Authentic Assessment via Authentic Challenges
Each April, the Wisconsin Green Schools Network (WGSN) and Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education (WCEE) host the Youth Summit at UW-Stevens Point, bringing together students from around the state “to share their community environmental projects and engage in discussions about sustainability” (eeinwisconsin.org). High Marq has participated since the beginning, including one memorable year when my co-teacher needed an emergency appendectomy the night before so I ended up chaperoning at the last minute. At Youth Summit, our students are able to share their good work, gain inspiration from peers, and experience perspectives far beyond their county lines.
This year, a record 14 of our students (or, nearly half the school) submitted presentation proposals for Youth Summit on topics as varied as “Eco-Feminism: Women in the Environment,” “The Dairy Industry,” and “School Dress Codes”. They began to prepare before Spring Break, and many continued working even during that time off. Through multiple cycles of practice presentations followed by peer and adult feedback followed by revisions, each student’s work was polished and honed to a tight 7-minute piece. We had truly never seen a group this well-prepared before, and everything was on track for the big event on April 11th.
On Sunday, April 7th, I wrote the following parenthetical in an email:
Fingers crossed that this thing peters out: https://twitter.com/NWSMKX/status/1114696385817927680 🤞
By Tuesday, we were all feeling nervous, but hoping for Wisconsin’s famously fickle weather to break our way. It didn’t. (Imagine Ron Howard’s voice there.)
On Wednesday, we were notified that, for the first time ever, Youth Summit was canceled due to inclement weather. Not only was this a major bummer for our hardworking would-be presenters, but it was also a challenge for staff because our plans for Thursday were suddenly out the window.
So we all laid down on the floor, had a good cry, and gave up.
No! We rallied together and planned — with WGSN’s help — our own Youth Summit for Thursday. Presentations were scheduled, a live stream was arranged, and a relay was set up to get the precious T-shirts into our students’ hands. (Said relay included my mother. It takes a village.)
Within less than 24 hours, we had pivoted from one plan for the day — that had been in place for essentially an entire year — to another. This outcome could have been a disaster, but it was a huge success! Our students exercised their 21st Century Skills — adaptibility and flexibility, especially — to co-create a fantastic day of learning, sharing, and celebration.
Following a two-hour weather delay (necessitating yet another pivot), we celebrated the T-shirt design and spent several hours sharing our students’ work with the school community and beyond. Was it perfect? No. Were some of us still disappointed about the change? Of course. But we shared an awesome time together as a community anyway.
This year’s experience with Youth Summit truly represented an authentic assessment for our students. Forget rubrics and reflections, just look at how they pushed through the disappointment and uncertainty to produce amazing work. (See for yourself! The morning and afternoon sessions are on our YouTube channel.) I’m reminded that as teachers, we can get so caught up in measurement — both quantitative and qualitative — that we forget that assessment really can be as simple as observing how students adapt to changing situations. Do they panic? Shut down? Or rise to the occasion? I know which response I’d like to see in the leaders of tomorrow.
Let’s take a moment to contrast this experience with the majority of April, which was stolen from our students by a surfeit of standardized testing. Because we have students in grades 7 through 12, we’re hit by both the Wisconsin Forward Exam and ACT Aspire in April (not to mention the ACT Plus Writing and ACT WorkKeys back in February). These assessments are… not so authentic. They exhaust and upset our students and kill momentum in their instruction and projects.
The week after Youth Summit, a student was crying off-and-on throughout the Science section of the ACT Aspire. She later told me that she was upset because she was sure her parents would be disappointed in her scores (however many months later they receive them). This same student had triumphantly presented her Youth Summit work just a few days prior. She’s so much more than a test score.
What’s wrong with this system? There’s a problem here, and it sure isn’t the kids.