving kids free passes. We are not giving kids free passes. We are not giving kids free passes. The grades they get will be earned. They can earn a zero. But we define an earned zero as demonstrated lack of knowledge. Undemonstrated knowledge is not assessable.

We need to assure the public that the grade assigned represents performance compared to the curriculum. We didn’t artificially lower it by inserting zeros that weren’t earned, and we didn’t artificially inflate it by giving bonus marks or other rewards. The grade represents our best guess as to how well the student mastered the material in the course.

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Crazy Talk

When the zero vs. no zero debate hit the media a couple of weeks ago, I found myself squarely in the minority. Those of us in the minority weren’t getting the media attention that the outraged camp was getting. It was frustrating me, and I was losing sleep. I spent a ton of time writing, because it was the only way to get my thoughts out of my head long enough to let my brain sleep.

Much of what I wrote over the past couple weeks, I posted here, culminating in my assessment plan and my indictment of ranking and sorting. The Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald both published this one. I wish I had sent them this one, because it’s the one I think I am most proud of. My hope was that the outraged general public would find this blog and learn about the assessment journey I have been on for the past 10 years. Judging by the comments, they haven’t found me (yet?). Most of the readers here agree with me, or are concerned educators asking good questions.

In a fatigued stupor, I also wrote several things that I knew I probably shouldn’t publish. I’m going to put my three craziest posts all together here. I had too much fun writing these three not to put them somewhere. Don’t beat me up in the comments. At least two of the three are entirely tongue in cheek.

A $1.2 Billion Solution

June 2 – Written right after the reaction in the public turned ugly.

During the recent provincial election in Alberta, Alison Redford (who emerged victorious as our Premier) promised to spend $2.4 billion on school upgrades and construction of new schools. The 50 new schools she promised will cost 1.2 billion dollars. I can save this province that entire amount with one simple idea. Because I love this province, I’m prepared to share that idea for only 1% of that $1.2 billion.

There are many, many schools in Alberta that are operating at far below their capacity. These buildings are in towns and areas of major cities that are experiencing population downturns. These schools will end up closed so we can build fancy new schools in new areas. My plan will fill those old schools to the brim, thereby eliminating the need for new school buildings.

The plan, in point form, goes like this:

  • Every school that is currently operating at less than 50% of its capacity will immediately be re-branded as a “School of Life ™”.
  • We will promote our Schools of Life ™ as a place where parents can send their children and rest assured that we will be extra hard on them in an effort to prepare them for real life.
  • Our School of Life ™  schools will hire the most rigid, rigorous, and inflexible teachers who will be instructed to use whatever means necessary to hold students to our high standards of accountability.

Given the public outrage at the idea that we need zeros to prepare kids for the real world, I anticipate that parents will be willing to bus their children miles and miles just for the privilege of enrolling them in a School of Life ™. These nearly empty schools will soon be bursting at the seams. We’ll probably have to start a waiting list and have a lottery process to fairly distribute the available spots.

Ms. Redford, I just saved you $1.2 billion dollars. I don’t need a thank-you card. Just send me my 1% fee. There’s 2 m’s and 2 l’s in Scammell, when you are cutting the cheque.

An Analogy for Garner

June 1 – Written after my favorite radio station morning show broke my heart by not understanding what this thing is all about.

My wife makes fun of me when I tell her that Garner Andrews and I would be friends if we met. Garner hosts what I consider to be the finest morning radio show here in Edmonton. He is funny without being offensive or crude. He lets his callers “drive” his show. I agree with just about everything he rants about. In the pretend world where Garner and I share beers after work, we make each other laugh by swapping stories of the oddities in the world that amuse us. We agree on everything. After one of his shows last week, though, we had our first fight. Garner weighed in on assessing students. And like most of the general public who are weighing in on this topic right now in Edmonton, Garner showed that he doesn’t understand what we are allowed to assess in schools.

Garner talked about giving zeros in school, and made the standard argument that we are too soft on kids, and that we need to prepare them for the real world of employment and school. He said that if he didn’t go to work, he wouldn’t get paid so if kids didn’t do the work at school, then they should get zeros. Garner is a master of analogy. He missed the target here, though. School and jobs are different. I explain that in this post.

I called Garner’s show. I didn’t get to talk to the man himself, but I did get heard. In honor of Garner and his proclivity for the analogy, I created one for him.

Imagine that Garner gets a new station manager. The manager calls him in and says, “Garner, you’ve got a good show, but we are going to make it better. Every day when your show ends at 10:00, you and I are going to spend the next two hours planning the next day’s show. After that, I want you to rehearse it for two hours, and then you can go home.” Garner is outraged. He’s doing a darn good show right now without putting in all that time. He knows that extra 4 hours is a complete waste of time. Besides, it cuts into nap time. So Garner blows off the planning and rehearsal, day after day, and yet he still delivers awesome shows every morning.

The manager doesn’t like that Garner is skipping the planning and rehearsal, so he decides to punish poor Garner. He starts docking Garner’s pay for missing those meetings. Garner wants his pay, so he goes to a couple. The show is still awesome, but not any more awesome than before. Garner doesn’t see the point of the planning and rehearsal meetings. He misses his naps so he decides the pay isn’t worth it and quits going to the meetings. His pay drops, but his show is still awesome every day.

What really matters (the key criteria, in assessment jargon) is his show. But this station manager isn’t judging Garner on his show. The manager is judging Garner on his practice. Teachers do this to kids all the time, and it’s not right.

For kids in school, the show is their summative assessment (a test, in lots of cases). They have to do the test, just like Garner has to do the show. Less competent morning show hosts than Garner probably need to plan and rehearse, but for Garner, it’s a waste of time. He’s a master. Even though those weaker hosts wouldn’t be assessed on the practice, they would still do it, because they would know that they need the practice to be able to do a half decent show. So they would practice, and then be assessed on their performance on the show. Weaker students need to do some practice (formative assessment) before being assessed on a test.

Teachers, what’s your show? What are the things you absolutely must assess? Those are the things you should assess. Those are the things you should dig in, and make sure your kids do so that you can assess them. Are you chasing kids for minor things that really don’t matter anyhow? Are you like Garner’s station manager?

In this analogy, Garner has his pay docked for failing to do unnecessary practice. This is equivalent to giving a student a zero (which lowers his overall average) for failing to do one unnecessary thing. Garner has to do his show. Kids have to to the summative assessments.

Let’s compare some of the things addressed (and some not) in this analogy.

Missing Your Job vs. Missing Some School Work

  • Garner – He gets some holiday time (It crushes me when he’s gone – They play old clips, but it’s not the same), and he’s probably allowed to be sick occasionally without being docked pay. If he started missing the show regularly for unexplained reasons, he would eventually be fired. They would cut him some slack because he is darn good at what he does. He’s worth the effort of saving. They would do everything possible to get Garner back in his chair doing the show.
  • School Kid – A kid who misses a minor assignment or two won’t be docked marks. If he starts missing the major assessments, we would treat him like Garner. We would cut him some slack. We do like kids, don’t we? We do think they are worth saving, don’t we? We would do everything possible to get that child into a chair to do the assessment. We can’t fire kids. That’s a big distinction between work and school that was made by a smarter woman than me. We didn’t choose the kids we have in front of us, and they didn’t choose us. For better or worse, we are stuck with each other. That’s very different from the world of work.

Practice vs. Homework

  • Garner doesn’t need to practice. He’s that good. Because he’s so good, he doesn’t understand why that mean station manager wants him to spend extra time rehearsing for his show.
  • Kids don’t understand why we ask them to spend extra time on things they don’t see as valuable. Assign what needs assigning. Assess what needs assessing. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Assessing Performance

  • Ultimately, Garner is assessed only on his show. If he doesn’t do the show, we don’t know if he is any good. If his show stinks, we help him improve it.
  • Students are assessed only on their performance on the summative assessments. If they don’t do the tests, we don’t know if they can do the tests. We can’t randomly pick marks of 0 (or 42 or 71 or 63 or…) and enter them for that test. All we can do is make the kids do the test. If they won’t, we don’t give them credit in the course. Simple. Problem solved.

Garner, I still want to be your friend.  Facebook me.

Why Stop at the Zero?

June 3 – Written in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep.

Since this story broke in Edmonton, every single radio station I turn to is talking about it. I can’t get away from it. I go to the modern rock station (see Garner, above) and they’re talking about it. I switch to sports radio and they’re talking about it.

The dominant public sentiment seems to be that we are “coddling” children too much. Kids don’t know about accountability and work ethic and they are lazy because we are too soft on them. We try too hard to build their self-esteem. How the heck does not keeping score in soccer pop up so often in assessment conversations?

It got me thinking. The same thing was said 40 years ago when we started banning the strap in schools. Chaos was going to ensue. Kids were going to grow up soft and poorly behaved. Should we look at bringing back the strap, too?

Here’s a great article on the history of the abolishment of corporal punishment in Canadian schools. From the abstract:

The long historical debate over the physical discipline and punishment of children arose from different perspectives on appropriate forms of child rearing and pedagogy. At one end of the spectrum were adults and educators who believed that social order, good behaviour, and moral development required the regular use of disciplinary instruments such as the rod and the strap.

That end of the spectrum uses the same arguments that I’m hearing from people who think we should punish kids with 0’s, doesn’t it?

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CBC Radio

On Thursday, I got a call from a director at CBC Radio Active, a local drive home show. He was well prepared, and had clearly read every word on assessment on this blog. He invited me to appear on the show yesterday for 7 to 10 minutes.

I was nervous, so I prepared 4 pages of key talking points, just in case my mind went blank. During the interview, I got through only about a tenth of the things I wanted to say. I felt like I was speaking too fast and not getting my point across. Nervously, I listened to the interview this morning. It’s not as bad as I thought. You can listen to it by clicking on the CBC logo below.

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It occurs to me that I’m not a very good teacher if I don’t give you the chance to reflect on your assessment knowledge. I’m going to provide you with an assessment of your assessment beliefs. Don’t worry. It’s formative. I will not be collecting your responses for marks. I just want you to reflect. There are no wrong answers here (but there are some that are more right than others). Your answers will reveal some of your beliefs about assessment.


Three English 20-1 teachers at a school get together and create common assessments. They decide that they can accurately assess their curriculum using 8 summative assessments. Their assessments will be:

  • 4 Short Responses to Texts and Media – 250 words or less (20%)
  • 2 Essays – 1500 words (20%)
  • Midterm Exam (20%)
  • Final Exam (40%)

They agree that they will attempt to get all their students to write these 8 assessments.

In a strange coincidence, possible only in a scenario like this, there is one student in each class who misses the same 3 assessments, and gets exactly 80% on the five completed ones.

The teachers give each student a printout of their grade two weeks before the final exam. What the students see is in the chart below.

Teacher A tells Student A that he will replace the zeros with whatever the student gets, should the student choose to do any of the missing assessments. The student knows he will do well on the final, so the student chooses to do nothing additional. Student A writes the final (gets 80% on it), keeps the zeros, and passes the class with an average of 52%.

Teacher B tells Student B that he can’t give her a mark. He is missing three pieces of critical evidence. Student B finds the missing Response #3 in her binder and submits it. She comes in three days in a row at lunch to work on her missing essay, spends all weekend on it, and then turns it in. She writes the midterm exam in her vice principal’s office one day after school, under his supervision. She gets 80% on all three things, and writes the final (also 80%) and comes out of the class with a final grade of 80%.

Teacher C tells Student C that the missing assessments aren’t counted in the average. They are being omitted. The teacher tells Student C that she would like him to do those three assessments. He doesn’t. He writes the final exam (and gets 80%). The teacher omits the three missing assessments, and the student comes out of the class with a grade of 80%.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Which student do you think was assessed most accurately? Which student’s grade is least accurate? Is there a better way than these three methods to ensure accuracy? Explain.
  2. Which student do you think learned the most about the real world? Which student do you think learned the least about the real world? Is there a better way these three teachers could have prepared their students for the real world? Explain.
  3. Which teacher’s practice strikes you as most fair? Which teacher’s practice strikes you as least fair? Do you think there is a fairer way of assessing than these three teachers did? Explain.
  4. Which teacher’s class would you want your child in? Which teacher’s class would you not want your child in? Explain.

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