Many educators liken a school’s relationship between teachers, students, and parents to a three-legged stool.  If any single leg is removed, the stool collapses.  Likewise, schools need the support and dedicated work of teachers, students, and parents.  MasteryConnect recognizes this dynamic and strives to ensure that parents have real-time information about what their students need to know, whether the students know it, and what to do if they don’t.

Last Thursday, as I made the 70-minute drive from Louisville to Letichfield, Kentucky, I thought about the three-legged stool metaphor.  Gwen Lucas, the principal at H.W. Wilkey Elementary, had invited me to present “An Evening With MasteryConnect.”  Wilkey Elementary has been using MasteryConnect since last year, and Gwen wanted parents to see how they can engage in their children’s learning through our software.

As I presented MasteryConnect, we discussed the Common Core app and how adopting the Common Core ensures that kids in small-town Leitchfield are held accountable to the same standards as children going to school in the shadows of Harvard or Stanford.  Parents looked at student reports and wanted to know more about all of the resources available to them through MasteryConnect – like the ability to watch videos, view assessments, and access teacher-created resources.  It was inspiring to see so many parents, even after they’d put in long days at their respective jobs, gathered at the cafeteria tables in order to further empower themselves and their students.

The three legs of the stool – three pillars, really – are standing strong at H.W. Wilkey Elementary.

Keep on Trackin’
James Seaman, MasteryConnect


When we were invited to guest blog for Rick Hess, I knew I wanted to tell a cohesive story that would tie all three posts together around a simple theme: assessment.  The goal of the first post was to set the stage and clearly articulate our concerns about the volume of unnecessary tests being administered to students.  The second post was intended to identify and target specific problems.  At the same time, I wanted to set the stage for our final post by introducing the formative assessment process as a possible solution.  Friday’s post is an allegory using the building of a  “garden shed” to illustrate the learning and assessment process.  It was a real honor to contribute to  and be a part of the  Straight Up conversation.

Monday’s Blog: Is All This Testing Really Necessary?

Wednesday’s Blog: It Takes More Than a Minute to Win It

Friday’s Blog: Meaningful Assessment and the Garden Shed

Kevin Rich is an English Language Arts teacher at Lakeridge Junior High School (a model DuFour School).  Even as summer begins, Kevin still has teaching on the brain.  In this post, he shares some ideas for using formative assessment in writing.  

The sun is out, the birds are singing, I can hear the ice cream man, and we are talking about formative assessment.  For an English teacher, it doesn’t get any better than this.  This past year I worked in a school where the average class included 39 students.  Our student population is rapidly becoming more diverse and more economically challenged with 53% of our student population living in poverty.  While the year started out a little rough, in the end, every single one of my students passed our State Writing Exam.

I’d like to tell you about how we got there.  For my classes, it began with the formative assessment.  Often in English, teachers judge writing based on the final, summative evaluation.  Teachers take their students through the writing processes but it’s up to the students to make sure the final piece is cohesive.  As teachers, we usually end up skipping formative assessments in writing because they can be very challenging.

Here are some ideas for using formative assessments that I have found effective in my own classroom:

1.  After you model a specific skill, give the students instructions to highlight the principle you just taught as they write their essays.  This allows me to quickly identify whether students are using what I taught correctly, before they hand in their assignments for grading.

2.  Don’t try to do too much with any single formative assessment.  Feedback is most effective if it’s given during the writing process.  That means that formative assessment must be very quick and easy for me as a teacher.  By formatively assessing just one or two skills or standards that I taught that day, I can diagnose which students have a lack of understanding as they are writing.

3.  Even on a formative assessment, don’t allow a student to pass until they have a minimal understanding of the concept you taught and are assessing.  This is very important, from both philosophical and pragmatic standpoints.

First, you must decide what constitutes minimal understanding.  If you are in a PLC, this should be decided as a team for each standard on the rubric.  In my own department we typically have established minimal understanding to be at the Understanding Level of Bloom’s taxonomy and students have to be able to function with at least 80% proficiency.  (As an example, for simile and metaphor that would mean that students have to be able to both identify and explain why something is a metaphor and be correct 80% of the time).

4.  Use the final rubric to create formative assessments.  In our department, to get a perfect score on the thesis portion of the summative rubric, a student needs 3 things:

A) Thesis states the authors’ stance

B) Thesis has three clear supporting details

C) Thesis is correctly punctuated

Now, let’s take the item “Thesis states the authors’ stance” and turn it into a formative assessment that is designed to diagnose struggling students.  Here is what that diagnostic rubric could look like:

A.  The author clearly states their stance on the issue A.  The author clearly states 3 reasons for their stance A.  The author correctly places commas between each reason
B. Too wordy, makes it unclear/confusing B. Too wordy, makes it unclear/confusing B.  Didn’t use commas
C. Too weak C.  Only had 2 reasons C.  Used commas in the wrong places
D. Took 2 sides D.  Only had 1 reason D.  Only used 1 comma but it was in a correct place
E.  Didn’t take a stance E.  Other E.  Only used 2 commas, but they were in correct places
F.  Other F.  Other

To use this formative assessment rubric, I would teach and model thesis statements.  Then I would have students write three thesis statements from three different prompts and then choose which one they wanted assessed.  Three other students filling in a MasteryConnect bubblesheets would grade each thesis.

After scanning the scores into a MasteryTracker, I would be able to identify what the whole class needed and which individuals needed more instruction.  This sort of information is imperative.  It allows me to determine where each student, and the class as a whole, is in terms of understanding writing skills.  In this way, I can immediately remediate students as they write, which is extremely powerful.

MasteryConnect recently sat down with Kevin Rich, an English Language Arts teacher at Lakeridge Junior High School (a model DuFour School).  Kevin shared his thoughts with us about how he’s using MasteryConnect at his school.  As an ELA teacher in a mastery-based school, Kevin possesses unique insight into formative assessment approaches for Language Arts and implementing the Common Core.  Kevin outlined three ways he’s using MasteryConnect in his classroom.


WIth MasteryConnect, it’s easy to show parents what’s happening in the classroom.  Parents love to see that teaching and testing are tied to standards.  Here is a sample of what I am giving parents during Parent-Teacher Conferences:

This is just a snippet; the actual paper that parents receive has the student’s name, many more assessment results, and related objectives.  In addition, I send parents a link where they can see their child’s assessments, which are attached to core objectives.  The link lets parents see the test, the questions their student missed, and how the rest of the class (no names attached) did on each question.

As a teacher, it’s pretty cool; communication like this provides strong possibilities for making parents partners in their child’s education.  And the feedback I am receiving from parents is, “Wow, you do more than just read stuff in English, huh?”

Yup, we do more.  Much more.

Using MasteryConnect to Implement the Common Core

MasteryConnect is a fantastic tool to become familiar with the new Core.  It displays the standards in a more concise, orderly, and simple way than any printed handout I’ve ever seen.  The other thing MasteryConnect allows me to do is organize the Core in a way that actually makes sense.  It becomes very difficult to teach and assess the Core if it is presented in a hierarchical format.

Before individualizing curriculum map:

Good teachers don’t always teach in the exact order in which standards are labeled.  For the first twenty minutes, you might be addressing the literature part of the Core, then the speaking components, then writing or language, etc.  It becomes a pain to see how your day went if the Core isn’t organized to mirror how you teach.  But you can re-organize for your day, your unit or even your year.  It becomes easy to chart your progression through the Core in a way that makes sense.

After customizing curriculum map:

Moving “Backward Design” Forward

I imagine all teachers have heard the term “backward design” at some point in their careers.  The idea is that the teacher establishes where they want their students to be and then work backwards to figure out how to get students there.

With the new Core, it becomes easier to figure out exactly where the destination point is.  If we say ‘understanding metaphor’ is the objective, well, that can be very shallow and simple, or very deep and time-consuming.  One thing MasteryConnect offers is access to other peoples’ assessments from across the network of Common Core states.  This allows me to collaborate with like-minded teachers, view the level of rigor in their assessments, and determine where others expect their students to be in relation to a standard.  As an assessment junkie, I confess I have spent hours surfing assessments from all grades.  There are some really good ideas out there.