A Newfound Contentment with Assessing Content

At the end of their practicum, my student teacher and I were inputting assessments of learning for our group of Humanities 8 students. For this short practicum, my student teacher’s focus was the curricular competency standard, continuity and change and the time period was the high middle ages. Before she started her practicum, we designed a proficiency scale for the standard and developed four levels of criteria. I wanted my student teacher to begin with the standard and work backward (backward design). At this point, she was using her professional judgment, considering all the data, and examining the body of learning students generated, to decide each student’s level of proficiency.

When my student teacher came to Halle’s* evidence of learning, she paused and told me about how Halle was on fire by the end of the unit, and when the class played a question-and-answer game, she nailed all the content, standing out from her classmates. The evidence of learning for the standard, however, told a different story. Despite being given multiple opportunities, feedback, and a creative variety of ways to express learning, Halle’s evaluation for continuity and change is Developing. “I understand that we are evaluating continuity and change, the curricular competency, but I wanted to ask you how a student’s learning of the content impacts the assessment. Halle knows her stuff but she’s still only Developing. It seems strange.” My response to this question, which I’ve received before was the same as always; I said something to the extent of, “We’ll know that they know the content through the curricular competency. Content is still important is it gives students something to do the curricular competency with. Regurgitating content is a lower-level thinking skill while the competencies are more important over the long term…blah blah blah.”

For my friends outside of British Columbia, the curricular competency standards are skills and processes while the content standards are the topics. By having these two types of standards separated and a greater emphasis put on the curricular competency standards, it has been suggested that students will become better prepared for the 21st century, building their communication, critical and creative thinking, and responsibility capacities. I agree. There has been, in the past, too much emphasis on content and not enough emphasis on skill and process fitness. However, what seems to have been lost by some teachers is the idea that content is still relevant. The words, it’s no longer about the content have been suggested. Students need something to do the curricular competency standards with. Content is vital.

There has also been some confusion around only assessing curricular competency standards.  If we create four levels of quality using task-neutral and strength-based language for the curricular competency standards, any content topics, essentially, can be plugged in. Students benefit from using a variety of content standards topics to show proficiency but don’t technically need the topics listed in the content standards to show proficiency. In other words, they can apply, analyze, evaluate, and create, but they do not need the topics listed under the content standards. Any topics, especially relevant and current topics might, in fact, create more engagement in the learning. I’m not suggesting educators neglect all the content, but what’s the harm in a deviation or two?

Just last year, when the Ukraine-Russian conflict began, I dropped the content my Social Studies 8 students were exploring to do a deep dive into the history between Ukraine and Russia while still examining ethical judgment and evidence curricular competency standards. After three weeks, I switched back to the late middle ages and then explored the Renaissance and early Canada, forfeiting the Arab World and Protestant Reformation due to insufficient time to cover it. I have no regrets for abandoning some of the content and have gone so far as to encourage colleagues to do the same in the same of student-centered inquiry.

After I gave my explanation to my student teacher about why we should assess the curricular competency standards, I could see her brow furrow slightly. I could tell she understood how we’ll know students know the content when we are assessing curricular competency standards, but she seemed a bit doubtful. It makes sense for the student teacher to be impressed by a student’s content knowledge especially when it is presented seemingly effortlessly during a game. Watch any episode of Jeopardy! and you will know what I mean. Particularly impressive was learning that when other students got an incorrect answer, my student teacher explained, Halle showed them the answer and explained why the answer was the answer. In other words, she was not only able to regurgitate what she learned but explain it well.

My rationale for solely assessing curricular competency standards immediately began to muddle in my brain. Something wasn’t quite right in what I felt had been a rock-solid explanation.

Was there more elegance in possessing content knowledge than I’d given students credit for?  Should we ascertain each student’s content knowledge proficiency as steadfastly as we do their curricular competency proficiency? Should we highlight content knowledge in tandem with and distinctly from the curricular competency standards? Do students really learn enough of the appropriate content through the curricular competency standards?

Conundrum. It was time to delve a bit more deeply.

Content standards are learning standards students are expected to know. According to the Oxford Dictionary, knowledge is “the facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.” In his taxonomy, Benjamin Bloom considers knowledge “the ability to recall previously learned material by recalling facts, terms, basic concepts and answers.” In the Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) developed by Biggs and Collis (1992), in the pre-structural phase, students are simply acquiring bits of unconnected information, which have no organization and make no sense; in other words, facts.

Then, at the unistructural phase, simple and obvious connections are made, but their significance is not grasped.

If I pull together all three sources, informally, knowledge is the stuff one needs to know (facts), but it is also what one knows how to use (procedural), and what one understands in a basic way (conceptual) – Dr. Joel Tapia.  In Drama 10, factual knowledge is when an actor tells me that they know when they move across the stage to stage right, it is their right. When I instruct an actor to move stage right and they move correctly, that is showing procedural knowledge. When I instruct an actor to move stage left and they move correctly, they do so having learned about how to move stage right, so that is them showing their conceptual knowledge.

Curricular competency standards are actions in which knowledge plays a part. This is where we apply, analyze, evaluate, and create.

I have always shown educators that students will show that they know the content standards when they are doing the curricular competency standards. While I would agree they might show they know and understand the specific content standards they are putting into action in each situation, some of the other content topics may be left unlearned because they haven’t been specifically used to show their learning of the curricular competency standard. Let me give you an example.

Let’s say I ask students to explore perspective (a curricular competency standard) with regards to early contact between First Peoples’ explorers in Canada using exploration, expansion, and colonization content. After learning who Jacques Cartier and the Iroquois are prior to and during early contact, students explore how each perceived the other, paying close attention to how history once illuminated Jacques Cartier’s strengths as an explorer and ignored how he harshly treated Iroquois people. In this exercise, only some of the content is used. As per my previous suggestion that students will show that they know the content standards when they are doing the curricular competency standards when a student shows their perspective during the learning opportunity, I will see they know specific content pieces: Jacque Cartier, his route to Canada, and who the Iroquois peoples are. There are other explorers, Indigenous groups, etc. part of this exploration, expansion, and colonization content. While there might not be the opportunity to apply these other content bits to a specific curricular competency, students could learn and develop their understanding of exploration, expansion, and colonization separately from a curricular competency. I mean ideally, yes, attach it all to curricular competency standards, but maybe take the time to teach the content separately.

So, I generated a content-specific proficiency scale for knowledge. Curricular competency standards have verbs. Content standards have the verb, know.

If we return to Halle and her content prowess of the high middle ages, for this particular unit, she would likely be at Extending. The evidence the student teacher gathered was throughout the unit, but illuminated during the game they played on the last day.

I believe content knowledge is cool. I also believe building content knowledge capacity is vital regardless of how reliant we have become on technology. I know that content is just a mouse click or Hey Siri away, but technology is not always accessible, and isn’t knowing stuff interesting anymore? By assessing content knowledge, teachers acknowledge the importance of content proficiency and skill/process proficiency. It also compels teachers to teach students how to learn this content knowledge through quizzing and games. Carol Dweck says, “Picture your brain forming new connections as you meet the challenge and learn. Keep on going.” (Mindset: The New Psychology of Success). Content standards, curricular competency standards…it is all learning! In Deconstructing Depth of Knowledge, Erik M. Francis discusses the importance of “functional knowledge and foundational understanding” (pg. 28). Knowledge acquisition activities may be simple but they don’t have to be “basic. In fact, these lessons and assessments can be the most difficult for students, especially as they begin to learn about a subject” (pg. 29). Further, despite the “demand to recall the facts or how to do something without offering deeper explanations, interpretations, or further explanation,” these activities ultimately set them up for higher levels of thinking later on.

Teachers need to take responsibility for building students’ content capacity. Many students don’t know how to study, but by assessing content as a singular standard, teachers must be more diligent about it. Better yet, if teachers use the research of learning as explained in Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning by Pooja K. Agarwal and Patrice M. Bain (I cannot recommend this book enough!!), students’ content knowledge will increase, and during class time which is a more equitable option, especially when so many students don’t have access to support at home:

Agarwal, with expertise in cognitive psychology and education, succinctly explains the science, perfect for those of us unfamiliar with cognitive psychology’s technical terminology. Bain, as a veteran middle school teacher, provides robust examples in the P-12 classroom, many of which can arguably transfer to adult education settings. In addition, Agarwal provides direct examples in higher and adult education. In Chapters 2 and 3, they explain the first strategy: retrieval practice. Retrieval practice improves learning by the act of recalling information rather than simply absorbing it like a sponge. In Chapter 4, they introduce the second and third strategies, spacing and interleaving. The authors write how these techniques improve retrieval practice by encouraging purposeful forgetting—which paradoxically increases long-term retention. Spacing and interleaving manipulate the forgetting curve, spacing current material and interjecting related material in between topics. Chapter 5 introduces metacognition-driven feedback, which encourages learners to accurately assess their own learning, whereas Chapter 6 integrates all learning strategies together. The authors discuss the underlying science but make it incredibly simple to digest. They blend a perfect mixture of practical examples and emphasize how retrieval practice is applicable to learners of all ages, in all disciplines, and in multiple environments. — Parker, D. A. (2020). Book Review: Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning, Agarwal, P. K., & Bain, P. M. Adult Learning, 31(1), 45–46. https://doi.org/10.1177/1045159519871920

If educators are to assess content standards, it is not done simply as a one-and-done body of information. If the content is considered finished at the end of a unit, then teachers will have no choice but to use a mean average when evaluating the content at report card time. See below.

UnitsEarly Middle AgesHigh Middle AgesLate Middle AgesRenaissanceReformationEarly CanadaEVALUATION (mean)
ContentEmEmDev DevProProDev

Ew! This does not align with my standards-based grading values. Instead, consider that with each new unit’s content facts, terms, and ideas, the previous unit(s)’s facts, terms, and ideas are included again. Then, earlier content can be reassessed. In the new chart below, when students are assessed higher later, the teacher adjusts the score.

UnitsEarly Middle AgesHigh Middle AgesLate Middle AgesRenaissanceReformationEarly CanadaEVALUATION (mode + prof judgment)
ContentEm DevEm DevDev ProDev ProProProPro

Teachers can and should make a professional judgment as to how much content to assess and include or exclude based on a student-by-student, class-by-class basis. They can use no-stakes quizzing over and over until students learn the content and then fashion an evaluation when both students and the teacher are ready.  The beauty of assessing content in this way benefits the working memory of students but also relieves the anxiety so many students feel when content is front, center, and high stakes. I feel sick thinking about the multiple-choice History 12 provincial worth 40% of my overall grade…40%!! (I went in with an A, got 50% on it, and dropped a letter grade by the way.) Furthermore, all students will benefit from the power tools in Agarwal and Bain’s book regardless of ability.

Here’s a different look at a grade book that includes content. Curricular competency standards take up the majority of the evaluations and the content standard is at the end. It makes sense. It also lets stakeholders know not only what a student can do, but also what they know.

In conclusion, over the past few years, it has been challenging to get teachers to lean into standards-based grading, asking them to not only ditch their old grading habits and change their focus to curricular competencies; it is simply too much change for many. I’ve always understood the value of content, but I don’t think I’ve placed enough value on it. Perhaps including content standards might result in less resistance. Here is wishful thinking.

Thank you to my student teacher, Mikeila, and to Halle who made me think, really think, about content. I am looking at content differently now. I still believe in the purpose of explicitly teaching and providing learning opportunities for the curricular competencies, but I will now leave space for content as an important standard as well.


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