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Making Student Learning Objectives Meaningful

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

I recently met with a group of teachers to discuss assessments that align with the vision of the new Wisconsin Standards for Science. When I brought up Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) as an opportunity to collaboratively create aligned assessments and review student work, they shared that their principals required them to use standardized tests that didn’t align well to their discipline-specific visions or standards.

The Wisconsin Educator Effectiveness (EE) System is a learning-centered system of continuous improvement designed to support teachers and principals -- a structure for districts to enable meaningful, individualized, and professional learning.

Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) are one of two goals within an educator’s Educator Effectiveness Plan (EEP). The WI EE System User Guide for Teachers describes the EEP goals as teacher-driven, with “his/her SLO based on his/her subject area, grade-level, and student data.” The teacher also develops a Professional Practice Goal (PPG) based on “self-identified needs for individual improvement” (p. 2) that will ideally relate to their SLOs. It is imperative that teachers have ownership over their learning goals and plans, making them relevant to their subject, their students, and their own needs. The alignment of teacher SLO goals to principal SLO goals and/or district goals can provide opportunities for leveraging collaborative efforts to support student learning. When administrators prescribe generic SLOs for their teachers, however, the professional growth intent of the EE System is lost. The power of SLOs lies in the analysis of data to inform specific change in instructional practice. When content teachers use data from the same standardized test, it does not empower teachers to reflect on their student data to inform their own learning. This approach to SLOs wastes an opportunity for deep, collaborative learning.

One example of a district focusing on a common SLO goal, while remaining true to particular subject areas and teacher needs, is Baraboo. At the high school, they collaboratively developed a rubric for evidence-based writing that is used across subjects multiple times per year. Teachers review subject-specific writing tasks that would’ve been done as part of a unit anyway--not some additional, artificial tasks. While student products look different in each subject, the rubric emphasizes common skills such as using evidence and discipline-based reasoning. This process has allowed for meaningful cross-disciplinary conversations while staying true to subject matter learning. Over time, it has also improved teacher practice and student outcomes.

Educator Effectiveness is designed to be a collaborative process of setting relevant goals, implementing new instructional practices, reviewing student learning through authentic assessments, and determining what to do next. This cycle of continuous improvement is also referred to as action research or “Plan-Do-Study-Act.” When done well, it is shown by research to be highly impactful professional development for school improvement. Teachers pouring over students’ work together in relation to standards-based learning progressions enhances their practice and student outcomes.

Accomplishing meaningful growth requires that teachers have the opportunity to create or identify assessments that are connected to their unique SLO goals. With direct links to particular standards and classroom learning, these types of assessments are arguably more valid than a standardized test. A performance assessment’s reliability comes from the teachers’ collaborative review of assessment responses in relation to rubrics, establishment of anchor papers to guide their reasoning, and check-ins on one another’s work. For the science world, fabulous 3D assessment resources examples can be found from Achieve and DPI, with rubric ideas on this DPI website. Notably, considering equity and bias in testing, disenfranchised students are much less likely to engage in a standardized test than in one that connects directly to their learning, their communities, and their interests and identities.

Looking forward, EE is a process that will always continue in education systems as the core elements of this process are the basis of effective professional learning communities and structures for professional development.

Article Submission: Written by Kevin Anderson, NBCT, Phd
Kevin serves as the Science Education Consultant at the Wisconsin Department for Public Instruction. Formerly, he taught middle school, worked at CESA 2, and conducted science and school improvement research at UW-Madison and Stanford.