I implemented a collaborative form of assessment with my sixth-grade students. They regularly tracked and reflected on their academic growth with others. They presented portfolios of their work to their families and to guest educators, and in the late spring they formally presented their portfolios to a panel of school-board members, educators, and community members—our game day, so to speak—showing evidence of their skill levels and reflecting on their strengths, challenges, and goals related to academics and personal character. My students’ portfolios contained traditional measurements such as test scores, grades, and written essays, as well as samples of what they felt was their best work in all disciplines and their own assessments of how they were doing. When students collaborated in their own growth, they continually sought critique and knew what they needed to improve.
I work with an educational nonprofit, EL Education, that partners with public schools and districts nationally, supporting high achievement using this same approach. Students in all grades lead their own family conferences. They have a clear awareness of their fitness across disciplines. And these students feel ownership of their academic success and are committed to improving their skills.
Once students understand what they need to change, how can districts and schools help them improve? Scientific research shows that learning is impeded if students do not feel safe, seen, and valued. All parents and teachers know that if a child does not feel that she belongs within her school culture because of her identity—whether it’s race or gender identity, income level, culture, body type, learning profile—she likely will not thrive academically.
Educators can support the social and emotional health and identities of students at the same time they assign work that is meaningful and—most important—challenging, even above students’ current level. Addressing concerns about learning loss by raising difficulty level may seem counterintuitive, but with strong relationships and support, this approach can be surprisingly effective.
Philip Uri Treisman, a mathematician, spent his career researching why so few Black and Latino students received higher degrees in mathematics. At UC Berkeley, and then at the University of Texas at Austin, he took a novel approach to this problem that has shifted thinking nationally. His research revealed that when students interested in pursuing mathematics were assigned remedial work, it was essentially a dead end for those students’ future in math. In his calculus classes, he intensified learning by creating study groups of students who worked together on problems that were much harder than the standard curriculum. When those students learned from one another, they filled in some of their skill gaps as they took on harder problems. They took pride in overcoming worthy mathematical challenges, and their self-image as mathematicians was transformed. When Treisman first arrived at the University of Texas, half a dozen minority students were math majors; after his program took hold, that number soon grew to more than 150, and some of those students went on to earn a doctorate.