How PLCs Helped Move Us Toward Equitable High School Assessment Practices by Holly Hereau

My colleagues and I began using units intentionally designed for the NGSS for biology in early 2017. We started with a high-quality unit evaluated by my colleagues on the Science Peer Review Panel, and eventually used a full program from the unit’s developers. We were immediately impressed with the coherence and relevance of the curriculum, which resulted in an extreme increase in student engagement. Students who were not traditionally successful in science were exploring content deeply and asking questions, and they were participating in small- and large-group discussions in ways we hadn’t been able to motivate before.

However, we were still developing our understanding of three-dimensional assessment tasks, and everyone was becoming anxious about the lack of scores in the gradebook. So we created some “traditionally” formatted quizzes. Despite their level of engagement and the multiple ways students showed understanding during discussion, many did not score as well as expected. Eventually, our students’ enthusiasm for science decreased to the level it was before we implemented the new units. Getting a low score, especially on the content they had been deeply interested in and felt they knew, reinforced students’ previous belief that they were not good at science.

We realized the issue was not the materials, but the assessments we were using. Over the next year, our department learned as much as we could about equitable assessment practices and began exploring standards-based grading.

Challenges in Implementing Standards-Based Grading

Previously, we would spend lots of time unpacking standards to create learning targets in the form of “I can” statements. We quickly realized that these “I can” statements, which described what students were about to learn, were at odds with the key innovations of the NGSS that ask students to use the science and engineering practices and crosscutting concepts to uncover the key science ideas. Similarly, it was challenging to create rubrics that didn’t reveal what students were supposed to figure out, yet were still effective at helping students understand where they needed to focus to improve.

The biggest challenge was the lack of time necessary to do this work before teaching the content. Deciding on learning targets, determining assessment opportunities, designing three-dimensional rubrics for those opportunities, and clearly defining grade-band expectations is no small task. As the year progressed, we also needed time to ensure teachers’ scoring was calibrated, and of course, we had to find time to give students meaningful feedback. We were incredibly lucky to have used high-quality NGSS-designed materials with a team of committed teachers collaborating in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) to help make these tasks less formidable.

The Synergy of Purpose-Driven PLCs

Our department was fortunate to have access to a large amount of quality professional learning as the NGSS were being implemented.

As a PLC, our team was able to increase our capacity to meet these challenges. We pooled our expertise, time, and resources to create a system that would help educators to both build confidence in students and give our team some data on their learning:

We employed high-quality materials to support our work. Using the assessment overview document provided within the Biology Storylines program, our content-level PLC created three-dimensional, single-point rubrics intended to measure a student’s proficiency and understanding during the chosen task in a way that doesn’t reveal any key ideas students have not yet developed. As we create these rubrics, and reflect on how we use them, they have become living documents that we are constantly refining.

We also meet as content-level PLCs to reflect on student work and “buddy score” student responses to calibrate expectations for scoring. These rich discussions have not only helped clarify what we expect students to be able to do at different high school grade levels, but also have helped teachers become more comfortable with the innovations and expectations of these new standards.

Early Evidence of Success

With our new assessment system, we find that student confidence is increasing, and they’re remaining engaged and excited throughout the cycles of “figuring out” all year. Not only have students been more engaged, but we’ve also seen evidence of early success on the Science Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) assessment.

On the state test, previously unmotivated students commented about how they learned something new from the interesting phenomena presented on the test, and they were motivated to continue testing for additional days to finish the exam. That anecdotal evidence seems to corroborate with how our students’ scores have changed relative to scores of other students in Michigan.

Our PLC work has been key in making our assessments more equitable, and I look forward to continuing to build students’ confidence as scientists.

Students at our school consistently underperformed on the state science exam. 15.8% of students at our school scored above the benchmark for proficiency in 2015–16, and only 13.5% scored about the benchmark in 2016–17, compared to 33% and 33.8% of students in Michigan for the same years.

This pilot test released data to districts, but did not release the scores publicly. Additionally, no benchmark for proficiency was released to schools, so these metrics are not directly comparable to the scores from previous years. However, even considering the average percentage of test questions students answered correctly at our school relative to the average across the state, the relative gains are promising.

Holly Hereau is a science educator at BSCS, an adjunct biology professor at Macomb Community College in Warren, Michigan, and Mott Community College in Flint, and is a member of Achieve’s Science Peer Review Panel. She previously taught high school biology, chemistry, and environmental science in Redford, Michigan, for 15 years. Hereau has worked with educators across the country to support implementation of high-quality NGSS-designed units developed by the Next Generation Science Storylines and inquiryHub teams. She holds a BS in biology from Grand Valley State University and studied entomology at Michigan State University before earning a master’s degree in education at the University of Michigan. As a proponent of five-dimensional learning, she is passionate about providing experiential and place-based opportunities for students. Connect with her on Twitter at @hhereau.

Note: This article is featured in the December 2019 issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

Visit NSTA’s NGSS@NSTA Hub for hundreds of vetted classroom resourcesprofessional learning opportunities, publicationsebooks and more; connect with your teacher colleagues on the NGSS listservs (members can sign up here); and join us for discussions around NGSS at an upcoming conference.

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