Why are we still talking about formative assessment?

Sherry Bennett: Reflections after Two Decades of Learning with AAC

My first encounter with the Alberta Assessment Consortium was in 1999, when Robert Hogg, new to his role as AAC Executive Director, invited me to join the AAC summer development workshop. Through many conversations about this thing called ‘assessment for learning’, I gained insights about teaching and learning that I hadn’t even considered prior to that time.

The Black and Wiliam meta-analysis was only a year old, and what I didn’t know at the time, was that the work we were about was truly ground breaking. What I did know, was that it resonated with me. It made sense, and gave me a whole new outlook on my teaching career.

I was still in the classroom at that time, and had the opportunity to try out these new ideas – performance tasks, rubrics, criteria, feedback, exemplars – with real students. I also had the opportunity to explain these concepts to parents, and to celebrate student growth and learning during family/teacher conferences.

I’m the first to admit that my early assessment work was not very refined. Those non-examples that we use in the AAC workshops – some of them came from my files! One of the most important things that I learned during my personal assessment journey was the value of feedback. I was mentored by three truly great educators who helped me embrace feedback as the essence of learning for every learner – students and adults.

It was also the time of the AISI projects in Alberta, and the nature of the three-year funding cycle had the unintended consequence of assessment for learning taking on ‘initiative’ status. You would hear statements such as, “We did assessment last cycle. We’re doing differentiation now.” As if you could ever be done assessment..

So why are we still talking about formative assessment? With all of the work in Alberta over the past 27 years, why are we not there yet?


I think it would be erroneous to suggest that we haven’t made progress during the almost three decades AAC has been in existence. But I’m not sure that formative assessment is an end unto itself. It’s not a place where you arrive.

Sure – you can try to track the use of formative assessment through online gradebooks, staff surveys, instructional walk-throughs, and the like – but true formative assessment is something that needs to be embraced by each educator. It’s a belief in the worth of students –every student – and a commitment to do whatever it takes to help them learn.

It’s not about comparing kids with each other and creating winners and losers. And it’s not about being ‘soft’ on kids, or giving ‘participation ribbons’ as the naysayers claim.

It’s about helping students clearly see the learning destination, reflect candidly about where they are at the moment, and consider their next steps in their own learning journey. We help students learn to give and receive feedback, and to value those opportunities.

Ultimately, our job is to help develop confident, resilient, lifelong learners. We do this by creating an assessment environment where it really is OK to take risks, and where learning is what is valued. 

I think most educators value these things, but it’s hard not to get distracted with a new online reporting program or the latest published provincial school rankings. But we have to remember that the research base claiming the positive impact on student learning is within the realm of formative assessment – not summative. 

It’s interesting to note how closely our collective jurisdiction mission and vision statements mirror the ideas of formative assessment. We all talk about success for all students, but sometimes our focus on summative assessment and reporting clouds our vision. It doesn’t have to. 

So why are we still talking about formative assessment? Well frankly, because what else really matters?

Relationship Status: It’s Complicated!

Pat Lore: Reflections at the End of a 9-Year Secondment

Have you ever felt like you were in a relationship that just wasn’t working as well as you wanted it to? That wasn’t helping you live your best life? 

I have, and that relationship is with assessment.

I’m closing in on the end of my 9-year secondment with AAC. Those 9 years provided me with a priceless opportunity to reflect on classroom assessment and how it impacts our role as educators. As well, I’ve had plenty of time to consider how assessment is perceived by leaders, teachers, students, and parents.

My experience with AAC, working with amazing teachers and leaders across the province, leads me to believe that, in general, we don’t have the healthiest relationship with assessment. Our current predicament has shone a light on that. Right now, the only assessment question we should be asking ourselves is, “What do I need to know about my students so I can keep their learning moving forward?” Instead, it feels like we’re spending too much energy asking, “How will I get enough evidence to assign grades?”

Another massive concern right now is about cheating and how to prevent it. It’s interesting to me, and a bit sad. Why are some students “cheating” on tasks and assessments? Why are parents helping them, or in some cases doing the work themselves? We’ve already established that, for once in our lives, the grade on the work doesn’t really matter. Instead of bemoaning the fact that this little secret has been shared with students and their families (“Now how am I going to make them do any work?”) maybe we should be celebrating! We have been given the perfect moment in time to rethink our relationship with assessment.

So what happens when we suddenly find ourselves in a world where marks and grades have lost their currency? We need to help students and their families realize that the true value in assessment, whatever its form, is the feedback it provides, to teachers and students alike, about where students are in their learning and what the next steps might be. Assessment helps us help our students. It’s about nurturing and supporting learners, not weighing and measuring them. And students need to be partners in the process.

At the same time, we need to critically reflect on the work we ask of our students. Is it meaningful? Authentic? Intriguing? Purposeful? If students don’t see or understand the value of the work, how can we expect them to care about doing it, let alone doing it well?

After my extended absence, I’m heading back to the classroom next year. I’m excited and apprehensive in almost equal measure. You may have noticed that this post is long on questions and short on answers. It’s because this work is so challenging, and I know for sure that I don’t have all the answers. I wonder what my own students would have said if I had ever thought to ask them what assessment was for. Or why it was important. Or even what it looked like. I’m afraid they would have answered that assessment is about me passing judgment on them. And while it may be true that sometimes assessment serves that purpose, it’s not what should ever matter most.

We’ve been given an opportunity to set aside grades for this moment in time. Let’s use this opportunity to build a different, and better, relationship with assessment!

How DO You Keep Your Students Coming Back?

9 Big Ideas about Student Engagement and Motivation – for This Year and Every Year!

It can be hard enough to keep students interested in their school work when spring arrives and the weather warms up. This spring poses special challenges. Students are parents are growing increasingly weary with the schooling situation they find themselves in, and many teachers are noticing a steep drop-off in the engagement of their students.


We’ve more or less lost the ability to use grades as “carrots and sticks” to motivate (or punish) our students, and this could be a good thing. Maybe we should embrace this moment in time, and use it to question why we ever allowed marks to matter so much in the first place. Are they really the only reason our students would ever feel compelled to do the work we assign? If so, let’s admit that we have a problem!


So, if grades won’t do the trick, we need to rethink the learning experiences we’re offering our students. Here at AAC we have some ideas that might help you hold onto your kids, and continue the learning this spring. And as a bonus, these are important ideas for us to think about anytime.



Take a good hard look at what you’re asking your students to do. Is there something of genuine interest in the work? Is it intriguing in some way? Could it spark their curiosity? If you feel bored by the work you’re assigning, imagine how your students are feeling right about now.


Do your best to assign work that’s relevant in some way to the lives of your kids – authentic and meaningful. This is an unprecedented time in their world, and their lives have changed in so many ways. Do your best to connect the tasks you assign to some of the things going on in their world.


Make sure you know why you’re asking students to do a task. Are you clear on the learning goal? Is it truly worthwhile, and will the task help students achieve it? Do your students understand the goal, and why it’s important? Building a shared understanding the learning goals can go a long way toward helping students care about the work.


Success is motivating, in and of itself. Does the work you’re assigning provide all your students with an opportunity to succeed? Often, the students we are most likely to “lose” are those who have not experienced much success in school. For those students, you might want to consider breaking tasks into smaller chunks, and let them get used to the idea that they can be successful. After all, it’s not a competition. It won’t matter if some students are doing different things than other students. 


Give students choice whenever possible. None of us feel like we have much control right now, and that can lead to feelings of hopelessness and disengagement. By providing choice, you can help your students rebuild a sense of control. How will they demonstrate their learning? Which question(s) will they answer? What topic will they explore? Who they will interview? The possibilities for choice are endless!


Provide an audience for your students’ work. Is there a way for them to post their project online, for their class or for a wider audience? Can they share it with family members, or with the community in some way? An audience provides an additional sense of purpose, and makes the quality of the work matter.


Learning is, at its heart, a very social endeavor. Try to find ways in which students can collaborate with others. If technology skills and infrastructure are up to it, things like breakout rooms make it possible for students to have discussions or solve problems collaboratively. Shared documents allow students to work together on a task, and with grades no longer very relevant, we don’t have to stress about assigning marks in a group project. You might also encourage students to work with a family member, and create something together.


Have fun! Do your best to provide activities that are hands-on, or that allow students to step away from their work space and get active. An outdoor shape scavenger hunt, with a camera to capture and share what you find, beats any number of math worksheets, any day.


And finally? Like always, what matters most is building and maintaining positive relationships. Make sure you reach out and connect with your students and their families in as many ways as you can possibly imagine. Find out how they’re doing, and what you can do to help – what’s working for them and what problems they’re facing. Give your students time to share their thoughts, feelings, questions, and concerns with you. Help parents and care-givers understand that you’re there to help, and that the relationships they build with their children right now matter more than completing every assignment.

We hope there’s something here that sparks ideas on your part. We’ll end by channeling one of our AAC mentors, Rick Stiggins, by asking the question: What could you ask your students to do tomorrow that they wouldn’t want to miss?

Parents as Partners

We’ve heard this a lot – but now more than ever, parents are essential partners in our students’ education.

Let’s be clear – we haven’t moved to wholesale home schooling, but rather to learning at home. There is a fundamental difference in that language. Teachers are still very much responsible for making decisions regarding instructional programming for students. And yet, we must make a fundamental shift in how we see our work. Now more than ever, we need to see parents as partners.

Alberta Education has provided direction as to the amount of work students could be expected to accomplish. For elementary students, that works out to about 20% of a ‘normal’ school day, week, month…

But what we are experiencing is not normal, and so whatever content and skills you usually ‘cover’ at this time of year in 100% of the time, for the sake of everyone involved, please put those expectations aside. Your students will not be able to manage. Neither will their parents and neither will you.

No student will be behind. Every student in Alberta is experiencing a lengthy disruption to their normal year of school. It sounds a bit trite to say that we are all in this together, but we actually are! No student is going to be able to accomplish all the learning tasks that are normally assigned during this period of time. And if they do, it’s because they have an exceptional base of support, and those tend to be our students who are most advantaged at the best of times. These are not the best of times.

Just as teachers always do, this is an important time to differentiate for students. Some parents are asking you for more work, and others are saying that it’s too much. The media is offering a glimpse into the reality of learning at home, and parents across the country are beginning to ‘opt out’ of the pressure.

Such a decision would no doubt be difficult for any teacher to experience, so what can we do to try to avoid receiving such a drastic response, while still being true to our professional responsibilities? Our AAC team offers four suggestions for helping to avert a crisis.


Define the Rocks

Most of us have likely forgotten much of the content we learned over our years of schooling. But what we haven’t forgotten, are the key skills that we continue to use in our daily lives – how to differentiate fact from opinion, how to support an argument, how to organize our thoughts within oral and written communication, how to use mental math to estimate, how to double or halve a recipe, and on and on it goes.

With such limited time available for learning for the remainder of this year, consider that the skills within any program of studies are the ‘rocks’ that should go into the learning jar first. Any content learning can then filter in like sand and find its rightful place.

Worksheets will only engage students for so long. Few of us would be content to experience such a limited learning diet for an extended period of time, and it’s the same for our students. Which brings us to the next point…


Focus on Authentic Performance Tasks

Engage students through authentic tasks that will capture their interest – and their commitment to a project. Focus on key skills that apply across a range of topics and contexts. The AAC website has over 250 samples of how learning outcomes can be addressed in tasks that have meaning for students. You’ll likely need to adapt what you find on the website to at-home learning.

Check out the following two AAC Talking Points on the topic of performance assessment for some helpful hints.

March 27, 2020


January 22, 2020


Design a project that focuses on key skills from the curriculum, and that can play itself out within a context that you know will engage each student – or that the student suggests. And that leads to the next point…



For parents who are asking for more work, you can provide that for them. For parents who are asking for less, help them out. Reduce the number of worksheets and find ways to make learning part of normal everyday conversations.

Again, we have an AAC Talking Point with many suggestions for parents during this time of at-home learning. See what suggestions might be helpful as you reach out to parents.

AAC Talking Point March 25, 2020



Stop Focusing on Grades  

We keep saying this, but we feel we need to say it again. Yes, Alberta Education has indicated that students will receive a final grade, but they have not said what that final grade should be. Leaders – this decision rests with you.

Check out some recent AAC articles on this topic.

AAC Talking Point April 21, 2020


ATA News April 28, 2020 (p. 3)


International assessment experts have been doing webinars in Alberta. Everyone is saying the same thing. Stop focusing on grades. Whatever system you are using to ‘grade’ students, it will be inaccurate. It will reward students who are already advantaged, and penalize those with limited resources or who require additional supports or different strategies to optimize learning.

Credit’ can be the grade for this year. Ranking and sorting, if it must return, can be a focus for another time.

This is not a time to inadvertently allow any student to check out on their learning because they feel inadequate, discouraged, or disinterested. This is the time to make learning relevant and possible for every student.

And if parents ‘opt out’ from the carefully designed program you are offering, please don’t take it personally. The stress is real for families who are dealing with a myriad of unforeseen circumstances. Their child’s spelling mark or participation in the digital math game is likely the lowest priority for them right now. Decisions made by parents cannot and should not be seen as a reflection on you. Remember that meeting the Teaching Quality Standard is a career long endeavour, and we are all new to the new normal. Your professional learning is at an all-time high right now, and we trust that the suggestions we have provided will be helpful.

And remember, AAC members can access the AAC team through Zoom at no charge! Reach out to us and let us know what you need, and we’ll do our best to help. info@aac.ab.ca

Keep focused on the big picture. Signs of spring are finally here, and summer vacation will surely follow. This year, more than ever, we will all need to take a break from this unprecedented learning experiment. Stay hopeful. We’re counting on you to help guide this generation of children through a learning journey with no road map. Please take care of yourself – physically, emotionally, and professionally.

The ‘New Normal’ is Not Normal – So Let’s Stop Pretending that Grades Matter!

The most important thing we can do to help our students – and their families right now is to encourage them to take care of their physical and emotional health. We talk about hand washing and social distancing – but what if we gave emotional distancing from grades a try!

Whatever precision we believe we have created with our assessment plans, grading practices, and online reporting systems, none of that is relevant now. In the quest for the perceived accuracy of a percentage grade, we must be completely sure that our distance learning and assessment practices are not causing additional stress for our students, their families, and our teachers. Surely the Hippocratic oath of medical professionals to “first do no harm” is transportable to the teaching profession.

We are dealing with great disparities in the resources and supports available to our students. Some have devices, some do not, some are sharing with parents and siblings, and some have insufficient bandwidth to accomplish their assigned tasks. Some have parents who are fortunate to be able to work at home, some parents must leave home to go to work, and many have lost employment. Some of our students are caring for younger siblings while parents work. Some children are home alone long before they really should be. Any pre-existing family stress will be multiplied during this time of isolation. If our students’ mental health was a priority prior to this pandemic, it is exponentially relevant now.

Our online reporting systems, as amazing as they are, have one key limitation. They can’t think. Now more than ever we require teacher professional judgment to mediate whatever limited evidence they are able to obtain about what students know and can do. Professional judgment is so important that it is even listed within the TQS. Now is the time to highlight its value, and to help teachers understand that the grade book isn’t the sole determiner of student grades.

Grades are always an inaccurate representation of what students know and can do. Dylan Wiliam reminds us that measurement error is present in every form of assessment – even large scale assessment, but that’s a conversation that most people don’t want to have. Right now, grades are even more inaccurate than they have ever been, so stop grading! That’s the best advice we can give right now for K – 9 distance learning classrooms.

For high school where a percentage grade is required, please, please, please don’t ask your teachers to mimic the diploma format. There is no diploma this year. This is the opportunity for your teachers to create a relevant, engaging summative task that will allow students to use those higher order thinking skills. The entire world is focused on a rush for a cure, for a vaccine, for a testing protocol. The skills that our students will need to address the needs of their future don’t come from cracking the code of a multiple choice exam.

And let’s be clear that just because we are using technology doesn’t mean we are engaging in 21st century learning. Worksheets delivered by email or through an online learning portal that are focused on low-level recall and comprehension are not proxy for rich curriculum – even our current curriculum.

We may have touched a nerve with this column, and for that we will channel Dylan again. Dylan shared a poster he observed in a teacher’s classroom, which stated: Frustrated? Confused? Good! It was worth coming to school today!

So if we have touched a nerve, may we humbly say, “Good! We’re glad you read to the end of this column!”

Please, for the sake of your students’ – and your teachers’ mental health, please carefully consider, and be prepared to rethink, the assessment practices that you have put in place during this pandemic.

In fairness, we believe leaders have been doing the best they can. There was no warning, no time to prepare. But now that we are in this, and it looks like it will be this way for a while yet, let’s take a moment to rethink. Let’s be sure that all the great things we’ve learned together over the years about formative assessment don’t go out the window. An over-reliance on things that are easy to measure soon translates into us valuing those things. And once that happens, it will be very difficult to stop that train…

Teachers are bound to follow the directives they receive from you as their leaders. If Alberta Education is giving school principals discretionary authority to award high school credits in the absence of the usual evidence of learning, then surely we can work with our teachers to adjust what appropriate evidence of learning looks like. In the absence of the typical provincial accountability framework, let’s not rush to create one of our own.

For our AAC members, we are always available to talk with you about ways to adapt assessment practices. Now more than ever we are available to help.

What if this was the ‘watershed’ moment that placed the research on formative assessment front and centre – for the sake of our students? What if this extraordinary moment in time gave us the opportunity to reimagine our assessment practices? What if you were the leaders who were able to champion that movement?

Let’s talk!


Performance Tasks – Open up the Learning Possibilities for your Students at Home!

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that AAC has a collection of performance tasks on our website, designed for teachers to use with their students in class. Maybe you’ve even used some of them in the past. Some tasks are available only to AAC members, but there are others, particularly in middle grades social studies and high school mathematics that have been developed through Alberta Education grant funding that are available to the public.

In our ‘new normal’ of distance learning, performance tasks are a great way to provide your students with something a little different to do at home, that still keeps them focused on important learning. You’ll likely want to make some adjustments, but you can make performance tasks work for your students at home!

First of all, if you haven’t already, you might want to start by reading a recent Assessment Talking Point about performance assessment: What’s all the fuss about performance assessment? Many of the tips in that post will be important to remember now.

A good performance task is open-ended, providing entry points for students at all levels. It focuses on big ideas and important learning, but for now at least, step away from the rubric! There is no need to grade these tasks in any way. Instead, look for ways in which your students can share their learning with you, their classmates, and any other audiences you can envision. It’s not about the grade. In fact, it should never have been about the grade, but that’s a topic for another day!

So… here are the new Top Ten Things to Consider when using performance tasks through at-home learning.


Find a task you think might be appropriate for your students and doable with materials likely to be available at home. Don’t feel constrained by grade level, particularly in English Language Arts. Many of the AAC ELA tasks can be transported to other grade levels with some minor adjustments for grade-level outcomes. A few tasks are listed at the end of this post that might provide a starting point for your explorations. 


Simplify the chosen task as much as is reasonable. A short, simple task will be much more likely to succeed than something complicated and involved. All the tasks and support materials download as word documents, so you can modify them as needed. 


Take a look at the rubric. The assessment criteria will give you a good idea of the learning focus of the task. But don’t even think of sending the rubric home to families! Instead, think of how you might turn it into a tool for student self-reflection. For example, you could remove the four levels, provide descriptions that unpack the assessment criteria, and then ask students to identify where their work is strong, and what they might do next to improve it. 


Think about which parts of the task are most likely to cause challenges for your students. Many of the tasks come with scaffolding tools that help break down complex thinking skills. In other cases, you might be able to create an organizer or some purposeful questions to help your kids. Anticipate problems, and do your best to get ahead of them. 


Set a flexible time frame for the task, and if possible, provide students with some platform through which to share their work and thinking along the way, with you, as well as their peers. Is it possible to provide opportunities for your students to receive feedback, either from you, their peers, or someone at home? The scaffolding tools with many of the tasks have been designed for exactly that purpose.


Hmm…we keep mentioning scaffolding tools! You can tell that we value them a lot! Sometimes we call them formative assessment tools. If you haven’t spent much time with scaffolding tools before, this is definitely the time to do so! There are scaffolding templates available to AAC members on the website. If you are not from an AAC member jurisdiction, many of the tasks in middle grades social studies are in the public section and have scaffolding tools that you can adapt for any subject and grade level.


Provide a way for parents, guardians, and care-providers to contact you if they have questions. 


Encourage students to share their finished projects – audio recordings, photographs, videos, and written work. Celebrate  each student’s contributions, finished or not! Celebrate the parents, guardians, and care-providers for their support and guidance!


Normally, we like to see performance tasks that are completely the child’s own work. That’s why we recommend they are done in school. But in this new normal, parents working with children on an engaging learning challenge will yield so much more than a product! Positive parent-child relationships focused on completing a learning challenge will create memories that will last for years. And like we said – it’s not about the grade!


We have modified the AAC Terms of Use to allow teachers to post student materials to their electronic classroom portal. This new permission is for individual teachers, not jurisdictions (see pp. 2-3 of the pdf document for details). This is a great time to spread the word within your jurisdiction and take another look at all the great things AAC has available to support effective assessment and learning – especially during this time.

Here are a few performance tasks from the AAC website to get you started. Search by subject and grade at this link. If you are an AAC member, login in first to make your browsing experience easier!

Remember that many of the tasks can easily be adapted to other grade levels, and there are over 250 tasks to explore, from Kindergarten to Grade 12!

  • My Dragon is Lost (Kindergarten ELA): Create a poster for your missing dragon.
  • Lights, Camera, Action! (Grade 1 ELA): Prepare a video preview of a book you’ve read.
  • Animal Sanctuary (Grade 1 Science): Construct a model of a safe place for a rescued animal to live.
  • The Snowman Shop (Grade 2 Math): Make and measure hats, noses, and arms for your shop, and then create snowmen.
  • Fairy Tale Festival (Grade 3 ELA): Create a diorama, comic strip, or illustration representing your favourite part of a fairy tale.
  • EcoCar Challenge (Grade 4 Science): Design, construct, and test a model for a wind-powered vehicle.
  • The Petting Zoo (Grade 5 Math): Create a layout for a petting zoo, with 3 rectangular enclosures.
  • Coming Soon – Class Election (Grade 6 ELA): Gather information about a famous person you would like to nominate as class president.

If you decide to use a performance task with your students, we’d love to hear about the experience. Please feel free to contact AAC anytime. And please, stay safe and connected ‘by a distance’ out there. We are all in this together!

Relationships: That’s What Matters Most Right Now

It’s never been very helpful to argue with kids about homework, and that is especially true right now. With so much uncertainty in the world, it’s no surprise that many kids (and parents, too) are finding it hard to focus on something as ordinary as schoolwork.

We keep hearing that we are all in this together, and it’s true for schoolwork as well. Every student in Alberta has had their year of schooling interrupted. So when the students return to school, teachers will meet students wherever they are at in their learning, and adjust their lessons accordingly.

So while you are working overtime to juggle the demands of working from home and keep everyone in your family healthy and safe, and now you have to worry about how to help your child with their schoolwork, give yourself permission to s-l-o-w- – -d-o-w-n! It’s not a race.

Alberta Education has provided clear guidelines of how much “schoolwork” is expected. https://www.alberta.ca/release.cfm?xID=69874B5C32DE7-C7B9-FAFF-518A0FF91DCFD41D  And it’s not as much as you might have originally thought. Your child’s teachers will be communicating with you about what they want your child to learn and how you might go about helping them.

Aside from that, take this unusual gift of time and look for ways to make learning an enjoyable part of your child’s everyday life. Here are some suggestions for your elementary aged children.


  • Make a “word wall” or picture dictionary, where you can collect interesting and intriguing words you read or hear.
  • Use Scrabble letter tiles (or make some of your own using the back of a cereal box) and then build words together. Make new words by changing just one or two letters.
  • Read a book together, no matter what the age of your child, and wonder about what’s going to happen next, or why a character chose to do what they did.
  • Write a story, taking turns with each word, sentence, paragraph or chapter.
  • Draw a picture together. Let your child take the lead, and do your best to copy each step on your own paper. You can take the lead on the next picture.
  • Look for signs of spring, and start a photo collection of what you find.


  • Measure the dimensions of a room, using steps. Use the dimensions to draw a map.
  • Make a half-batch of cookies together, with your child figuring out how much of each ingredient is needed.
  • Let your child make up a problem for you to solve.
  • Give your child a number and have them find as many ways as they can to arrive at that number. For example, “How many different ways can you make 12?” Your child might want to use materials such as bingo chips or buttons to help them represent different ways to show the number.
  • Play games, and let your child keep score. This is a great way to practice mental math.
  • Talk about the difference between games of skill and games of chance. This can help your child deal more constructively with ‘losing’ at a game of chance. For games of skill, help them learn strategies for improving their skill level. How do you keep track of what cards have been played, or the clues that have been given?
  • When you’re reading a book together, see what page you’re on, and figure out how many pages are left. Decide a number of pages you might read each day, and when you expect to be done. 
  • Estimate the number of words on a page and in the book. Do a word count of a page to help refine your estimate. How close were you to your original estimate?
  • Make a list of where we see numeracy skills being used in the real world.

Ideas for Anytime Conversations

Encourage your child to ask questions. Ask them, “What do you wonder about this?” and support your child by asking good questions yourself. Here’s a list of questions that prompt further conversation.

  • What do you need to know next?
  • What do you notice about this?
  • How are these two things alike? How are they different?
  • Why do you think that happened? What if…?
  • Does this make sense? What makes you think you’re right?
  • Why did you choose to do it this way? What are you going to do next?
  • Can you help me understand this part?
  • Is there another way you could do this?
  • Why do you think this didn’t work? What could you try next?
  • Could you make a question of your own that’s like this one?

It’s all about the learning, and your attitude is so important!

Be positive about learning, be interested in what your child is doing, and be excited when a tough problem is solved or a challenge is achieved. Celebrate success. Provide encouragement. Have a conversation. Find time to have fun together every day, and in doing so, you’ll help keep those important relationships intact.

We’ll get through this together, and who knows, the family time we create might just be one thing that we want to remember from this uncertain time.

Time to Make Lemonade!

Time to Make Lemonade!

It’s been said that when life hands you a lemon, make lemonade. Well, it appears that we’ve been gifted a very large shipment of lemons.

I’m not pretending that things are fine, because they’re not. If any have ever doubted our connection to a worldwide community, there is no question at all anymore.

And I’m not suggesting that we ignore the inconvenience and suffering that this pandemic is causing, because it is real.

At the same time, it can be empowering to find places where we can influence the lives of our students and their families for good. Take assessment for example. In the new normal of distance education and distance assessment, how can we make assessment live up to Rick Stiggins’ powerful vision?

        We need assessment that will… 

  • Encourage, not discourage
  • Build confidence, not anxiety
  • Bring hope, not hopelessness
  • Offer success, not frustration
  • Trigger smiles, not tears

If we consider that assessment is essentially the process of gathering evidence of student learning, we have an opportunity right now to revisit this question:

         How much evidence do you really need to tell you that <insert the name of your student here>             understands/can demonstrate <insert the learning outcome here>?

Perhaps not as much as we might have previously thought. Our carefully thought out assessment plans that we submitted in September won’t work in this new reality. What if we could use this time as an opportunity to move away from a focus on grades to a focus on learning?  Perhaps this truly can be a ‘less is more’ moment for student assessment.

Over the next few days, our AAC team will provide a series of helpful suggestions for teachers to consider as they adapt their regular assessment routines for our new reality.  We encourage you to take the opportunity to try some of those new formative assessment techniques that sounded great in the workshop but might not have been tried in the classroom. Now that we all have a new ‘classroom’, how can we adapt these techniques for online learning and assessment?  

Please take good care of yourselves and your loved ones. Slow down, and look for signs of spring. We can all use a bit of light and hope right now.  

To Fret or Refocus: That is the Question!

To Fret or Refocus: That is the Question!

Ruth Sutton, one of AAC’s long-time assessment friends posed the following question at the Fall 2015 AAC Leadership Day.

How do you hang onto your sanity and your confidence and your resilience and your health when things around you seem to be changing, and not always rationally?

Ruth continued:

In that environment of external change – about which we can do not much – you’ve got some choices. You can either fret about things you can’t control, or you can begin to refocus on the things that never go away.

To say that things are challenging right now, both in the world as a whole as well as in the world of education, would be an understatement. And we have a choice. We can either fret or refocus.

Whether we are teachers or leaders, there is power in refocusing our efforts on improving our understanding and our practice in the area of formative assessment. But with all of the possible areas where we could focus our attention, why choose formative assessment?

Rick Stiggins, another long-time assessment friend of AAC, provided some sobering advice. After recapping the research base in the field of formative assessment, Rick warned that these impressive results were not available if one or two teachers did it some of the time. He emphasized that there needs to be a commitment within a school and a district to these principles of formative assessment.

Formative assessment is not an initiative. It’s not a quiz without a grade, or a bin equal to zero in a digital marks program. When done well, formative assessment is the way we do our work so that we ensure all students are learning. Dylan Wiliam calls assessment the “bridge between teaching and learning.” He continues to remind us that effective formative assessment happens “minute-by-minute” and “day-by-day.” It’s something that never goes away.

In the 1998 publication Inside the Black Box, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam boldly asked four key questions in regard to formative assessment.

  • Is there evidence that improving formative assessment raises standards?
  • Is there evidence of room for improvement?
  • Is there evidence of how to improve formative assessment?
  • Are we serious about raising standards?

What might our responses be to those same questions today?

Regardless of what transpires in the education sector – new curriculum or not; more large-scale testing or not – no one can ever take away the power that comes to students and teachers when they engage in true formative assessment. No one.

We’ve come a long way on this journey, and while sincerely honouring all the amazing things that are happening in classrooms all across our province, we likely can agree that we’re not quite ‘there’ yet!

So while we continue in a time of uncertainty, let’s consider Ruth’s advice. Let’s refocus on things that matter. The principles of classroom formative assessment make a difference for students.

Stay tuned… AAC is with you on this journey!

It’s the best kept secret!

Whenever we do a workshop , we always showcase something from our fabulous AAC website. Participants are often surprised, because they had no idea the wealth of resources that are part of their AAC membership.

We may be a bit biased, but were pretty confident there’s no better place to access resources to support quality classroom assessment practices for Alberta educators than your good old AAC website! Yeah, we’ve been around for over 25 years, but that doesn’t mean that we’re old school! We keep up with the greats in the world and make sure that our resources and workshops are developed with the Alberta context in mind. 

People who know the value of our work often say that AAC is the best kept secret. We’d like to change that! 

We want you to tell everyone about something you found on the AAC website or learned at one of our workshops that you can’t teach without! Like our 2009 publication Building Better Rubrics for example – a teacher once told us that they can’t build a proper rubric without that book! Or an idea from one of our workshops that changed your perspective on teaching, learning and assessment –  “You mean I don’t have to mark everything?”

What is your most valuable AAC resource or your greatest AAC ‘aha’ moment? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter #AACgold. 

Not sure what’s there? We can help with that too! We have a website tour that you can use by yourself, with colleagues, and in a staff meeting. 

Take the AAC_Website_Tour and then take to Twitter! #AACgold

What’s all the fuss about performance assessment?

Performance assessment is not just a passing fad – it is an essential part of a complete and balanced assessment plan.

Let’s be honest – some outcomes simply can’t be measured by a test or quiz. And just because students need to complete some multiple choice tests during their schooling doesn’t mean that we have to use tests as the default assessment format within our classrooms. We have the opportunity – and responsibility – to help prepare our students for the real world. After all, when was the last time you had to do a multiple choice test within your world of work? For me it was decades ago, but that’s a topic for another day!

Performance assessment provides a way for students to demonstrate skills, processes, and competencies, such as critical thinking and creativity, through open-ended tasks that focus on big ideas from the curriculum.

Chances are you are already using performance tasks, but they may exist within your unit plans as projects. With a bit of planning, you can take your projects to the next level. Here are some tips to make it easier for you and your students!

  1. Start small.
    • Start with something that can be completed in one class period or two. Don’t spend too long crafting the perfect task. Instead, put a prototype in action as quickly as possible, and use the lessons you learn on your next attempt.
  2. Collaborate with your colleagues.
    • Work together to create a good question or prompt for the task, then collaborate at the end to examine student work together and reflect on what you’ve learned.
  3. Clarify the learning destination for yourself.
    • What is the learning that really matters here? Will the task you have in mind actually provide the opportunity to demonstrate that learning? Remember that the details of the mode of presentation may not be the most important part of the task. This may be a shift for the students – and their parents! And be sure to check that the rubric is also measuring those same things that really matter.
  4. Clarify the learning destination for your students.
    • How will you build a shared understanding of the learning goals of the activity? Are students clear on the qualities of excellent work?
  5. Consider the needs of all your students.
    • Does the task have entry points for every student in your class? Will students have opportunities to take the learning further if they’re able?
  6. Provide opportunities for practice and feedback.
    • Students need opportunities to practice, receive feedback, and use the feedback to improve, before you assign a mark to their work. Feedback is a checkup, not an autopsy!
  7. Provide choice whenever possible.
    • This might be choice in the question or topic students are responding to, the way in which they demonstrate their learning, or the types of scaffolding available.
  8. Involve students in the assessment process
    • This might include providing time for students to review exemplars, examine their work in relation to the exemplars, engage in peer feedback and self-reflection on work in progress, and set goals for next steps.
  9. Look for ways to include an authentic audience.
    • Students from another class or grade? Presentation to an outside audience? Work displayed inside or outside of school? Digital sharing of the work? A performance task should connect to, or at least mirror, something within the real world.
  10. Don’t panic!
    • The open-ended nature of performance tasks requires a level of independence and risk-taking that might be unfamiliar to your students. Be patient with them, and with yourself!


And here’s one last bonus tip – not everything students do needs to be included in their report card mark. That’s right! When an assessment format is new for students (and perhaps also for their teachers), everyone needs time to learn, reflect, and try again.


What opportunities exist for including a performance task within your current unit plan? Give it a try! The results may astound you!

Looking for some ideas? Check out https://aac.ab.ca/materials/.

Does test prep have to look like test prep?

The test is coming! The test is coming! Break out the practice questions and bubble sheets!!

We know that some of our students are required to take large-scale assessments, and that the results matter, to a greater or lesser degree, to students, parents, teachers, schools, and districts. Naturally, we want our students to perform to the best of their ability on these assessments.

So that means lots of practice multiple choice tests, right? Maybe it would be best if we model all our assessments on the format of these exams? And wouldn’t it be helpful if students in the grades leading up to the test years also get lots of practice on multiple choice tests?

Not so fast!

Multiple choice tests have their place. They’re straightforward to administer and easy to grade. They can provide some evidence of learning, especially if you’re assessing a student’s knowledge.

But… there’s danger in over-doing multiple choice – and, the information you can get from a multiple choice test is limited.

They require students to recognize correct responses, rather than create ones of their own.

Students can answer questions about a skill, but that’s different than demonstrating the skill themselves.

Multiple choice questions can tell us if a student got the right answer, but not always how.

They tell us if a student got the wrong answer, but not always why.

They aren’t very accessible to our students who have learning challenges, and the comprehension load means that students whose first language is not English are at a disadvantage.

When you look at a Program of Studies for any subject or grade level, it’s easy to find outcomes that simply are not assessable at all through a multiple choice question. That’s why it’s important that we gather evidence in a variety of other ways.

So, how do we prepare our students to do their best on large-scale assessments? If not lots of multiple choice practice tests, then what?

Here are some review strategies that don’t require students to get hopelessly lost in bubble sheets before the big day.

Debates can help students review big ideas and supporting details on a number of topics, which can be invaluable in preparing for written response questions. This activity can also provide important background information for source based multiple choice items.

Have students work in groups to answer a section of multiple choice items. Ask students to identify the correct answer, and to analyze why the other responses are incorrect. By so doing, they can become familiar with how distractors are embedded within the question design.

Use a jigsaw format to help students review large amounts of content, and then prepare to share what they have learned with other groups of students. Of course, teachers will need to oversee the information to ensure its accuracy before it is shared with other groups. This technique can motivate students to do their best work as they realize the benefits of working together and sharing.

Ask students to deconstruct a higher order thinking sample question to determine the background knowledge required in order to answer the question. Students can work together to develop questions (and answers) based on this background knowledge. These questions can be shared with other groups of students or as a whole class review prior to working to solve the answer to the question.

Game show formats can be used to help students become confident with background information they will need in order to answer more in-depth questions on the test. Be sure that the highest level categories require students to synthesize their knowledge and skills in order to answer the type of questions the curriculum requires and that they are likely to see on the test.

All of the above strategies can be used to help students not only review the content and skills they need to know, but they can also help students learn more about how multiple choice tests are designed. These strategies can help students prepare for the test without adding more anxiety.

And the best part of all – none of these review strategies require additional marking! After all, if a student is anxious about an upcoming large-scale test, and the preparation for the test includes multiple days of practice tests that are marked, we are potentially accumulating more and more evidence of what the student doesn’t know, or doesn’t feel confident to do. Our students don’t need any more anxiety in their lives!

We can change all that – and perhaps even have a bit of fun in the meantime. And who doesn’t need a bit of laughter and true engagement at a time like this?

This term, this year – let’s make test prep not even remotely look like test prep!

Formative Assessment? What’s the big deal?

If you have a child beyond Kindergarten, you’ve probably heard about school assessment being divided into two categories: formative and summative. People may have even explained the difference. But in plain language – why does it matter? Isn’t a grade a grade?

Well, as it turns out, assessment and grades are two different things!

Assessment refers to all the ways in which we try to understand where students are in their learning. Most of the time, the assessment happening in a classroom is on-going and often pretty informal. Teachers need to know how things are going, minute-by-minute and day-by-day, so they can make decisions about what to do next to move their students’ learning forward.

  • They might use a specific question somewhere during a lesson to help them understand where each student is in their thinking. 
  • Students might work, independently or with others, on a series of practice questions. 
  • Perhaps teachers look at a rough draft of a writing assignment, so they can provide helpful feedback. 
  • Or the assessment might happen during an “at elbow” conversation with a student as they work on a task. 

In all of these examples, it doesn’t make sense for teachers to assign a grade. Learning is happening here, and grades can actually get in the way!

The assessment at this point is for the benefit of the teacher and the students, and it is totally “formative”. By that, we mean assessment informs students and teachers so they can make good decisions about what to do next.

Teachers also make decisions about when it’s important or helpful to share some of that formative assessment information with parents, so you can support the learning at home. But it’s important to balance sharing that formative assessment information with the goal of providing students time and space within the classroom to take risks and make mistakes. Students really do need time for learning.

Sometimes, assessment provides evidence that will be used to assign a grade. A grade is our best attempt to measure the learning that has taken place, and it’s assigned at the end of a period of learning. This is referred to as “summative assessment”, and it might take the form of a finished piece of writing, a lab report, a unit test, or a gymnastics routine, to name just a few possibilities. These grades are shared with students, parents, and others who have the right to know.

Limiting the number of summative grades that are assigned to students helps us all keep our focus on the learning, not the grade!

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