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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Performance Assessment and Civics Education at Pyne Arts School

At Pyne Arts Magnet School in Lowell, MA, students are completing performance assessments at every grade level and finding their voices. CCE sat down with Principal Wendy Crocker-Roberge to talk about Pyne Arts' journey to full performance assessment implementation and the school's continuing work with the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment and Quality Performance Assessment. Wendy shared many stories about how the school's dedicated team tackled challenges along the way, and gave us a peek into the school's innovative civics curriculum.

Pyne Arts has a whole-school performance assessment model, correct?

We do, and so any time that we have launched an initiative that really drives home ideas around pedagogy or assessment or things that are really universally applied to teaching and learning, we have implemented them school-wide. As teams, we know that in order for things to really gain any traction, we're going to need to involve more than just a couple of people. I think that, looking back, it was absolutely the right move for us because it created a lot of common language and practices throughout the school, and it really allows us to unite around our agreed-upon mission and core vision for the school.

How did you bring everyone together at the very start? How did you actually develop this model with everyone?

I put the opportunity out to all staff to form the teacher leadership team. I was able to strategically pick a representation of the school that included elementary teachers, middle school teachers, and an allied arts teacher.

So these six individuals came to training with us in the summer, and we used our dollars from MCIEA to fund this work. I took the approach that my job was to make sure they had all the tools—like funding, resources, and time. But the actual delivery of instruction around how this was going to happen was all 100% teacher-driven. So the messaging - all of it came from teachers to teachers. And therefore that created that high level of buy-in, of credibility, and not a top-down kind of approach to the pilot.

Were there any challenges in developing the performance assessments?

The biggest challenge was that some of the teachers sort of struggled to decide on the “what” in terms of content. What was the content that they were going to bring into this QPA? We had teachers helping some of the struggling teachers find the through-line whereby they could then create a really robust product, or project for kids, that involved a number of different disciplines and so-forth.

So were there any performance assessments that have been particularly impactful or successful?

Probably the most successful one I can think of off the top of my head was last year's 8th-grade action civics-based one. We partnered with Generation Citizen around developing and piloting a middle school model and developed that into a QPA [at Pyne Arts].

Our students went through the process of selecting a focal topic around civics. They settled on teen vaping and access to vaping products. The students were able to create an action plan around the passage of a bill that would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products from stores that were not tobacco shops. They were able to lobby legislators. They were able to go to the statehouse and present their ideas to legislators. A representative co-sponsored the bill with our students, and that gained amazing traction with the house and senate sub-committees and was really moving forward. Then Charlie Baker instituted the ban on vaping products in Massachusetts and sort of usurped our whole process, but at the same time, it really was one of those projects where students saw how impactful, even at 13 years old, their voices can be.

The task required so many different skills from oral speaking to written language to art to research, and so this project was recognized as the lead project in the state for Generation Citizen. The teacher became the Massachusetts State History Teacher of the Year and was nominated for the national award. Without our initiation into project-based learning and performance assessments more than three years ago, I’m not sure if we would have gotten as far as we did with this particular civics project. We had done them in the past and they had been well-received, but this really went to a whole new level.

You see this transformation in your students from students who are just in school to receive information to kids who find their agency and who find their voices. All of a sudden [they] are motivated and committed and they mature really right in front of your eyes when given these important tasks and the support in order to be successful with them. So it was tremendously exciting.

I think the power of project-based learning is that the kids who have traditionally not done well in a more standard academic environment actually have the opportunity to show what they know. What we're seeing is that project-based learning and performance assessment create opportunities for more students to be able to experience academic success.

Has there been anything particularly helpful from the Quality Performance Assessment process, whether its the PD or the design process in general?

Well, I think that's the main big difference-maker here. We came back to certain components of the initial training documents and information that became almost biblical for us. The initial two days of training in the summer were great. Our ability to come back to the school and have those teachers be the facilitators was great. At the calibration days, we were able to have the QPA teacher-leaders get their draft versions of their QPAs tuned so that they could bring those back as models. That whole process was exceptionally well thought out and made the difference. I think that was the difference between success and this being a sort of one-time thing.

What's the why of your work with performance assessments?

Not every child, in fact not many people, are going to be able to show their talents through two days of testing in ELA and two days of testing in math. And that should not be the deciding factor of whether you go to a good school or not or whether your kids go to a good school or not. There's so much else to look at and consider.

I think we have an opportunity now with a different outlook on what school success is, or what a successful school looks like, and it stretches beyond what can be measured by any version of an MCAS test. We're right at this formative point in our state, in our district, even in our school, where we really can be a vehicle or a model for change. I welcome the opportunity to host other schools or to get our teachers out to other schools, whether its in our district or beyond, because I'm very committed to this work.


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