Measuring What Matters

Head of School, Dr. Jessie Barrie
Happy New Year, Bobcats! I hope you had a wonderfully restful and restorative break with lots of new memories made with those you love.

As an educator, my mindset of a new year has always followed the academic calendar, so I think of January 1st as more of a great place for a midpoint check-in on how the (school) year is going. I asked the Bosque staffulty for feedback in December on how I am doing in my new role and shared themes when we returned for a professional development day this past Monday. For students, the arrival of report cards next week will provide similar feedback—a snapshot of what things are going well and what tweaks they might consider making to better reach their academic goals in the new semester. 

Report cards were always a part of my educational journey and brought with them the satisfaction of feeling that my efforts had paid off and/or reminders of the stumbling blocks to better outcomes (pretty much every report card my entire elementary to high school career suggested that if I would just stop socializing with my friends as much in class, my grades would improve). What my report cards never effectively measured was what feels most important to me now as an educator:
  • How engaged was I with my learning?
  • How was I connecting what I learned in one class to other subject areas and the world around me?
  • How was I pushing myself to be brave in my educational choices and learning from mistakes? 
  • How was my educational experience shaping who I was as a learner, a leader, a community member, and a future professional?
  • How would my learning translate into success in college and careers? 

As an educator, I think a lot about assessment as this is another critical piece of Challenging Education. Most of the report cards of today look a lot like the ones I, my parents, and even my grandparents received. Along with instruction and curriculum, most models of assessment were designed to suit the needs of the Industrial Revolution and are grossly outdated and contrary to research on motivation, student success, and equity. At Bosque, our focus is on designing an educational program that inspires students in many vital ways: to find relevance and passion in their learning, to fail forward, to tap into flow and their intrinsic motivation to learn, to build collaborative and trusting relationships with their teachers, and to achieve mastery in core skills and content needed to succeed in future learning. Traditional grading systems can often contradict these goals in countless ways.

Four years ago, Bosque’s middle school staffulty dug into the research and decided to redesign the way they were approaching assessment; they shifted from a traditional number/letter grade model to a mastery-based model of “learning goals assessment,” based off the philosophy of standards-based grading. The roll out to such a dramatically different way of assessment has been bumpy, but the philosophy is one in which we strongly believe. One staffulty member remarked to me this fall that this is the best assessment tool she has used in her twenty years of teaching as it keeps both her and her students accountable to what matters. At the start of each marking period, teachers map out their overarching learning goals (the big picture skills they want students to master); the unique learning goals that will support growth in that overarching learning goal; and then the very specific skills that students must demonstrate proficiency in within each learning goal (two sample 6th grade science proficiency scales can be seen here).  Students have told me that this form of assessment helps them better understand their strengths and areas they need to work on; that it gives them multiple opportunities to show mastery before ever receiving a score (all students must have a minimum of three opportunities to interact with a specific learning goal/skill before it is reflected on a report card); and that it really reduces anxiety around grades. 

As you can imagine, in light of this shift in assessment practices,  the middle school report card looks quite different than the more traditional reports that our upper school students still receive. There has been discussion over the years about how we might apply similar assessment philosophies from middle to upper school students. The  challenge of course is that upper school grades must be reflected on the transcript that is used in the college admissions process, a process that still largely depends on the traditional markers of GPAs and standardized test scores. Thankfully, the higher education world is also questioning the value of traditional grading methods and more and more colleges and universities are becoming test optional. One of the most exciting recent educational developments is the work of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, with which an ever-increasing number of private and public high schools are working in partnership with college admissions offices to reconsider and redesign the high school transcript to better reflect the holistic capacity and capabilities of individuals. The possibility of a more comprehensive transcript also allows high schools to reconsider what curriculum and skills should be at the heart of their students' learning experience.We are closely following these conversations and thinking about how our assessment practices can support our students and their path forward. In the meantime, we continue to reflect on and refine our school-wide assessment assessment philosophy and best practices resource. 

Before winter break, I shared with the students a powerful TED talk by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist, about how to make stress your friend. McGonigal summarizes some really compelling research about how our approach to stress deeply influences our reaction to it. We discussed the often contradictory messages that students receive about stress. I know I have fallen victim to reassuring my children that a poor test grade is nothing to worry about, but then taking away privileges when a report card hasn’t measured up to what I see as their capabilities. As report cards arrive next week, I hope you can use Dr. McGonigal’s advice as a helpful tool for building collaboration and trust with your child while celebrating their strengths and supporting them in their growth edges. Lastly, don’t ever hesitate to reach out to your child’s teacher if you need further clarification for anything that comes up on your student’s report card.  
All the best,

Jessie Barrie, PhD
Head of School