One school's journey in educational improvement
Branksome Hall is an independent school for girls in downtown Toronto. The school’s assessment for learning journey began approximately 10 years ago and has provided an ongoing focus for school improvement. This journey was undertaken in parallel with the implementation of the three International Baccalaureate (IB) Programs: the Primary Years Program for junior kindergarten to grade six, the Middle Years Program for grades six to ten and the Diploma program for grades 11 and 12. Branksome is a university preparatory school and all its students are enrolled in the International Baccalaureate programs, while also completing the requirements to earn an Ontario Secondary School Diploma.
Branksome was extremely fortunate to have had Ruth Sutton launch the school on its assessment journey. Sutton visited the school on several occasions and challenged staff members to keep in mind that the primary purpose of assessment is to support student learning, and that indeed “teaching is about communicating in order to enable others to learn” Sutton was also instrumental in Branksome’s decision to implement the IB curricula. With the perspective of a true internationalist, Sutton suggested that IB assessment practices would provide an excellent framework for the school’s efforts to implement best practices in assessment and evaluation.
In the year 2000, Branksome faced an “evaluation” crisis. The university enrollment picture was tightening up. The province was preparing for the “double cohort” with the elimination of the fifth year of secondary school and the prospect of two classes graduating at the same time. The result was pressure from parents to ensure that grades in Grade 12 courses would gain their daughters’ admission to university. Ontario is one of the few jurisdictions in North America where there is no standardized university entrance credential. Branksome needed to ensure that its assessment, evaluation and grading practices were truly valid and reliable, and that it used the assessment process to support students to improve their achievement against a recognized standard of excellence.
By implementing the IB diploma program the school adopted an external standard which established a balanced set of rich assessment tasks across six major disciplines areas (www.ibo.org). These tasks consisted of inquiry tasks which mirrored what experts in the field did to develop new knowledge, as well as examinations which emphasized critical thinking. As a school, Branksome now faced the challenge of having its students work graded externally and of having its own grading moderated by educators outside of the school. Branksome viewed assessment for learning as a powerful approach to improve student achievement. This would be accomplished by ensuring that each student fully understood the criteria by which they would be assessed. In addition, the school committed to provide students with the feedback necessary, during the learning process, to continuously improve.
The faculty at Branksome aligned the expectations of the IB courses with corresponding Ontario courses throughout the school from JK to grade 12. In addition, they aligned the assessment criteria for the two programs. This alignment process proved to be an excellent critical thinking challenge. Posing the question “To what extent are the assessment criteria from the two programs similar and to what extent are they different?” forced the staff to undertake a thoughtful deconstruction of the Ontario Achievement Charts, the Ontario curricular expectations and the IB assessment criteria and aims and objectives.
To support its assessment journey Branksome developed a school-wide assessment, evaluation and reporting policy that is based on the principles of assessment for learning. This was a collaborative undertaking with input from faculty across the school, and also students and parents. The policy is available on the school's webpage.
The policy summarizes practices common to all three IB programs. A few are highlighted below. The policy, including these practices and practices specific to each program are reviewed annually and revised.
1. Formative assessment is an integral part of instruction. Practices related to formative assessment include:
- Giving students frequent descriptive feedback on formative tasks.
2. Summative assessments are used as the basis for determining levels. Practices related to summative assessment include:
- Limiting the number of summative tasks in a grading period to no more than five but not less than three.
3. Practices related to the determination of individual achievement levels include:
- Relating them to criterion-referenced standards.
- Determining them using level descriptors specific to the subject.
- Assigning levels based on most consistent performance related to expectations, with an eye to most recent performance.
- Allowing faculty to use their best professional judgment in determining levels of performance, taking into account the evidence and, where necessary, circumstances faced by individual students.
Three challenges in implementing change in the area of assessment and evaluation are worth highlighting. The move from percentage grades to level grades was at first resisted by some parents and some students. Some parents were not accustomed to think of teachers using their professional judgment to determine students’ levels of achievement. They felt more comfortable with the calculation of a percentage grade. The work of Ken O’Connor was shared with parents and students at information sessions and assessment forums. They were surprised to learn that the calculation of averages to determine grades might actually penalize students if they perform poorly early in the learning process. Using level descriptors to assess the students’ achievement meant that faculty was able to look for evidence related to the most consistent and especially more recent performance.
Parents and students also questioned the school’s emphasis on providing descriptive feedback as opposed to numeric marks. The faculty presented to both groups the work of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam. In their seminal paper, “Inside the Black Box”, they reported that, “Research studies have shown that if pupils are given only marks or grades, they do not benefit from the feedback on their work.” The evidence related to the impact of descriptive feedback on improvements in student learning proved to be a compelling argument. Parents and students slowly came to accept that faculty feedback would be primarily descriptive and related to assessment criteria.
One of the most persistent challenges Branksome faced was related to its policy around late work. It was agreed early on that mark penalties for late work were not appropriate. Deducting marks when a summative assignment was late confounded the meaning of the summary grade. A related problem was developing an effective strategy to support students to submit work in a timely fashion. The faculty negotiated extensions with students and used completion contracts. In addition, as much as possible faculty members worked collaboratively to develop a joint timeline for major summative tasks. These strategies improved the situation; however, some students, including those who showed perfectionist tendencies, were still delaying completing work. A student who failed to complete an assessment task on time faced multiple tasks and their stress level was accentuated. This past year the school implemented “firm due dates.” When a student misses a firm due date for a summative task, they are supported to complete their work by being required to work before school, after school, or at lunch every day until the work is submitted. In addition, they were not allowed, until the task was completed, to continue in their co-curricular activities or leadership roles. Students are now appreciative of these efforts and recognize them as supports and not punishments. For students who have missed deadlines in the past, Branksome now sets earlier deadlines and require the students to meet with their teachers one week in advance of the actual due date to determine if supports are required sooner.
Branksome’s assessment journey has forced its community of students, parents and faculty to collaboratively question assumptions related to assessment practices. Using assessment for learning as the driving principle behind Branksome’s assessment program has provided a powerful catalyst for change – change that has led to higher achievement and a school culture that values learning not just grades.