Envision Learning Partners started working with Bryan Adams High School (Dallas, Texas) four years ago to help them transition their entire High School of 2,000 students to a Performance Assessment System. MaryAnn Suhl (Bryan Adams Vice Principal and the lead on this transition) shares her experiences on the project in this blog post:
How are you advancing your Performance Assessment System?
Since we began implementing our Performance Assessment System, we have continued to evolve it into something that works for our campus. Our Performance Assessment system is so beneficial and powerful for our students. When we host defenses, students want to stand in front of their peers, administrators, family members and the community so that they have an opportunity to share their story. It is something so transformative for our students, but also has had a major impact on our teachers because they can now see what students learned in their classes. In some cases, it has caused our teachers to rethink what and how they are teaching based on student defenses and performance assessments.
What have you learnt during this process?
We have learned that this process takes time and that you have to keep it simple. It is important to create as much buy-in and support from all levels of staff so that it doesn’t become an initiative that “they are making them do” instead of what is best for students and their learning. Finally, don’t give up. You will hit snags and run into some roadblocks but the payoff in student learning and engagement makes the struggle so worthwhile.
What is the impact you are seeing on students and their work?
The direct impact is that students are being provided with greater opportunities to discuss the work they are doing in their classes and how it will impact and relate to what they want to do once they graduate high school. Now that we are four years into this process, it has become the thing that is done and students are now excited to participate in defending their learning and are excited to have a greater sense of purpose in what they are learning.
What is the impact you are seeing on teachers and their practice?
There has also been an unintended consequence of moving to performance assessments and defenses and having all of our faculty serve on defense panels to evaluate students on their ability to articulate their learning: Teachers at our campus now have a greater sense of ownership in the process and can now witness students struggle to describe their learning. In other words, it has caused deep reflections in our faculty on what and how they are teaching because it brought to light a realization that “hey, that is a really cool project and students loved getting to make it, but now I can see that they didn’t actually learn from it what the teacher intended – that is so powerful.” This awareness for students and teachers has brought a more critical and analytical lens to the assessments that our teachers are designing for students. The direct impact has been higher levels of rigor for so many of our classrooms and projects. Students can now engage in meaningful and relatable work – they can better articulate how it will help them in their futures.
What is the impact of this work on you as a practitioner?
It has really forced me to rethink teaching and learning at the secondary level to consider the question of how are we really preparing our students for life after high school. As a teacher you spend days, weeks, and sometimes months on an assessment that you are so passionate about and think that it is well-structured and designed intricately so that your students are able to master all of the topics you’ve developed. It’s incredibly rewarding to watch students stand in front of their peers (defending their learning) and say things that are so profound, making deep connections to the lessons and to their own personal lives. Students describe how learning these skills, they feel that they are now better equipped to function in society – there is nothing like it. This experience makes me want performance assessments to be standard practice in all classrooms across the country. I have witnessed the true power of engaged learning that takes place when students have to demonstrate what they know, what they can do, and finally, reflect on how their learning has shaped themselves and their future. I am excited to take this learning and experience to more schools in our district to help other educators begin to see the power of performance assessments.
Is there one story you can share that illustrates how this work is benefitting your school and your students?
This past year, I was sitting in a senior defense and a young lady stated that she had been accepted to nursing school and her performance assessments she discussed were mostly related to her career in the medical field. What was so profound is that this young lady was able to articulate the learning she participated in her classes, particularly in her science classes. She had a strong understanding of the ways in which learning that information in her classes was going to be very beneficial as she was embarking upon nursing school. She also was very candid about how she thought during her freshman year that defenses and performance assessments were silly and just extra projects. She didn’t think they were connected at all to leadership or preparing her for her future. Now she does.