Excellence in Education - Assessment at Sparhawk Upper School

Yvonne Domings, Director of Sparhawk Upper School

Excellence in Education - Assessment at Sparhawk Upper School

by Yvonne Domings, Director of Sparhawk Upper School

The purpose of assessment in any form is to look for evidence of learning. It is an integral part of teaching. Yet, in common parlance, the word “assessment” has a negative connotation due to the rise of the use of standardized assessment. At Sparhawk, we believe that assessment should be as varied and dynamic as the process of learning. In one moment or in one day, it would be impossible to measure what we, at Sparhawk, value most: the child’s process of learning how to think both creatively and critically in service of developing themselves. Rather than a snapshot, Sparhawk assessments capture a collage of the learner as a whole, multi-faceted person on a path toward lifelong learning.   

We begin curriculum design by setting the destination of where we want students to end up. In the same way that GPS would be useless if you don’t set a destination before you begin, creative and varied assessments are not effective if they don’t focus on a goal. Teachers ask, what skills do I want my students to gain and big ideas do I want my students to explore? The answer differs for different students at different ages and stages of development. So before designing projects and instruction, teachers ask themselves what “evidence of learning” could look like. It is at that point, that they begin to design clear expectations and guidelines that will eventually be communicated to students.

Like a GPS that continuously checks progress toward a goal and makes adjustments, good teachers are constantly asking questions, checking in and observing their students ability to participate purposefully in class, reflect upon their own process, produce meaningful notes, benefit from a socratic seminar or work on a team to solve a complex problem. These “formative” assessments are like litmus tests that guide the teacher to effectively respond to the needs of the different learners in the group. Formative assessments also keep instruction interesting yet focused on the goal. In doing so, it is easy to give varied learners choice and latitude in way they will be assessed.

As a progressive school, teacher and learners often co-design summative or “end-of-course” assessments. These less often include a traditional test of skill and understanding, and more often include measures that provide evidence of growth and development of deep learning. Evidence of deep learning can come in varied forms such as the ability to apply math and science concepts to a complex problem, to demonstrate higher-order thinking skills in a piece of analytical writing, to perform of a monologue or create a piece of new media (video, blog). In the end, teacher and learner reflect both formally and informally not only on the content, but also on the process and the end result.

During the final semester of senior year, students prepare for their final assessment at Sparhawk: Graduation by Exhibition. Graduation by Exhibition is a final reflection on themselves as a learner. Seniors spend the spring semester going through old papers and projects and considering themselves as a younger, less mature learner. They ask themselves: How did I develop into the learner I am now, what worked and didn’t for me and how can I use this information in the future. This can be a challenging process, but one that we value as a means of setting our graduates up well for the next phase of education. Graduation by Exhibition culminates in a review of the portfolio with a faculty of choice and their advisor. The result is an introspective look at who they have become: multi-faceted, competent learners. This is a joyful moment for our students and one that we celebrate as a school as each senior completes the process. This reflection is the ultimate example of assessment at Sparhawk, a dynamic assessment of the learner, by the learner and shared with the entire community.

*Standardized assessment is a large-scale test that measures a student’s understanding as compared to a norm or an academic standard. The widespread use of standardized tests began to rise after the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” suggested that the poor performance of US students on standardized tests when compared to international peers put the US at risk of economic failure.