The Power of Choice in Assessment

Who doesn’t like the ability to choose?  We love the huge multiplexes that offer us myriad options for seeing a movie; we frequent restaurants with the most diverse and broad selection of items; and we love browsing at major bookstores with volume upon volume of great reads. Isn’t the lack of choice one of our biggest complaints about high-priced cable systems, when they choose the stations for you in charge and arm and a leg?

As teachers, we lobby for more personalization and choice in our professional development. The personalized PD movement is growing like wildfire, and I can’t think of any teacher I know that doesn’t want to have a voice in their professional growth. Personalized learning is becoming more popular as well, offering students the ability to charge their own path in their educational environment. How can we implement the power of choice into the social studies (or any content) – especially in the area of assessment?

In our content based classes, there are definitely specific topics that we want all students to master for cultural literacy, civic participation, and an ability to understand our society.  With the emergence of unlimited content at the palm of student’s hands and at their fingertips, it’s not as essential to drill the facts, dates, people, and places. The days of tell, test, and forget are (or should be) history – pun intended.  Instead, we need to push students to think critically, collaborate successfully, communicate in an effective manner, and create impressive original work. That’s where choice can become very powerful.

How can we do this, with choice? Simple – by designing learning targets that not only assess the content knowledge of students, but also their aptitude in the 4 Cs.  Targets should be shared at the beginning of a content area or unit, allowing students to use them as the progress through historical, geographical, economic, and political information in whatever the manner it is presented and discussed.  As a subject or unit progresses,  students can develop their end assessment progressively (although some will wait until the end, of course). While suggestions can be given, students should determine their possible medium or platform to demonstrate their learning, possibly submitting it as a checkpoint.  The rubric should have the specific areas of assessment, both with content and communication.  For me, the rubric is a guideline for their creation, not a step by step recipe to follow to the letter.  This isn’t rocket science from a teaching perspective – but it does force teacher to give up some control, which is tough to do – especially for me!

Why change? For multiple reasons.  When students choose their path, there is much more personal investment into both the content material and the eventual product that is created. Choice involves failing forward for some students, as the struggle to come up with a topic or medium but keep pushing to design something that works for them.  Anyone can succeed in the choice assessments, allowing for instant differentiation by ability and interest.  And, in my mind, it is much more real world for students, as they will face more projects than tests  in life.

Another reason to change?  Selfishness on my part! The evaluation and feedback aspect of the assessment becomes less laborious and actually more enjoyable (although it still takes time).  A few years ago I had an assessment of the turning points of the Civil War, in which each student (alone or with a partner) plotted the turning points of the Civil War on Google maps, came up with a creative title, described and evaluated the turning point, and included images and a hyperlink to source.  It was a great way to have the kids geographically represent the war, and they all did a great job following my formula.  However, they were a bear to assess, because it became monotonous (I don’t know how AP graders can do it).  Also, it was not my original intention to teach Google maps to kids.  Is that a necessary skill?  Just like we don’t have to teach kids Slides, or Power Point, or any tool, right? Now, that same Civil War Turning Points assessment is offered, and Google maps is a choice.  They still have to hit the same targets!

I have even allowed a traditional test as part of a choice.  The targets are the same, and the feedback for the content is similar in the record book.  On the test, I do not offer feedback for communication, mechanics, creativity, and the like.  Interestingly, some students choose to create a test (with an answer key) as their form or presentation.

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Click to check out some examples of student choice projects  / target displays

My two favorite choice assessments have been The Legacy of WWI and Federal Project Number One. I think each of the projects was powerful and beneficial due to the deep dive into a content area, the challenge of the project, and authenticity of the student works.  For the Legacy of WWI, students have to design a method of conveying the involvement, importance, and impact of America and the Great War, based on the centennial of the war. The New Deal project gives studnets a choice of creatively portraying some aspect of the New Deal based on actual New Deal era creative works.  I haven’t used that one since I moved to targets, but I plan to do it in the spring.

Some other examples of choice assessments I have used include …

Is this anything new to a typical educator?  No – and many have posted about the power of choice, including Cassie Shoemaker, who refers to choice as “the fifth C” .  There are multiple choice boards utilized and available online as well. My point is the substitute for the big assessment – the traditional test – and trying to align the content with the actual project, pushing for some authenticity.  Hopefully this will give you the impetus to offer more student choice in both topic and method of communication.  Some students struggle with the open concept and just want to be told what to do.  When that happens, I hand them the spoon that sits on my desk and instruct them to “feed themselves”.  I like the challenge – and for the most part, the kids do as well!



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