Educators across the country are sharing how this school year was far more difficult than the previous two years during the pandemic. There have been many pivots (I know, I know . . . that is like a four-letter word), many shifts, and many concerns raised as students return to school and socialize with peers they have not seen for a long time. This was a year like no other. As it comes to an end, educators have an opportunity to take a breath and reflect on what worked well and areas in which to seek growth. There is also an opportunity to think about going back to the basics with assessment practices. The pace of the year had many teachers juggling way too many responsibilities; summer brings time to reflect and opportunities for collaboration. This time allows teams to dig into the skills and knowledge students struggled with the most and design formative and summative assessment practices that align with the standards.
While this work may not seem glamorous, it is the nuts and bolts of what grounds assessment work. Too often teams want to take shortcuts and move past the essential step of unpacking standards. Bailey and Jakicic (2019) identify that often the goal of a team is for students to learn at high levels, and the valuable question they pose is this: Learn what? Whenever I am working with teams, I find it so valuable for them to have shared conversations about what the standards mean and what each team member would expect to see from students as they demonstrate evidence of learning related to the specific standard. I find it rare that teaching teams remain consistent year after year. Often teachers may change levels or course content, or new team members join. Whenever this happens, it is necessary to revisit conversations about the standard and discuss how students will be able to show their knowledge or skill. It is also essential for teachers to share their interpretation of the standards, as different assumptions or different understandings exist among team members. These may be difficult conversations, but in the end, they will provide clarity and a path forward.
Let’s take an example from the great state of Minnesota. The current social studies standard for grade 3 is the following:
Historical inquiry is a process in which multiple sources and different kinds of historical evidence are analyzed to draw conclusions about how and why things happened in the past. (Minnesota Dept. of Education, 2011, p. 35)
This third-grade standard is asking students to analyze historical evidence and draw conclusions. If you asked three different teachers how students would demonstrate mastery of the standard, you would hear three very different responses. In order to find clarity and common understanding, the team would engage in conversations around what it means for a third-grade student to draw conclusions and how they would show their understanding of “why things happened in the past.” The powerful conversations take place when the team identifies a way to assess student knowledge and then determines what proficiency looks like in terms of student work. I often ask teams to consider what they would want a student to produce or turn in to a teacher to show what they know. What is the product they would want to see from a student that would be evidence of learning and would prove to the teacher that the student knows the content or skill?
In their text Common Formative Assessment (2011), Bailey and Jackicic clarify that when teams are collaborating around unwrapping the standards, they should focus on the power standards that are most essential for the team to monitor. In other words, identify standards that are “must knows” for students and that students struggle with the most. This offers the greatest opportunity for collaboration and for leaning into the power of the collective team to bring the most effective teaching strategies to the PLC process.
Once those standards have been identified, the team can move forward with unwrapping the standard. After the team has identified the knowledge and skills, a learning target that reflects the standard can be written. At this step in the process, collaborative conversations become essential because they ensure that each member of the team understands the level of thinking that is needed. There are various frameworks to use to analyze levels of thinking, and three of the most common are as follows:
- Bloom’s Taxonomy for Learning
- Marzano’s Taxonomy
- Webb’s Depth of Knowledge
Use the framework the team is most comfortable with to analyze levels of thinking. Teams are able to clarify the level of rigor and have a deeper understanding of what they want students to know and be able to do. Dimich (2014) states that “the process of coming to know, understand, and integrate the standards through sketching out learning goals and then intentionally design engaging assessments is part of the art of teaching” (p. 29). When the level of thinking is identified, the team can discuss a few of the following questions:
- What is the evidence of learning students would produce to demonstrate proficiency?
- When considering the skill, what would students produce that shows they are proficient in the skill?
- Explain how the assessment items/tasks were appropriately aligned with the rigor required by the standard. How was your instruction aligned to the rigor of the standard? (Freese, 2020)
In summary, Tom Schimmer succinctly writes about the value and purpose of unpacking standards (2021):
Unpacking standards to identify granular underpinnings is necessary to create a learning progression toward success. We unpack standards for teaching (formative assessment) but we repack standards for grading (summative assessment). Isolated skills are not the same thing as a synthesized demonstration of learning. Reaching the full cognitive complexity of the standards often involves the combination of skills in a more authentic application, so again, pull apart for instruction, but pull back together for grading.
Bailey, K., & Jakicic, C. (2011). Common formative assessment: A toolkit for Professional Learning Communities at Work®. Solution Tree Press.
Bailey, K., & Jakicic, C. (2018). Make it happen: Coaching with the four critical questions of PLCs at Work®. Solution Tree Press.
Dimich, N. (2014). Design in five: Essential phases to create engaging assessment practice. Solution Tree Press.
Erkens, C, Schimmer, T., & Dimich, N. (2017). Essential assessment: Six tenets for bringing hope, efficacy, and achievement to the classroom. Solution Tree Press.
Freese (2020). “Critical Friend Protocol.”
Minnesota Department of Education. (2011). Minnesota K–12 academic standards: Social studies. Minnesota Department of Education. https://education.mn.gov/MDE/dse/stds/soc/
Schimmer, T. (2021, 13 December). Six Myths of Summative Assessment. AllThingsAssessment. https://allthingsassessment.info/author/tom-schimmer
Solution Tree Reproducibles for Unpacking Standards:
A Protocol for Unpacking Standards