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Artifact Analysis: Work Sampling System

Introduction

This is an artifact analysis of student assessment documents at Summers-Knoll School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Summers-Knoll is an independent, kindergarten through fifth grade school serving bright, creative, and gifted children and their families. Founded in 1996 by Ruth Knoll and Jean Navarre, women who identified the need for a school dedicated to bright, creative, and gifted children, Summers-Knoll has evolved from an intimate educational environment located in Ms. Navarre’s basement into a fully accredited independent school. Summers-Knoll meets the needs of gifted learners through delivery of individualized, teacher-developed curricula that allow students to achieve their personal best in a minimally competitive environment. Basic skills are taught and reinforced by being imbedded in broader contexts, and unique talents of students, faculty, and staff are embraced and celebrated. Through heavy family involvement, Summers-Knoll takes a community approach to education that requires full-time commitment from teachers, students, and parents.

I served as a homeroom teacher at Summers-Knoll School from 2002 to 2008. All homerooms are multi-age with a maximum size of twelve students. During my six-year tenure, I taught all core subjects — the language arts, social studies, mathematics, science — to students in grades one through five. I spent one year teaching history, geography, and English to children in sixth and seventh grades at the since-disbanded Summers-Knoll Upper School, and I worked on special projects with kindergartners during my final year of employment. I enjoyed all of the grades, and, though I discovered a preference for teaching fourth and fifth grades, one of my most exciting and successful years was teaching a gaggle of precocious and quirky first and second graders. In addition to homeroom subjects, students receive instruction by content experts in a variety of classes known as specials. Summers-Knoll specials include Spanish, French, Latin, art, physical education, and music. Additionally, electives courses are offered to students in subjects such as Mandarin Chinese, theater arts, environmental science, horseback riding, chess, Greek, and gardening. These electives courses are taught by content experts culled from the greater Ann Arbor area.

Teaching at Summers-Knoll School was the most gratifying employment experience of my career. I have wanted to teach since being a first grader myself, but as an adult I was turned off by public school’s standards and methodologies. After several years of substitute teaching and earning necessary credentials, I decided to pursue other work. I quickly changed my mind, though, after I happened upon Summers-Knoll. Summers-Knoll believes in teaching to the individual rather than to the median. Summers-Knoll celebrates divergent thinking with a focus on outcomes rather than processes. Most important to me, though, is the school’s empowerment of students and teachers. Students are expected to respond critically during learning, and teachers are called on to teach in the classical sense: to research, develop curricula, and deliver instruction creatively.

Written Communication at Summers-Knoll School

Written communication occurs at Summers-Knoll among all members of the larger school community (teachers, students, administrators, parents, siblings, volunteers, etc.) as well as the larger Ann Arbor area community (businesses, educational institutions, philanthropic organizations, etc.). The bulk of written communication among all Summers-Knoll community members is electronic occurring in the following forms.

  • Email — The spouse of the school’s founder is Tom Knoll, the developer of Photoshop, so it’s not surprising that Summers-Knoll’s community members are generally tech-savvy, and email is the primary method of communication. Parent/teacher email is daily, and so much of it occurs that parent/teacher conferences are almost redundant. Any concerns over student performance are addressed immediately, and email provides real time feedback to parents. As Summers-Knoll is a wireless, laptop-based environment, writing and sending email to a parent is easier and more efficient than a phone call. It also provides a documentation that can be used to track progress of any concerns and used for reference when writing student assessments.

Internal email is extensive and the primary method of communication between teachers, head of school, and other staff. It is especially helpful in promoting collaboration and sharing of information among homeroom teachers.

  • Newsletters — Homeroom teacher-designed newsletters are HTML-formatted email to parents that include curricular updates, announcements, and links to class photo and video galleries and downloadable forms like permission slips and homework assignments. Newsletters are a more formalized way to keep parents up-to-date on classroom and school happenings, and they also help teachers graphically organize their own calendars, plan ahead, and keep on top of a generally demanding environment. By including the head of school in his/her newsletter distribution list, the homeroom teacher keeps the principal apprised of classroom activities and developments.
  • Blogs — In addition to weekly newsletters, all homeroom and specials teachers maintain web-based blogs. Where newsletters tend toward presenting crucial facts (important dates, announcements, reminders, etc.), often in list format, blog entries are lengthier, more structured narratives. Generally, blogs contain fewer topics with greater depth. Blog entries are all archived on one site, and users can view photographs, videos, and assignments online without having to download files to their computers. While blogs provide a valuable tool for teacher planning and reflection, I believe newsletters have greater overall value and are more user friendly.
  • Forms — Numerous forms must be completed by parents, teachers, and administrators. Even when generated electronically, most are still printed and archived in hardcopy. Some procedures requiring forms include:

Admissions: Families applying to Summers-Knoll School must complete an admissions packet. The packet includes an application form and questionnaire. Parents/guardians must also compose an essay highlighting their education philosophies. Transcripts must be forwarded from any previous schools. If applying students have attended other schools, evaluations must be completed by previous teachers. Applying students must submit to psychological testing, including an IQ test, and request scores and narrative summaries be forwarded to the school. Applying students visit the school for two or more days and participate in all scheduled activities. All teachers must interview candidates and write a narrative summary of the meeting. Students are further evaluated by grade-appropriate teachers in math and English.

Students leaving Summers-Knoll School often require letters of recommendation and academic evaluations from homeroom teachers.

Health Reports: All students must have up-to-date health care information on file at school. Numerous forms are completed by parents/guardians that include information on allergies, medications, health insurance coverage, and emergency contact information. Teachers must complete accident reports after any student mishaps, and this may involve additional follow-up reporting with school insurance providers.

Tuition: Summers-Knoll is a fee-based institution. Parents may elect to pay for a semester or a year in full or make monthly payments. They must complete payment forms for the option that they choose. The school accountant generates monthly statements, which are mailed to parents.

  • Student Assessments — Of all written communication at Summers-Knoll School, student assessments are the lengthiest and most labor intensive. A detailed discussion and evaluation is the focus of this artifact analysis and follows below.

Analysis of Assessment at Summers-Knoll School:

The Work Sampling System

Developed by the University of Michigan, the Work Sampling System (WSS) provides curriculum-embedded assessments to systematically document student’s skills, knowledge, behavior, and academic accomplishments in the following seven domains:

  • Personal and Social Development
  • Language and Literacy
  • Mathematical Thinking
  • Scientific Thinking
  • Social Studies
  • The Arts
  • Physical Development and Health

Additionally, Summers-Knoll faculty determined criteria for evaluating students in foreign language (Spanish, Latin. French, etc.), technology, and electives courses.

WSS is based on national and state standards but is entirely teacher driven and student focused. Rather than assigning standardized tasks that students must master, WSS offers grade level, end-of-year benchmarks for achievement. How students meet the benchmarks is not mandated by the system, allowing the teacher to individualize and differentiate curricula for different student interests, ability levels, and learning styles.

Use of the WSS begins prior to the start of the school year. Through independent reading and instructor-led WSS training, teachers familiarize themselves with grade level benchmarks and outcomes in all seven domains. Teachers create checklists and file systems for each of their incoming students to track student development via performance indicators. While developing curricula, teachers refer to WSS outcomes to ensure individual lesson objectives are aligned with the system’s recommended outcomes. Notes on student progress are maintained daily and referred to extensively during future curricula planning. These notes culminate three times annually in written narrative reports and accompanying student portfolios. The process of the WSS can be best described when broken down into the following three sections.

  • Checklists and Notes — Notes are maintained by teachers on all students in all domains. I will use the second domain, Language and Literacy, as an example to illustrate the process.

Under the domain of Language and Literacy, there are four sub-domains:

  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Reading
  • Writing

Children are evaluated in these four skills at all grade levels. The skills are the same for each grade, but the outcomes vary. Following are examples of end-of-year outcomes for kindergarten students in this domain.

The bullet point outcomes above are what kindergarten students should reach by the end of the school year. Many will exceed these, but these offer a standards-constructed, baseline comparison system. When designing curricula and individual lessons, the teacher refers to these outcomes and those of the other six domains. He/she aligns individual lesson objectives to meet these outcomes. Notes are taken during and after each lesson on each student and maintained in domain-specific files for each student. If any hardcopy work is produced, it is kept in the same domain-specific files. Non-tangible products (i.e. science experiments, games on the playground, etc.) can be photographed and filed in electronic domain-specific files. These files are maintained, reviewed, and sorted by teachers weekly to be sure students are working towards the outcomes. Meeting the outcomes is not mandatory until the end of the school year.

  • Narrative Reports — Narrative reports based on notes maintained on student outcomes progress are produced by teachers twice each year. Teachers write summaries of students’ performance in each domain. These domain summaries include specific examples of student progress towards mastering domain outcomes, and, where applicable and appropriate, include objective scoring data. No letter grades are assigned, though percentages may be incorporated into the narratives.

Construction of the narrative reports is labor intensive and requires collaboration with all specials teachers, the head of school, and the office manager. An organized teacher with detailed notes on student progress achieves the greatest success during the semiannual “assessment season.” To ensure timely delivery of report to parents, intracommunication must also be tightly organized. The diagram below offers a visual representation of the collective procedure of developing the WSS narrative reports.

Narrative reports are delivered via surface mail to parents three times each year, approximately one week prior to parent/teacher conferences.

  • Portfolios — The final component of the WSS assessment tool is portfolios. Student portfolios are built three times each year, corresponding with the narrative reports. Portfolios offer student-generated examples of outcomes progress and achievement. Samples of student work are selected in each of the seven domains. (Often, however, due to differentiation of instruction, a single item may represent progress or achievement of outcomes across two or more domains.) Samples should represent students’ best efforts as well as improvement over time. Generally, three to four examples from each domain suffice in offering a broad overview of achievement. Samples may include hardcopy work (lab reports, data collection spreadsheets, essays, etc.) and photographs of non-tangibles (class presentations, community service outings, choral performances, etc.). Students are involved in the selection of portfolio items and the building of the portfolios. Portfolio construction methods vary by teacher. Finally, portfolios are presented to parents during parent/teacher conferences and used as the centerpiece for discussion. As parents have pre-reviewed narrative reports prior to conferences, they come to the meetings with a solid understanding of their child’s strengths and challenges. These are reinforced through discussion and visual examples offered by the portfolios.

WSS is the most comprehensive and valuable assessment tool I have used. I feel that the authentic data generated by its application is far more valuable to parents, students, and teachers than the checklist and letter grade report card systems used at most public schools. That said, implementation of the WSS requires teacher training, ongoing professional development, funds for hardcopy and web-based teacher materials, and lots of time. The collection of data for the narratives requires many weeks and numerous hours of note taking. The final narrative report and accompanying portfolio require approximately five hours per student to construct, and this is in addition to the teachers’ normal duties. At Summers-Knoll School, teachers are allotted one day off per trimester to work on WSS reports and portfolios. Actual time spent on the WSS is numerous hours (approximately 60 hours for a class of 12 students) spread over a two or three week period. The bulk of the work must be completed in the evenings and weekends on the teachers’ own time. While this causes a certain amount of grumbling, it is agreed by all Summers-Knoll employees that the benefits of the WSS far outweigh any costs. The system holds teachers and students equally accountable, assists teacher in lesson planning by documenting where they’ve been and where they’re headed, and provides teachers with objective data to support student performance claims.

References

Pasch, M., Langer, G., Gardner, T.G., Starko, A.J., & Moody, C.D. (1995). Teaching as Decision Making: Successful Practices for the Elementary Teacher. Michigan: Eastern Michigan University

Zemelman, S., Daniels, H., & Hyde, A. (2001). Best Practice: New Standards for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Marsden, D. (2001). The Work Sampling System: Work Sampling in the Classroom (A Teacher’s Manual). New York: Rebus

Marsden, D., et al. (2001). Omnibus Guidelines 4th Edition. New York: Rebus

“History.” Summers-Knoll School. 30 October 2010 http://www.summers-knoll.org

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