Q&A with Ellen Hume-Howard of The New Hampshire Learning Initiative

This article originally appeared on Springpoint's blog, The Launch Pad, as part of Mastery Assessment Week. See the original here.

Springpoint spoke with Ellen Hume-Howard, Executive Director of The New Hampshire Learning Initiative. She gave us a sense of the organization's work, talked about mastery assessment broadly, and discussed interesting approaches for how a school or district could iterate on their approach to grading and reporting.

How does your organization support and plug into mastery assessment work?

The New Hampshire Learning Initiative (NHLI) was formed to serve as a catalyst for education innovation in New Hampshire. We oversee the efforts to seed and support competency-based work in New Hampshire toward a fully integrated, PreK-20 system that supports all students, families, and educators. Through our work with the New Hampshire PACE Project, we have strong evidence that reciprocal accountability helps us best understand where students are and what they need. We believe that performance assessments—from the activities and the units, to the projects and the revisions—provide quality information about learners that teachers need in order to hone their practice. Mastery assessment is woven into the curriculum, making it more seamless and authentic than most traditional assessment practices.

I have been an educator for the past thirty-four years, previously as the Director of Curriculum in the Sanborn Regional School District. In leading a number of the innovative education efforts in the state, including PACE, I have seen many schools and districts grapple with competency-based learning, including how they can structure systems of assessment as well as grading and reporting.

What is the purpose of student assessment?

This is one of the key questions that schools and districts need to ask themselves when designing a mastery-based learning system. Without starting at this foundational level, it is easy to make a wrong turn or get distracted by all the things that could fall within grading and reporting. For example, if a school decides that the purpose of assessment is to promote learning then all assessment practices need to reflect that. Instead of grades, GPAs, or a point system that ranks students, a school would design assessments that are geared toward growth and progress, built around feedback to students, and designed to invite multiple pathways to demonstrate learning.

When I was the Director of Curriculum at Sanborn Regional School District, we started by clearing the field so that we were not tempted to report on too many standards. Luckily, we realized that if we got too expansive then not all of the standards would get attention they needed. In fact, there might not even be assessments for some standards. We had to find the power standards that could deeply support competencies, then we could focus on reporting those. Our mantra was: less is more and more specific is better.

This was reinforced by the finding that, during student-led conferences, parents needed the main ideas to be crystal clear. Imagine a student trying to comprehensively report on 15 competencies; it is just too much. Educators should determine what competencies will have the most power for students at each particular point in their learning career and focus on those.

How can a school or district iterate on their grading and reporting system?

There is a process and a cadence to designing mastery assessments, especially when we’re talking about grading and reporting. Over the years, I have seen that, when an educator begins exploring and adopting a mastery-based system, they move from an adult-centric grading approach to a student-centered one. All the problems around grading are adult issues—not student issues. For example, teachers may worry they will be perceived as not being accurate; the doubt is held by the adults, which is understandable! Most adults learned to teach within a traditional paradigm. But once a teacher starts to delve in to mastery and starts seeing the dimensions to mastery grading and reporting, they will not go back. Honestly, some have told me that they feel guilty that more students don’t have access to the opportunities that mastery provides.

Ultimately, grading and reporting is multifaceted; it can be formative or diagnostic and provides rich information that shows tangible and useful evidence of learning. When teachers reject the 100-point scale, it is because they see that it doesn’t actually reflect what students are doing, what they are learning, and what they have yet to master.

When I was at Sanborn Regional School District, a big “aha” moment for teachers often came when they saw the value in assessment as an ongoing and formative endeavor. For example, talking about opportunities for students to relearn and reassess can cause some unease at first. Teachers think students will put off work, or try to take the easy way out. But that is not usually what happens. When our teachers saw students really “get it” after multiple attempts, they grew excited. They fell in love with the flexibility and responsiveness of mastery—and the lightbulb moments their students were experiencing.

How can assessment in a mastery-based system help drive student ownership of learning?

There is no deeper learning without student ownership. Students need to be invested in making connections, exploring their interests, and working to improve their skills. I believe it’s best to cultivate that investment early. Capturing a child’s interest and igniting that spark and love of learning familiarizes them with setting their own course. I have seen Kindergarten students respond to challenging expectations when they own their work.

Assessment drives student ownership by giving students space to explore their interests while balancing the “guardrails” offered. Students need support and direction but we run the risk of making them passive recipients of learning if directives are too rigid and control is too tight. I have seen the most talented teachers keep the guardrails completely invisible to students, allowing them to feel full ownership as they explore rigorous key concepts and content. This also serves to build confidence and exposes students to new passion areas.

People talk about student ownership of learning as if it is an innate, natural, organic talent that all students have. But ownership runs the gamut and, more often than not, it is a learned skill. The job of educators is to help students build self-direction through scaffolds, examples, and individualized support. Something I have seen work tremendously well in this area is developing strong relationships between students and teachers. It invests students more deeply, encourages risk-taking, and makes students feel seen, respected, and accomplished. Educators facilitate rather than impose learning. And if kids struggle or want to go a different direction, no one panics. The invisible guardrails are flexible and teachers are skilled in their craft such that they use each touch point with students to ensure learning is rich, rigorous, and ongoing.

What do educators in a mastery-based school need in order to succeed in supporting their students?

A common misconception is that teachers don’t take feedback; that they fight change and innovation. That’s not the case. We support teachers in designing a mastery assessment system and our team recently worked with a group of teachers who hit a wall—they had questions about a significant roadblock they encountered. We had experts there to help them in real time. They pushed right past the challenges, taking leaps and bounds and moved their planning forward. While we cannot send a mastery expert to every school, we believe that equipping educators with the right tools, resources, support, and networks facilitates adoption and creates better systems overall.

We also have seen educators accelerate their understanding and adoption of mastery when they have an opportunity to engage in conversations with each other to get feedback and work collaboratively. This support instills confidence in teachers who might not consider themselves assessment experts. Collaboration encourages them to take risks and find innovative ways to design assessment practices. We need to cultivate that culture to support teachers.