Blog 10: Differentiation, Project-based & functional assessments – Possibilities?

Instructional Coach Lisa Westman’s note on Myth#4 “One way to differentiate is giving high-achieving students more work and low-achieving students less”, is one that resonated with me.

I believe that this in actuality is traceable from individual IEP analysis. Many, many students have IEP’s that state, “150% more time, 75% fewer questions etc.” leading teachers to arrive at the simplistic solution to differentiation: reduce work, add time. While I believe that many students require both of those adaptations in order to achieve success, I have also arrived at the conclusion that forcing students and teachers to meet the lowest bar, does the student and the teacher a huge disservice. Students then are never forced to think deeply about a topic or content, and teachers are just meeting barest minimum of the academic differentiation – often because they have to, based on time limitations and the demands of many other students. 

The system has created this dilemma. Getting teachers to think beyond what the IEP states, is now extremely challenging. 

Capper and Frattura (2009, p. 90) refer to the work of Darling-Hammond and Falk (1997, p.193) in addressing this issue, “Offer students challenging, interesting activities and rich materials for learning that foster thinking, creativity, and production.”  and, “Make available a variety of pathways that accommodate different intelligences, and learning experiences.”

As a principal, this approach would be on the very top of my differentiation list.  Focussing on instructional approaches is the key, in my view. Teachers need to know that they are trusted to make decisions regarding process, given time to discuss accommodations with critical thinking and hands-on learning in mind, and then given the tools and time to administer their plans.

Finally, allowing student work to shine as part of school culture, is key to completing the circle. Performance-based assessments and functional assessments are appropriate for both highly driven and gifted learners, as well as students with severe intellectual disabilities. I would support teacher driven development of individualized performance based assessments for all learners. Gifted learners could develop and portfolio of projects, just as students at the other end of the academic spectrum, could .

Capper and Frattura (2009, p. 101) refer to Person and Neill (1999, p.4 ). “…the evaluation is based on a wide range of student work done over a long period of time, rather than a single paper-and-pencil taken over a few hours…It encourages districts to invest in the professional development of teachers, and it pushes teachers to reflect more consistently on the quality of student work in their classroom. 

Moving toward project-based assessment and functional examination of skills serves the learner by helping the student to understand their capabilities and to continue to develop their skills sets. This serves society by bringing learning full circle: students with active skills sets, who understand their strengths and learning gaps, who have learned to present their skills as functional additions to society, will continue to want to learn and to become productive members of their communities. 

Finland (International Educational News)

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