George Lucas Educational Foundation
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"How do I assess 170 students deeply?" -- Middle School Teacher

"We love project-based learning but when will we get time to plan with our colleagues?" -- Union Leader

"We want to have our students participate in rigorous project learning but our teachers need to learn how to do it -- it's challenging." -- Middle School Principal

In the last two weeks, I have heard all three of these statements during presentations about project-based learning and student performance-based assessment. These are legitimate and important questions. As we move to redesign our national, state and local curriculum towards preparation for college and career readiness, schools will be inclined to employ a project and performance-based system.

This shift towards deeper learning requires a redesign of our K-12 schools. While redesign can be complex, there are three design shifts that schools can make now that will foster deeper learning, and a fourth that offers hope for the future.

  1. Professional Development: Teachers deserve and need at least three days of targeted professional development every summer to learn these new skills. However that is not enough; the summer professional development needs to be followed up each year with at least two more workshops during the school year. If school systems lack the expertise to provide this type of professional development, they can contract with organizations like the Buck Institute of Education (BIE) or Envision Learning Partners.
  2. Collaboration Time: Teachers need at least 90 minutes per week to collaborate with their colleagues to design, plan, and/or assess student work. Building on the movement for professional learning communities (PLC's), this time needs to well planned, facilitated and productive. This time should make teachers job easier and not be a burden of "another meeting."
  3. Assessment Time: Do the math, if a teacher has to assess 100 deep assignments (no matter what level K-12) and each assessment takes five minutes, this is 500 minutes of time or 8.5 hours. Teachers need to find this time after school since they spend 95 percent of their day with students. We need to build in time for teachers to assess student work. Unless we find time for teachers to assess deep student work they will continue to assign "thin" assignments; it is a matter of survival.
  4. New Technology: New technologies hold a promise to address some of these design challenges. A new online tool, ShowEvidence, claims that it will reduce the time it takes teachers to assess performance-based assessment by 50 percent. This could be a game changer for teachers.

What if we could automate the process of assessing performance work? What if a computer could assess deep student work as well as humans? Last week, the Hewlett Foundation launched a new competition in partnership with OpenEd and hosted on to automate scoring of deep student work. This type of tool could exponentially increase deep assignments. As Tom Vander Ark explains, "Online essay scoring will improve the quality of state testing, but the real benefit will be the weekly use in classrooms.

Teachers across the curriculum will be able to assign 1500 words a week -- not 1500 words a semester -- and know that students will receive frequent automated feedback as well as the all important and incisive teacher feedback."

If you have redesigned your school, what did you do and how did you do it? If not, what is holding you back from going deeper with student learning? What design shifts do you need?

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David Phillips's picture
David Phillips
District Librarian for Prairiland ISD

Amen to all of your points about the tools, time and opportunities teachers need to successfully collaborate with their students in project based learning. One note on assessment. Many of my projects in my Dual Credit English class are assessed "on the fly." What I mean is that I am present and observing with my students as they are working, designing, creating the final product. When they turn it in (usually digitally) I've already seen every step and only need a brief look at the outcome to give a final assessment.

Bob Lenz's picture
Bob Lenz
Executive Director, Buck Institute for Education, Novato, CA

With high quality rubrics, the assessment on the fly still gives students detailed feedback on their performance.

jim miller's picture

Ongoing learning programs in educational technology I think are the key to keeping the teachers, updated, motivated and excited- which will lead to and empowered teacher and ultimately a better student. It is essential for the teachers to have some sort of technological prowess to use the resources now available to enhance performance of their students and also their own. From online assessment to content creation tools, teachers must be able to leverage technology to teach the digital-age student. Especially, in content creation, teachers no longer have o be bound by prescribed curriculum. They can leverage free digital tools like CK12 FlexBooks to tailor content to suit their students' needs. The playground has never been so open and toys never so available as they are today. All you need is the support and the will to play.

Bob Lenz's picture
Bob Lenz
Executive Director, Buck Institute for Education, Novato, CA

Since I posted this blog, Apple has released iBook 2 with authoring tools and iTunes U app. More tools and access to high quality content. My only concern is that the current system does not leave time for productive play for teachers OR students. We need to redesign the system to support the changing nature of teaching, learning and assessment.

Jennifer Hardy's picture

While I do find curriculum based assessments to be by far the most authentic evaluation of a student's learning process, I am afraid that taking the teacher out of the assessment would fail with the authentic portion of the equation. More and more we are becoming a computer based society and while these tools are important, we are losing more and more human contact. I was just speaking with a colleague last week and I heard myself admit to choosing the email option of customer service, rather than speaking with someone on the phone or face to face. I believe that the student-teacher relationship is vital to learning. Technology should definitely be integrated into classrooms giving the students exposure to the varying options available, but teachers are still the most important element in the classroom, along with the student themselves. Take away teacher assessment and we are one step closer to the classroom being only taught by a robot.

Bob Lenz's picture
Bob Lenz
Executive Director, Buck Institute for Education, Novato, CA


I agree that we cannot take the teacher out of the equation but in order to have students do deeper work, we will need to change the way we support teachers - they will need more time and fewer students. I am hopeful that automated scoring of student work will allow large scale assessments like state tests to become performance based. Teacher need to be actively working with students towards deeper learning and then students will demonstrate their skills on state assessments scored by a machine.


Claudia Robinson's picture
Claudia Robinson
Middle School Mathematics Teacher

Hi Bob!
In math class, it is absolutely essential for me to analyze how students solve their math problems. Standardized tests that a machine scores do not tell me why the student chose an incorrect answer. "Showing the work" makes for a "deep" assignment, and the amount of time required for me to analyze their (100-150 students) misconceptions is mind-boggling. I have tried assigning fewer problems, which works for me, but the curriculum is so broad that I am not able to assess much of what is tested this way. I love the 90-minute collaboration time you suggest, but I also believe strongly that a 90-minute period to analyze assessments and other data is essential to addressing the needs of all students. Another idea: If there were two teachers in every middle school math classroom, the problem would be solved. This would allow for a classroom of 30-35 students. What do you think?

Bob Lenz's picture
Bob Lenz
Executive Director, Buck Institute for Education, Novato, CA

Hi Claudia,

I think both ideas are excellent - in other countries teachers are given time each day for both collaboration and assessment - if we want to go deep and push thinking this is what it takes. In the US, University professors only teach in a classroom 9 hours a week! At High Tech High in San Diego, they have a model similar to your proposal - it keeps the teacher student load down to under 40 - makes a huge difference.


Toni's picture

Redesign out national, state, and local curriculum towards preparation for college and career readiness. As i think about redesigning our curriculum on the state level, I can't help but to remember the conditions our state is in concerning the illeteracy rate. It is astounding, and our children are in trouble, and if our children are in trouble academically that means our society at large is in trouble. Virginia alone has a 60% illiteracy rate. Over half of our children can not read well and i think it will take more than professional development,collarboration time, assessment time, and new technology to fix this dilemma. In redesigning our curriculum I would start on the primary level of instruction. Virginia needs a systematic type curriculum that reinforces phonics skills starting with pre- K-3 and K-4 classes, Children in these classes should be learning basic alphabetic sounds and learn how to blend consonant and vowels to make words. At this level, they need a lot of application along with some comprehension curriculum instruction is needed that is systematic throughout each grade level until the students reach the third grade. By the time a student gets to the third grade, he/she should be able to divide words so well that they are able to concentrate on whats written instead of thinking about how to pronounce the words and comprehend written text also. I believe most students learn how to read by decoding and not sight alone. In closing, our state should revamp curriculum instruction because obviously, its not effective. The state should get the advice of those who teach children on a daily basis and not gurus who assume a curriculum works based on a few numbers

Alison's picture

Re-designing educational assessments has it's barriers. I feel that you addressed these within this posting. I find it very frustrating to assign deeper understanding projects with assessments that I know will take me hours to correct. As an educator it is frustrating finding the time to create meaningful lessons, professionally growing, correcting in a timely matter and communicating with parents within a 45 minute prep. As best practice shows, deeper learning and assessments are what is most valuable to students. I hope that we continue to work towards finding ways to have support with staff in re-desigining our education. What do you think individual teachers can do within their own classrooms to move towards this model?

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