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Blessed are the Merciful: Maura Shea Re-Assesses Her Own Assessment Policies

Kati Macaluso, Ph.D. on Wednesday, 12 October 2016.

As the Catholic Church nears the conclusion of what Pope Francis declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy, Maura Shea is experiencing what she conceives her own Year of Mercy in her English Language Arts classroom. The vast majority of Maura’s 11th and 12th grade students are students she taught just one or two years ago, as sophomores. This opportunity—to correct past mistakes, to build upon prior success, and to continue to develop already-formed relationships with her students—is one that give flesh to the words Maura heard Pope Francis utter at World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, this summer--words about “the gentle and unassuming power of mercy.” 

Year of Mercy logo colorIn truth, Maura—a graduate of ACE Teaching Fellows’ 18th cohort—has been reflecting and acting upon the beauty of second chances for several years now. When a colleague and fellow ACE alumna, Mary Claire O’Banion, approached Maura a few years ago about some work Mary Claire and other colleagues had been doing with Bishop Machebeuf High School’s Grading Task Force, Maura bristled. Maura felt confident and secure in her grading and assessment policies and procedures. Having taught for four years, she had grown in her ability to design and implement formative assessments that anticipated high stakes summative assessments. Her summative assessments were just that—summative. Each one perfectly punctuated the unit to which it belonged. Students tackled the assessment, they received a grade for it, and they moved on to the next unit.

So when Mary Claire posed to Maura the same questions that Bishop Machebeuf High School’s Grading Task Force had been charged with asking, Maura was jarred by a sense of disequilibrium. What do grades mean?How might teachers adjust their assessment practices and policies so that grades reflect—of all things--learning? Maura began to scrutinize her grading policies, and reflect more deeply on the distribution of grades among the students she taught. She recalled conversation after conversation with parents who would identify their child as an “A student” or a “C student,” and wondered what those labels actually meant. She looked closely at the breakdown of grades in a given semester, and noticed how the relatively high percentage devoted to completing one’s homework and simply submitting assignments might disguise the reality that a student was actually struggling with some of the essential competencies in her English Language Arts class.

Maura Shea ACE Teaching FellowsDistressed by these trends, Maura agreed with her colleague, Mary Claire, that they should present the question to their own students: What do grades mean? If grades reflect a student’s progress toward learning, what might that mean for the assessment and policy procedures in their own classrooms? The students read research in response to these questions. They debated. They weighed their claims against the current assessment policies and procedures, and ultimately they determined that nearly all of a student’s grade should be based on assessments that carefully measure a student’s progress toward learning. Learning, moreover, need not be a failure-proof process. It invited—and often even required—revising, redoing, and rewriting. At the beginning of the spring semester, Maura’s sophomores and Mary Claire’s juniors had developed proposals for new assessment policies and procedures to implement for the remainder of the academic year. Homework would not contribute toward a student’s final overall grade, but would be rather an opportunity to practice skills and prepare as necessary. The grade in the class would be based on a student’s performance on assessments--especially summative assessments that provided different format options and ways students could show their learning. If a student wanted to re-take an assessment after continued practice with a particular skill or competency, he or she could do so--and the new grade would reflect the student’s growth.

Maura’s willingness to revise her own set of assessment practices also implied a willingness to refine her own craft as a designer of assessments. With homework no longer “cushioning” a student’s grade, she had to be more intentional than ever in assigning only those homework tasks that could legitimately support a student’s learning. By opening up her classroom policies and procedures to debate, Maura made herself vulnerable. She anticipated and believed in her students’ ability to demonstrate mercy, and true to Pope Francis’s assertions, there has proved an “unassuming power” to that mercy: the empowerment of students to assume responsibility for their own learning. Rather than seeing a seemingly arbitrary letter at the top of a test, one that traditionally signals finality, students see what teachers like Maura and Mary Claire have helped them to interpret as a sign of possibility for continued growth.   


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