From the superintendent: Building toward great at Colusa
Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of articles focusing on CUSD's improvement planning.
After quality instruction, quality assessment is the best way to insure high levels of student learning. As we plan for improvement, we must plan to improve our system of measuring student learning.
In the past, students were evaluated using mostly summative assessments. Tests and quizzes were regular examples of traditional summative assessments. Students take a quiz, teachers correct it, a grade is recorded, and the class moves along to the next topic. At the end of the unit, the test was taken and another grade is recorded. If a student did not understand a portion of the topic and performed poorly on a quiz, there was little re-teaching.
But think about applying that kind of education in the real world. An apprentice stonemason gets extensive instruction on how to mix mortar. But they never just get an explanation of the concept, a demonstration of the process, a quick test, and then move on to the next topic. The integrity of the entire structure depends on the mortar being made correctly. The process is explained and demonstrated, then the apprentice is allowed to mix the mortar under close supervision. The apprentice hears constant feedback, "... the mortar is too sticky, less cement next time" or, "… the mud's too thin, add less water, and let me show you how to fix this batch." As time goes on, the master mason is assured the apprentice is developing competence, and supervision decreases. At the end of the training process, the fact that the apprentice made some mistakes is not an issue.
I was 13 when we decided to build a loafing barn on our dairy. For three weeks that summer, I spent my days mixing mud for a mason who had 32 years of experience. He taught me how to mix the mortar with a constant, and sometime loud, stream of feedback. After the first day, I wondered if I would ever get it just exactly the way he wanted it. But he persevered, and under his guidance I got better at my task. I clearly recall the first time he let me mix the mortar without standing over my shoulder. As the block walls grew higher, and my skills increased, his comments about the quality of my work became fewer. Until finally, one bright, hot and sweaty summer day, I carried him a hod and his only comment was "looks nice." That comment was the summative assessment of my mortar mixing. I knew then that I had passed the test, and I am proud to say that those walls still stand strongly today.
Our assessment system in schools should function the same way. We should use things like homework and quizzes as formative assessments. They should help our students understand smaller steps which are part of a larger process. If the student cannot demonstrate understanding, we go back and re-teach. We should not hold past mistakes against them. We should expect that over time, students will show mastery of the topics and grow in their understanding. Formative assessment (feedback) should comprise the majority of our testing, with summative assessments only after students show mastery of all the parts of a topic. We want to build an improvement plan which will lead CUSD to excellence, and in a great educational system, quality assessments are the mortar holding all the other pieces firmly in place.
– Dwayne K. Newman is superintendent of Colusa Unified School District.