Cassandra Erkens

Cassandra Erkens is a presenter, facilitator, coach, trainer of trainers, keynote speaker, author, and above all, a teacher. She presents nationally and internationally on assessment, instruction, school improvement, and professional learning communities.

Thriving Inside the Creative Tension

Today, a tension exists in professional learning communities that are striving to do what’s best for students and learning: teachers feel caught between the desire to do more with formative assessments and the requirement to post grades with weekly regularity on parent portals. The two options seem to sit at opposite ends of the continuum, and teachers feel caught in the middle. “If we are supposed to do more with formative assessments,” teachers say, “then how can we keep posting multiple grades per week on the parent portals?” Yet others respond, “but if we don’t keep the learners and their parents constantly abreast of the individual’s progress, then how can we use data to intervene in a timely fashion?”

Both are valid concerns. The solution lies in "the genius of and" (Collins and Porras, 1994).

Grades are often equated with summative scores. If grades must be recorded weekly (some schools mandate that a minimum of two grades per week be posted on parent portals), then early learning opportunities during the first weeks of a unit involve high risk rather than safe practice opportunities. Grades that are public are most often translated into final scores, and parents would expect no less if they are monitoring their learners’ progress. With so many grades, a learner’s opportunity for "safe" or non-graded practices diminish in the journey toward mastery.

It would be inappropriate, however, for teachers to withhold information under the auspices of trying to give learners more safe practice opportunities. We would consider it malpractice in any field charged with diagnostic responsibilities to withhold any helpful data or preventative information until it was too late. How learners progress is serious business, and no one—parent, student, teacher, or administrator—should be left in the dark regarding where learners are and where they need to be.

During the learning process, learners need more information than grades can provide:  they require ongoing, clear, quality information regarding their progress toward the learning expectations. At all points along the way, teachers and learners need to be able to "see" the learners’ progress so that they can intervene, enrich, and ultimately celebrate as necessary.

The operative word is information. All stakeholder groups require valid, constant, reliable information that clearly articulates progress being made on mastering standard expectations. Information is not synonymous with grades; in fact, very little information is actually derived from grades because they represent too many different things to those who post them and those who interpret them.

The strongest leaders, from the classroom to the boardroom, work to redefine educational policy and practice inside the space of creative tension, where opposite ends of a continuum each offer elements of what’s right. In this creative space, all members of a professional learning community set about the difficult but important task of engaging in action research, exploring findings, creating new and aligned tools, and ultimately creating a better system for learners.

Educational leaders across the country are seeking (and finding) innovative ways to share information regarding learners’ progress in frequent and accurate ways that actually increase motivation and promote continued learning. Their efforts include:

  • Engage teaching teams in action research to explore best practices using formative and summative assessment data to arrive at final grades.
  • Define alternates to grades. In some schools, formative marks that are called "progress checks" or "learning indicators" are recorded multiple times a week. The marks look different (by color code or symbol) and readers of the parent portal are advised that early indications are simply early indications and will not equate to final scores but will be used to help learners make appropriate adjustments so that they can be successful on summative assessment scores.
  • Expand parent portal interfaces to accommodate all kinds of information, making it more of a digital portfolio. Clicking on a hyperlink can quickly bring parents to the image of their learner’s goal sheet, tracking charts, and self-reflections. They will also be able to see teacher feedback, rubrics that highlight specific descriptions of proficiency, and clear indications of the next steps required for the learner to achieve mastery.

In cases where the grading systems are not ready to accommodate such changes, effective educational leaders engage in the appropriate practices anyway, finding alternate ways to communicate their information efforts while simultaneously exploring what they will want and need from a changed system. Creative tension offers educators the opportunity to explore, refine, and invent better ways to manage the learning process.

Collins, J. C., and Porras, J.I. (1994).  Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. NY: HarperBusiness.

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