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Stories of Promising Practice: Assessment Literacy in Centennial Middle School
Centennial Middle School is one of three middle schools in the Montrose County RE-1J School District in southwest Colorado. It is located in a quiet, residential area of Montrose (pop. 19,000), less than a mile southeast of downtown. The school population is almost evenly divided between white and Latino students, with a small number of African American, Asian and American Indian students rounding out the mix. About one-quarter of Centennial students are English language learners.
Officially, 43 percent of Centennial students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch, but officials believe the actual number is closer to 60 percent. The school district switched to an online subsidized lunch application for the 2016-17 school year, after which the number of applicants plunged far below the usual figure.
Principal Joe Simo joined the staff in 2014, taking on a community with low expectations and a subpar academic record. By applying for innovation status, he sought to gain flexibility with staffing, time, and resources, better positioning Centennial to fulfill its mission: leveraging quality teaching, character education, and a rigorous curriculum to inspire a lifetime of learning.
As the school began implementing its innovative practices in the fall of 2015, Simo was fortunate to have among his co-creators veteran Centennial sixth-grade writing teacher Crystal Sabatke-Smith, who has worked extensively on standards and curricular issues at the state level, and whose students have consistently exceeded grade-level expectations regardless of their socioeconomic status.
When Simo became Centennial Principal’s, the school seemed stuck and staff morale was low.
“There was high staff turnover, and TELL survey results showed teachers felt unsupported,” Simo said. “Discipline was not being addressed effectively.” In his first year, he had to replace 16 teachers who chose to leave the school.
Student achievement as measured by state test scores and median growth percentile was mediocre and the staff felt it could do better.
A “cohort of eight or nine teachers” including Sabatke-Smith approached Simo, saying the time had come to “do something out of the box.” Simo agreed, and that’s when he and the teachers hit upon the idea of becoming an innovation school. Quality teaching, a rigorous curriculum, and character-based education would form the underpinnings of Centennial’s innovation plan.
Simo formed a task force of teachers, parents, community members, and business owners to work on the innovation application. The plan sailed through the local school board and was approved by the State Board of Education in January 2015.
At the heart of Centennial’s plan was executing “a variety of online and offline performance-based assessment methods that measure common standards-based learning targets.”
The school launched its programmatic initiatives at the start of the 2015-16 school year by adopting Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for reading and writing instruction. Units of Study is centered on the workshop model of instruction.
“I am a huge advocate and proponent of the workshop model,” Sabatke-Smith on a winter morning as she prepared for the day’s first class of eager sixth-graders to flood into her classroom. “It is just good instruction. It allows writers to establish their place in the writing process.”
The next logical step for the school was to develop a formative assessment system and train all teachers to conduct meaningful embedded classroom formative assessments.
The Colorado Department of Education defines embedded formative assessments as:
Planned strategies within a lesson to obtain evidence of students’ current learning status with respect to specified goals during the course of teaching and learning and within a lesson.
The goal Centennial set was that by the end of the 2016-17 school year teachers would know how to conduct formative assessments that measure students’ progress toward meeting teacher-developed success criteria, which in turn link directly to specific learning goals as well as to Colorado Academic Standards.
Here, too, Sabatke-Smith was an invaluable resource. She has taught writing at Centennial for 11 years. She was also a member of the 2010 committee that wrote and revised the Colorado Academic Standards for reading, writing, and communicating.
In this role, Sabatke-Smith developed expertise in creating and evaluating classroom assessments, said Angela Landrum, who oversees CDE’s Assessment Literacy Program. Landrum and Sabatke-Smith would work together throughout the school year training every Centennial teacher in how to develop high-quality classroom assessments.
“The guiding question is how do we help educators create and select assessments that support the Colorado Academic Standards in depth and in breadth?” Landrum said.
Sabatke-Smith had learned over time how to “get to the sophisticated components of the standards and level of complex thinking required …through deep engagement in classrooms and looking at instruction in different ways,” Landrum added.
At a day-long training in mid-December 2016, Landrum and Sabatke-Smith engaged Centennial’s six specials teachers in a detailed, interactive tutorial focused on how assessments fit into the grand scheme of high-quality teaching.
Step one, they told the teachers, is to develop relevant success criteria, which measure whether students have demonstrated mastery of a specific learning objective. “You 100 percent cannot develop an assessment that reflects what you are teaching if you haven't articulated what it looks like for a student to be successful,” Landrum told the teachers.
To develop high-quality success criteria, teachers should ask themselves this basic question, the trainers said: What are the most important things students should know and be able to demonstrate by the end of this instructional period?
In Sabatke-Smith’s classroom one December day, the success criteria, displayed prominently on the wall for students to see, read “I can use a mentor text and writerly tools to practice narrative techniques.”
Students had already read the mentor text, the short, harrowing memoir “Everything Will Be OK,” by James Howe. Sabatke-Smith instructed students to identify one specific technique Howe used to great effect that they wished to emulate. She urged the students to “find something you might have failed at and try it again. Don’t let your inner critic get in the way.”
By the end of the class period, students had worked on a passage of their own memoirs, trying to use some of Howe’s techniques to sharpen their writing.
Back at the staff training, after spending well over an hour on success criteria, Landrum and Sabatke-Smith moved on to formative assessments. They posted a slide showing where formative assessments lie within the standards-based assessment framework:
They stressed that formative assessments should be the end stage of a backward planning process. “Ideally, we would do the deep thinking about standards to create our interim or summative assessments first, then apply that thinking to create formative assessments,” they said.
Teachers involved in the training appeared deeply engaged in thinking about their practice, and how formative assessments could enrich and deepen it. And these weren’t academic subject teachers, but rather a shop teacher, art teacher, band teacher, choir teacher, and physical education teacher.
Landrum and Sabatke-Smith are conducting similar training sessions throughout the year for every academic department at Centennial.
Centennial’s innovation status has given the school freedom to adjust its calendar in ways that deepen teacher learning. During the 2016-17 school year, the school will hold five student-free professional development “data days,” which come immediately after students take interim assessments.
Teachers meet in professional learning communities on data days, analyzing the results and planning how to adapt instruction for each individual student to shore up weak points. Simo expects that data days, combined with the in-depth assessment literacy training, will drive significant student learning gains at Centennial.
Watching how the specials teachers devoured the assessment literacy training confirmed for Simo that the assessment literacy approach hits the mark. “For areas not regularly assessed by the state, formative assessment provides that connection,” he said. “Now everyone has data to look at to drive instruction.”
While it’s too soon to know whether assessment literacy training will improve student achievement at Centennial, there are early promising signs that the school’s changes are having a positive impact.
After a year of professional development and implementation of Units of Study in reading and writing, results on the English language arts portion of the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) tests exam increased, with every sub-population exceeding the state average on median growth percentile, most by large margins.
Sixth-graders, under Sabatke Smith’s tutelage, boasted an astronomical 85 in median growth percentile. And 71 percent of her students met or exceeded expectations on the writing portion of CMAS, up 15 percentage points from the previous year.
Math scores at Centennial remain low and are now a major focal point for Simo and his team. They’re confident that in-depth, hands-on training on formative assessments and their links to good instruction and academic standards will begin to show results this school year.