Highland Secondary School SD#71 Comox Valley

By September 4, 20202019-2020 Case Study

School Name: Highland Secondary School

School District: SD#71 Comox Valley

Inquiry Team Members: Brenda MacPherson: brenda.macpherson@sd71.bc.ca
Tony Dickson: tony.dickson@sd71.bc.ca
Anne Jenkins: anne.jenkins@viu.ca

Inquiry Team Contact Email: brenda.macpherson@sd71.bc.ca

Type of Inquiry: NOIIE

Grade Levels: Secondary (8-12), Post-secondary

Curricular Area(s): Language Arts – Writing, Social Studies

Focus Addressed: Core competencies (for example, critical thinking, communication, problem solving), Formative assessment, Universal design for learning

In one sentence, what was your focus for the year? This inquiry focused on: (1) Gr. 8 students’ writing skills in note making and using their own words, as well as (2) teacher candidates’ skills in (a) providing written feedback to learners, (b) applying a proficiency scale and (c) analyzing the development of one specific formative assessment.

Scanning: The instructional team developed an assessment for learning to help students connect English Language Arts and Social Studies concepts. During the scan, Grade 8 students’ abilities to connect concepts in English Language Arts (ELA) to Social Studies (SS) were unclear. They were newly enrolled in their secondary school and not yet well-connected to staff, but were open to telling their Humanities teachers where they were struggling.

Teacher candidates reported that they did not understand how to give feedback to students for written responses or meaningfully apply the proficiency scale in assessments with varied formats. They were enrolled in a B.Ed. program, well-connected to individual instructors, as well as one another. They were not confident in initiating and designing assessments, noting that they had been raised within a sorting education system, based on percentages, even though that seldom occurred in their education program.

The inquiry was guided by the following OECD principles and First Peoples Principles of Learning:
– Learners at the centre: every decision was based on students’ needs.
– Recognizing individual differences in learners: the key focus for designing personalized descriptive feedback.
– Assessment for learning: the assessment design and question development were key areas of focus.
– Building horizontal connections: high school and university students were linked through their exchanges.
– Learning involves generational roles and responsibilities: teacher candidates assumed new roles as feedback coaches in this atypical exchange.
– Learning is embedded in memory, history, and story: learners linked reading and writing with descriptive historical passages.
– Learning involves patience and time: for Grade 8 students to persevere through the assessment; teacher candidates to polish their feedback skills; and teachers to engage in deep dialogue about their perspectives, biases, and intentions in a shared formative assessment sequence.

Focus: We wanted teacher candidates to provide feedback to high school students about their written responses on a teacher-designed Humanities assessment, so that both groups would gain skills from the process (Gr. 8 students to receive advice about their writing, and teacher candidates to practice their feedback development skills and analysis skills for assessment development). We hoped for improved Gr. 8 responses in the January assessment and refinement of feedback from the teacher candidates.

Hunch: We suspected that the Grade 8 students had limited experience linking their writing skills to non-fiction content. They reported that specific practice using written literary skills to record and interpret factual global events was limited.
Teacher candidates indicated that they had minimal exposure to actual student writing, to learn how to provide feedback. As well, they had no experience developing an assessment for a broad group of learners beyond simple factual tests, matching, or true/false tasks.

In the September phase of the assessment, two teachers provided instructions for their respective Gr. 8 students, with some differences about how to approach the questions. This may have influenced students’ responses. In the January phase of the assessment, the instructions were more aligned with a unified focus on guiding students’ approach to answering questions. This difference may have accounted for some variation in students’ responses.

New Professional Learning:
Professional Learning: The Gr. 8 teachers engaged in professional conversations about (1) the assessment design and question structure, and (2) its application with learners and combined assessment exchanges, focusing on reasoning of the teachers’ assessments and inferences of each. Dialogues about the assessment tool construction and assessment logistics were held with a Teacher Education instructor to provide a different perspective.

Helpful resources:
BC Performance Standard Quick Scale – Reading of Information for Gr. 8 with the application of the BC Proficiency Scale as column descriptors.
Instruction about the development of feedback responses and how to use a quick scale was provided by the university instructor to the teacher candidates.

Taking Action: A Gr. 8 teacher designed an assessment structured like the D.A.R.T. (District Assessment of Reading Team), based on ELA8 and SS8 curricula. The D.A.R.T. was selected as a model because the students were familiar with the format from elementary assessments. Students needed specific feedback about their skills in note taking, as well as writing using their own words to demonstrate their learning in Humanities (ELA and SS). Questions emerged: How can students’ progress be best communicated, and by whom? Who else can benefit from our shared work? What will students perceive as valuable in their spring Core Competency (Communication) self-assessment? The two Humanities teachers utilizing the assessment were curious about using feedback in formative assessment within the context of a teacher-designed assessment tool that is scaffolded and Humanities-focused. Teacher candidates were invited into the inquiry to learn about how to assess and develop feedback. Humanities teachers distributed the assessment to their students, and in follow-up discussed the results that emerged. This led to deep conversations about the intentions of questions and assessment tools, as well as the formulation of instructions for learners. The teacher candidates learned that writing descriptive feedback based solely on written responses was difficult, and they recognized the deep value of knowing learners before assessing their products. They also began to realize the complex skills associated with developing an assessment and a consistent routine for its interpretation. The Gr. 8 teachers recognized the value of these assessments for next year when the learners will be in Gr. 9 Humanities with the same teachers, contributing to a historical baseline for each student. The vocabulary portion of the assessment was removed for the January assessment, as Gr. 8 students and the teacher candidates felt it added no value to their writing focus (and felt like a guessing game).

Checking: Gr. 8 students were given feedback on their learning, and the Humanities teachers got feedback from students about the level of difficulty of the assessment (or its parts) in order to make changes for 2020-2021. Hearing teacher candidates’ feedback was valuable because it reminded the Humanities teachers that they need to explicitly articulate each aspect of assessment (when serving as sponsor teachers), so that each new teacher’s entry to the profession is more a mentoring practice, than a recycling of old practices.

Two applications of the assessment were beneficial for the Gr. 8 students as they were based on the same style, but refined for the second application. Their ability to write responses using their own words increased. Students’ note making skills did not improve significantly with the two assessments, so the team is considering whether the instructions, or the practice sessions, target the best skills for students.

This year, students spoke with their teachers in greater frequency about their writing concerns than previous students. They could see improvements in their writing between the two applications of the assessment, and were thoughtful about what they had learned, using the Quick Scales as a baseline to stretch their skills.

The inquiry also opened a strong dialogue connection between the Humanities teachers about their assessment practices and designs. They devoted time for collective collaborative assessment, as they felt the investment was essential to open dialogue. The teacher candidates experienced significant growth in their feedback writing skills, while deepening their understanding of quality assessment designs.

Reflections/Advice: We learned that question design is an essential yet complex skill that requires partnership and dialogue to refine, over time.

If classes can resume in September 2020 – the teachers plan to reuse assessment tool after reducing the ambiguity within questions and determining how to adjust the questions so that they connect to specific strands on the Quick Scale, eliminating overlap during the assessment task. As well, conversational dialogue will be used to fine tune the essence of the questions so that learners have an experience that is directly linked to their writing task. The questions will be adjusted to ensure that they are mining the essence of the communications competency, instead of mining for a less-complex content-based answer. We will return to the question: How can we help students learn how to make notes that demonstrate their learning about higher order thinking instead of rote memory/surface learning?

Advice for schools with similar interests: Begin the discussions as early as possible. Plan well in advance for its application and assessment. Find one colleague with whom to set a joint direction with each teacher being clear about intentions, benefits for students, and partnership(s) with the other adults. Contact a teacher education program to include teacher candidates in the mix. Determine how to best ensure that the teachers interact with the teacher candidates outside of a practicum placement.
We anticipate continued learning from Grade 8 to 9 as the students transition through their early high school years with the same team of Humanities teachers.

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