Sunday, 8 February 2015

"Breaking Bad" Assessment

We just finished watching the final season of Breaking Bad last night. With two small children, our television watching is admittedly quite behind. Curiously, Heisenberg's obsessive antics -aimed at perfection and power- got me thinking a lot about assessment.

Not unlike Walter White, assessment (and teaching) can easily become a day-in-day-out job that you do simply because you have to.  All too often, assessment is still used synonymously with evaluation; phrases like, “I still need a mark for one more strand of math” are commonplace in the hallways of schools nearing reporting periods as teachers try to “fit in” curriculum components to produce a letter or number for a report card.  
I have long believed that the Ontario report card is holding teachers back – but that is a topic for another blog.

As Walter White finds a new passion and transforms into Heisenberg he has a formula for 99.1% purity (or for our purposes) success. In Ontario, the Growing Success document lays the framework for successful balanced assessment practices, encouraging formative assessment and descriptive feedback as well as the triangulation of data. In my time working at the system level, I was blessed to meet and work with a number of passionate teachers who were constantly taking initiative - seeking to adapt their assessment practices to support the student learning (rather than simply evaluate them). Like Heisenberg, these teachers are driven, passionate and over time have developed the confidence that these assessment strategies result in successful outputs.

Unlike Heisenberg, his apprentices have varying success rates – and it is the tools they have access to combined with the amount of mentorship they receive that directly correlate to that success.  The formula is not enough. Teachers need effective tools and mentorship to making the learning process efficient. I am constantly seeking an answer to this question:

What is the most efficient way to collect and collate student data
so that I can make the most impact on student learning
in a way that is both clear and transparent
to my students, administrators and parent community?

Twitter and the blogosphere are excellent sources of information and mentorship. There is so much that can be learned in ten to twenty minutes a day online – it is differentiated, time-efficient and forever pushing the boundaries of 21C thinking. In addition to this, most districts offer mentorship support through Ministry-funded projects and these projects are increasingly posting resources online. Check out and, which are two my favourites.

Although he had been a good mentor, Heisenberg’s tragic flaw was that he put on the brakes – he wanted to maintain his power and assumed that the status quo would last him until the end of his days. How do we break these bad status quo assessment practices at the same time that we accelerate into the future? 

Digital assessment tools that not only allow for – but encourage good Growing Success assessment by their design are a key piece of the puzzle. Tools like Pearson’s Clic and FreshGrade are among the best I have seen. However, to parallel @fryed’s query, “Are Digital Portfolios a Disadvantage?” - I have to ask - are teachers endeavouring to integrate digital assessment practices at a disadvantage? There are so many challenges: firewalls, cloud server policies, Wi-Fi hiccups, and union recommendations. Teachers who are eager and willing to try are often met with policy roadblocks. Student information needs to be protected, but I question whether the Growing Success policy can be fulfilled without digital support.

What are your favourite assessment tools?

***Altough Breaking Bad was the inspiration for this blog post - I in no way believe that the character of Walter White (or Heisenberg) and his lifestyle should be considered an example of success. 

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