Industry Modeled Assessments for Authentic Learning

Image captured from the ICLE Website.
Image captured from the ICLE Website.

In these austere times, schools are feeling the effect of the slowing or stoppage of public funds. Even though there is a temporary kink in the supply chain, there is a still a societal expectation that schools must be willing to do more with less in preparing students for the advanced career skills required in the 21st century.

One direction that many schools take to implement new State standards, which are meant to increase rigor, is to purchase pre-packaged curriculum materials from commercial vendors. So often, it is expensive to purchase new pre-packaged programs/workbooks that, when used in isolation of authentic assessment practices, make learning artificial by removing it from direct applications with the real world. These “canned curriculae” promote a one-size-fits all approach that can devalue the professionalism of the teaching staff. It is not hard to see the popularity of this approach given the prevailing metaphor that public schools are tiny businesses that manufacture human capital. By creating a uniform assembly line, the raw materials all undergo a linear process of change that is easy to implement and control.

In an effort to transform educational institutions to better serve the students and faculty, it is time to adopt a new metaphor for the learning process. Schools should be viewed as a Guild of Skilled Craftspeople that serve unique geographical communities. One needs only to look at the economic landscape of of the community it serves for the answers to relevant curricular assessment. Many district’s include phrases about creating partnerships with the community in their mission statements, but I challenge districts to go deeper when forming these community relations. Invite local business, industry, and social services to participate in the assessment development process.

Teachers are professionals in the education of children and experts in their chosen academic discipline. It is important to let them have a voice in creating the learning plans of their classroom. In an effort to create small works of curricular crafts, they must be given the right inspiration and time to collaborate with the right people. Local commerce has always relied on schools to educate and train the next generation of workers. By inviting industry professionals to the table when educators are creating authentic assessments, the school and community are truly working together for the educational benefit of the young learners. It is important for both institutions to claim sponsorship for the authentic assessment materials by placing their respective logos on the document. Sharing ownership of the learning outcomes may result in industry providing “real world” materials and tools for students to use in the classroom. Cash-strapped districts can know use their new assessments and learning materials to trigger inspiration at the classroom level.

When schools can develop authentic assessments that mirror the spirit of the local cultural, learning will reach a level of relevancy that allows students to develop strong community relationships while achieving highly rigorous academic goals.

Yours in Education,

Dr. Gregg McGough, CRI Blogger/CRI Podcaster

Assignments Designed to Inspire Career Readiness Skills

The 11/3/42 Image recaptured digitally by Dr. G. McGough
The 11/3/42 Image recaptured digitally by Dr. G. McGough

“Relevance makes rigor possible.” Dr. Bill Daggett

As an ELA (English Language Arts) teacher, I am sometimes asked about how I design rigorous, standards-based lessons that are also relevant enough to inspire relevant career readiness skills. I have decided to blog about a recent lesson that I designed and implemented with my tenth graders/seniors at Penn Manor High School, a 1:1 laptop school.

At the beginning of the Spring semester, I welcomed my students with a unique Internet-based challenge. Back in the mid 1990s, my father and I along with my cousin were granted permission to explore an abandoned mansion on the outskirts of my town in Biglerville, PA. We entered the property and began looking around the empty rooms. It was obvious that at one point this was an place of opulence and the love of a family. Now, the hollow rooms played host to anything or anyone who wandered in through the cracks.

On the second floor, I found a series of random black & white photos and other various artifacts in a dusty closet. After our day of wandering and wondering, we returned to the Marion Thomas Harbaugh and thanked her for granting us permission. It was then that we showed her the small items that we found, and she was grateful to have the World War II medals back. The rest of the dust covered items were of no interest to her, so I neatly organized the items and packed them away in my attic. This small treasure chest of memories survived a move and various Spring cleanings.

For some reason, this semester I digitally archived the items using Padlet and designed a small hyperdoc lesson around the various artifacts. The students were given the simple, real world challenge of trying to determine the identity and one fact about the man pictured above. The only other piece of information that I provided was the name of the lady who granted us permission. In less than three class periods, the class had narrowed in on his identity, Charles William Harbaugh, and were able to locate various glimpses of his life that were archived on the Internet. Sadly, my students discovered that “Willy” died at the age of young age of 46, but not before dancing at the Inaugural Ball of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This lesson allowed me to assess my students’ critical thinking skills, research skills, technology skills, reading skills, and writing skills. It was wonderful to see them hit dead ends and work around them by collaborating with others.

When I design a lesson, I try to forget that I am an ELA teacher and attempt to look beyond the classroom walls to the real world problems that build careers. I find that when a lesson is situated in a problem faced by career-focused individuals the students are actively engaged and develop valued career-ready skills.

Yours in Education,

Dr. Gregg McGough, Blogger & Podcaster

Don’t Try to “Teach” Soft Skills

not-teachingEfforts to teach soft skills frequently lead to teacher frustration and disappointment. This is not because these critical aptitudes can’t be developed, but because the “teaching” approach used often mimics teaching content knowledge.

Soft skills – or as I prefer to call them, Life/Career abilities are the behaviors, mindsets and character traits that contribute to students’ life readiness. Life/Career abilities is a positive label to identify this important domain of student learning. Regardless, of what you call this domain, it is an integral part of learning along with acquiring knowledge and developing skills. Educators must emphasize Life/Career abilities, but embrace a different mindset and not attempt to “teach” these in a traditional sense.

This is because a traditional approach implies that “teaching” is simply imparting new knowledge with expectations that students will retain and recall that knowledge – Present-Practice-Test. This simplistic model may work well when teaching basic vocabulary or other forms of rote learning. However, as learning becomes more complex, experienced teachers understand that more enhanced teaching strategies are required, including developing the context for students, providing applications of knowledge, and using engaging approaches such as inquiry and discovery. While there is some knowledge that is essential to the domain of Life/Career abilities, this domain is primarily focused on behaviors, for which even an enhanced teaching approach will not necessarily result in desired student behavior.

A model for describing and practicing the teaching mindset required for developing Life/Career abilities is that of the parent. Any experienced teacher, who has also been a parent, (or, uncle, aunt, grandparent or other caregiver) recognizes the overlap in skills between effective parenting and quality teaching. This is particularly important when focusing on the behaviors of Life/Career abilities. A better term to apply to this type of instructional mindset is perhaps nurturing: just as a parent nurtures a child’s development, teachers need to nurture the development of Life/Career abilities.

There are five elements that are critical to nurturing; relationships, expectations, providing experiences, modeling and feedback. Any attempt to influence behavior is deeply influenced by human emotions and frequent, positive interaction builds relationships essential for nurturing behaviors. Another essential beginning element is establishing expectations. Using such “presets” – i.e. having students think about a behavior before being in the situation to exhibit that behavior – greatly influences a student’s decision-making and therefore his or her response. A parent also nurtures developing behaviors by providing experiences and opportunities for children to practice those behaviors. Providing richer experiences can take many forms, such as creating play dates with other children, enrolling children in arts or sports activities, traveling as a family, or even assigning appropriate work chores around the home. Throughout our own development, we regularly – consciously or unconsciously – imitate some of the behaviors that we observe in others. Consequently an essential way for teachers (or parents) to nurture Life/Career abilities is to model the expected behaviors. The final element of nurturing is providing feedback, not in the form of a grade, but as constructive and consistent reminders when learners’ behaviors do not meet expectations.

Soft skills can be taught, but not in the traditional or stereotypical sense of teaching facts. Begin to use a nurturer mindset to evoke the parenting role in developing a child’s behavior. Using such an approach better defines teaching practices to develop students’ soft skills or Life/Career abilities.

Labeling Career Readiness Behaviors, Mindsets and Character Traits

The reality of today’s workplace requires an individual possess the skills that will allow him/her to: work effectively on cross-functional teams and across disciplines; persist and persevere in the face of setbacks and challenges; analyze complex data and make sound decisions; react swiftly and thoughtfully to dynamic circumstances. There is no doubt that readiness for todays and future workplaces require strong academic foundation and technical expertise. But more and more educators are acknowledging that true readiness requires a third domain of learning that involves behaviors, mindsets and character traits.

This third domain of intangible readiness traits is often titled in research as non-cognitive, soft, employability or social-emotional skills. No matter the nomenclature, they are the abilities that make one resilient, tenacious, sociable, personable, trustworthy, reliable, nimble, confident, self-aware, self-regulating and armed with the grit necessary to navigate life and career in a rapidly changing world.

We at SPN prefer to call this domain Life/Career Abilities; we find it a misnomer to suggest these skills are devoid of cognition when using the term non-cognitive. In fact, to gain, evolve and adeptly and flexibly apply these skills in a nuanced fashion to a variety of scenarios takes high-level cognition. Further, soft skills seems to imply they are soft and not hard to teach, in reality they are hard to teach and even harder to assess. When using employability skills with school audiences, there is a tendency to only consider these the responsibility of Career and Technical Education rather than the entire school. Many academic teachers do not consider their work as readying students for employment.

We consider social-emotional, non-cognitive, employability and soft skills overlapping categories and synonyms, in our work in this domain — collectively referring to them as Life/Career Abilities. Life/Career Abilities is a positive term that also implies focusing student learning with a relevancy beyond school – life and career. Life skills might be too broad as a single label. The combined term also denotes that many of these essential behaviors apply to personal lives and the workplace.

To further clarify and also follow “begin with the end in mind” approach, we are including in the list Life/Career Abilities those behaviors that can be observed. It is behaviors that teachers can most easily give student feedback on. As for teaching, there are knowledge topics that teachers can introduce and skills that students can practice. However, most facilitation of Life/Career Abilities will be through giving students feedback in student projects and performances of their academic and technical skills.

We must thoughtfully move forward with curriculum, instruction and assessment approaches to incorporate this Life/Career domain. It cannot and should not be taught and tested in the same manner we handle basic reading or math. Neither should we ignore it, because it is hard to test with our current tools.

Do you have any “sleepers” in your Fantasy Classroom Draft?

Original photo taken by Dr. G. McGough
Original photo taken by Dr. G. McGough

At this time of year, my attention drifts to one of my favorite past times, Fantasy Football. For those who do not participate in this pigskin rivalry between family and friends, here is a small tutorial…for those of you who do participate in this annual Fall event, you may skip ahead to the third paragraph.

Football fans join fantasy leagues and draft players at the beginning of the season. Players are selected from the different NFL organizations at the various positions: quarterback, running back, wide receivers, etc. One tries to select a team of players that will accrue the most points during the weekly match-ups. Players score points for their fantasy owner with the sum total of their weekly performance. Much of the selection process at the beginning of the season is made based upon a complex rating system that takes into account a player’s past performance. Each week of the regular season, two individuals put their “fantasy roster” teams against each other in a head-to-head competition. The winner is determined after the Monday Football game is over and all the players’ points from both teams are tallied.

At the beginning of this school year, I participated in my district’s “data day” in an effort to establish new curricular goals that will help my student’s find academic success. It was during this data event that I made the rather obvious connection between my ELA class rosters and my fantasy draft. The competition of high stakes assessments is looming at the end of the semester, and just like my Fantasy Football Team, my class/team is a combination of individuals projected to be winners and losers.

In the early stages of most Fantasy drafts, the franchise players and premier players go quickly because they are predicted to earn big points week after week and carry their fantasy owner into the playoffs at the end of the season. This year I took another strategy and began looking through my fantasy magazines for those players who qualify as “sleepers.” A “sleeper” is a poorly rated player who is underestimated at the beginning of the season and through hard work and determination in the off season scores more points than was predicted.

During my extensive research, I began to wonder what factors cause a player to exceed expectations? The variables are too immense to truly predict. Sometimes a trade to a new football club is all it takes to transform a mediocre player into a star. This type of player fascinates me, so I spent my summer looking for the best “sleeper.” I took my experiment to the next level this season and drafted my “sleeper” in the first round…much to the dismay and ridicule of my league. Call it my teacher instinct, but I think my “underdog” pick might prove the numbers wrong!

As school districts look at data to determine college readiness and future success on standardized assessments, I wonder how many of our poor performing students are actually  “sleepers” who will break out one year and demonstrate the type of performance that exceeds low expectations.

Many of my former tenth grade students leave the traditional classroom setting their junior year and go to the Career and Technology Centers to learn a skilled trade. In this new learning environment, they understand the relevancy of their learning and find academic success. Sometimes it takes a different team and the right coach to take an underperforming individual and help them to achieve greatness.

How will you look for those “sleepers” in your classroom who just need the right coaching and support to wake up and have a great year? What would happen if core subject teachers infused career readiness skills into their courses?

Post Script: For those who are wondering, my “Round 1 Sleeper” in my Fantasy Football League was projected to score 7.35 in the first week of the NFL season, and he ended the game with 17.30! Sometimes the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Yours in Education,

Dr. Gregg McGough, CRI Blogger

Wait! Having A College Degree Isn’t Enough?

There used to be a time when having a question diplomacollege degree was all you really needed in order to get a good job and begin a career. However, with more and more students attending college, completing the college program and receiving a degree simply isn’t enough anymore. The competition for jobs in certain career fields is incredible, compared to what it was years ago. What truly matters in today’s job market is not just getting the degree, but rather what you choose to study in college. It is also equally important to realize that some college majors do not lead to long-term successful careers.

It is critical to help students realize that this is the case in today’s job market. Perhaps more importantly, the time to help them realize this is not when they enter college; for many students, this will be too late in the process. Rather, these lessons can, and should, begin as early as elementary school and continue on throughout their secondary years. When students get to the secondary level, teachers and guidance counselors need to be sure that they are providing accurate guidance to students that reflect labor market trends. By helping students understand how to use and interpret labor market data themselves, they can assist students in making better-informed career path decisions.

This chapter of the handbook provides numerous resources for teachers and counselors to use in order to help students understand the connections between their career goals and various labor markets. For more information about appropriate career path preparation, and to read the entire chapter titled Are You Preparing Students For Viable Future Careers?.

Using Data to Overcome Reading Obstacles in Career Readiness

Reading is a subject and skill set taught throughout lexile-levelthe elementary years. However, reading, per se, is seldom taught at the secondary level. Many of us would agree that as textbooks and other assigned reading materials grow in terms of difficulty, vocabulary, and structure, it is critical that we collectively help our secondary students continue to refine their reading skills and strategies, as a mechanism to help prepare them for college and career success.

But, how do we go about doing that when we know that students read on such varied levels of reading proficiency? The best starting place is to determine the level at which each individual student is reading. The use of Lexile measures can pinpoint with great accuracy and individual student’s reading level. These data can then be used to guide the development and implementation of appropriate reading instruction in order to capitalize on the reading strengths and deficiencies possessed by students across a class or course. Engaging in these types of student reading assessments are growing in importance as the Common Core State Standards are requiring students to be able to read at higher, more advanced levels.

Once these reading levels have been determined, educators can adjust reading materials to correspond both to current reading levels and the desired goals as outlined by the Common Core State Standards. Then, both pre-reading and post-reading comprehension strategies can be incorporated in order to increase reading comprehension of more advanced reading passages.

In this corresponding chapter in the handbook, we provide information, resulting from research conducted by MetaMetrics, regarding the desired reading levels (measured in Lexiles), in addition to those that are suggested by the authors of the Common Core State Standards. For more information about teaching to differential reading levels, and to read the entire chapter titled, How Can You Teach Students Who Read At Different Levels?.


The Challenge of Grading Student Performance

Grading has historically implied the determination of whether a grades2student response is correct or incorrect. Averaging correct response often determines an overall grade.  To evaluate  student work on performance assessments—where student skills and capabilities can be directly observed—teachers often use rubrics. These rubrics are much better in giving detailed feedback on the level of performance to students, teachers, and parents. Further, rubrics are much more appropriate where the application of knowledge and skills serves as the focus of the assessment. A challenge for teachers is how to give feedback on performance and still record some student grade.

As opposed to dichotomous scoring, rubrics allow for the “classification” of student performance (e.g., skill mastery, comprehension, competence, etc.) along some sort of well-defined continuum. These various continua might be based quality of performance, frequency of performance, depth of understanding, or numerous other types of performance descriptors. Regardless of whether analytic, holistic, or mini-rubrics are being used, these continua allow teachers to communicate about specific student strengths and deficiencies—something that the typical pencil-and-paper assessments simply cannot do.

However, that being said, care should be taken when developing rubrics. The language must be clear and the descriptions of adjacent levels of specific performance indicators should not “overlap” in any way. This will undoubtedly lead to confusion on the part of the student (or parent) when reviewing the results of a performance assessment rubric completed by the teacher. Honestly, this can also result in confusion in the mind of the teacher, if clarity is not built into the rubric.

Rubrics are fabulous tools that enable teachers to provide substantive and meaningful feedback to students. However, they must be carefully designed in order to accomplish this goal. For more information about designing and using scoring rubrics, and to read the entire chapter titled, How Do You “Grade” Student Work On Performance Assessments?.

Remember That Every Child Learns Differently…

In an earlier blog, we discussed the use of student data to help inform decisions about revising group-level instruction. The process of interpreting assessment data to guide individual student interventions isstudents different faces very similar to the process for revising group-level instruction, beginning with and then targeting content or skill areas where students are noticeably deficient. Similar cautions are important here. For example, educators should make sure that they rely on multiple measures of student proficiencies and capabilities. It is important to look at the results of standardized assessments, as well as classroom assessments.

This being said, educators must be careful to avoid the over-interpretation of standardized test results, especially when using those data to inform individual student interventions.  For example, on a subtest with five items, a student may answer three of the items correctly and perhaps be careless in responding on one item and omit another one. This student’s “proficiency” on that content would be reported as 60%, which most educators would initially interpret as poor understanding or mastery. Of course, we likely do not know why one item was missed (a careless mistake or not?) and the other omitted (did the student inadvertently skip the item or not understand the material at all?). Therefore, it is likely more appropriate to interpret raw scores, as opposed to any other standardized score, such as percentile ranks or even percentages of items answered correctly. Educators should practice the same cautions when interpreting the results of localized classroom assessments.

Utilizing student data for purposes of truly informing the wide variety of decisions that educators are charged with making is a practice that should be a routine part of educator’s “toolbox”. The consequences of making inaccurate decisions about students are simply too grave; they cannot and should not be taken lightly. For more information about using data to help guide the design of individual student interventions, and to read the entire chapter titled, Once You Know Who’s Not Learning, How Can You Help Individual Students?.

I Hope This Isn’t Like Rocket Science!

How Can You Tell What Your Students Aren’t Learning And What Do You Do Once You Know That?

Data-driven decision making has been at the top of the buzzword list in education for the past several years. However, we believe that it is no longer just a “buzzword”—it now encompasses a critical skill set that all educators are responsible for developing and using as part of thekeep-calm-it-s-not-rocket-scienceir professional practice. The thought of working with standardized test and other sorts of assessment data is oftentimes overwhelming to many educators. However, rest assured that the process is truly not rocket science. It will, however, impress your friends and colleagues!

Engaging in a process of data-driven decision making essentially involves looking at multiple sources of student assessment data, reflecting on how and where the assessed knowledge and skills have been taught, and then revising instruction and assessment methods in order to address areas where students may not have performed as well as expected. In a nutshell, the processes really involve making use of student data that you already have likely collected, so there’s no additional work with respect to that part of the process. During these processes, is important to be mindful of the importance of collecting and using multiple measures of student performance in order to get a well-rounded picture of student performance on targeted knowledge and skills.

Being comfortable with and learning how to engage in data-driven processes is in essential skill for the 21st-century educator. It is critical that neither teachers nor administrators shy away from exposing themselves to these critical skills. For more information about the processes of data-driven decision making and to read the entire chapter titled How Can You Tell What Your Students Aren’t Learning And What Do You Do Once You Know That?