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Assessing Student Learning in a Montessori Environment

As seen in the 2018–2019 Wellan Year in Review

“I got an 87% on the Pink Tower!” Sounds absurd, right? What might that even mean? How would such a percentage score help a student understand what has yet to be learned?

In a Montessori learning environment, what you’ll likely hear instead is: “I can do this work. I’m ready for the next one.” Our students can make this type of statement because they are capable of assessing their own learning progress—without relying on test scores or other external indicators. The works Maria Montessori designed are “auto-didactic,” meaning that children can determine their own skill levels based on how well or easily they can complete the task. Self-assessment helps students develop intrinsic motivation. Instead of being motivated by grades, they become motivated by witnessing their own progress. Learning becomes its own reward.

Wellan teachers engage in regular assessments of individual student learning. Through observation and dialogue with students, teachers are able to document which skills have been mastered and identify the next “just right” challenge that will stretch a student’s abilities.

To ensure that students are working on the skills they need to meet (or exceed) curricular standards, teachers eventually guide students in creating individualized work plans. As students continue on the Wellan journey and do more abstract work that does not involve Montessori materials, teachers introduce rubrics as another tool to assess work. Wellan teachers provide narrative progress reports rather than numerical or letter grades. We believe signifiers like “70%” or “A-“ do not provide adequate information about what’s actually being learned.

Though we eschew traditional grading for the majority of a student’s learning journey at Wellan, we do introduce students to traditional testing and report those scores to parents.

ERB Testing

Starting in the first year of Upper Elementary (which corresponds to 4th grade), Wellan students participate in the Education Records Bureau Comprehensive Testing Program (you may have heard students and teachers refer to this as “the ERBs”). This testing takes place during morning sessions over the course of one week each May. The ERB website describes the Comprehensive Testing Program as follows:

The Comprehensive Testing Program (CTP) is a rigorous assessment for high achieving students in areas such as reading, listening, vocabulary, writing, science (online only) and mathematics. Verbal and quantitative reasoning subtests are part of the CTP beginning in Grade 3. The CTP helps compare content specific, curriculum-based performance to the more conceptual knowledge base found in reasoning tests.

Why do we participate in Education Records Bureau tests? One reason is our commitment to preparing students for their eventual transition to a non-Montessori learning environment. We administer the ERBs so that our students get practice in taking traditional tests in a formal setting—which is often required at the secondary school and college levels. In many respects, we consider it to be a Practical Life skill akin to learning the steps involved in washing a table in Primary or writing and following a work plan in Lower Elementary. There’s a lot to it—learning to fill in bubble sheets, practicing strategies for tackling difficult questions, pacing work within time constraints, and managing oneself within the testing environment. Students learn to value tests as formative assessment tools that identify learning goals rather than as summative assessments of their abilities or definitive measures of their self-worth.

Another reason we have students take the ERBs is to provide us as educators with information about strengths and gaps in student learning. Test results help us determine goals for individual students. Over time, they also provide us with useful information about how well our curriculum and teaching model are preparing students as compared to their peers in suburban public schools and other independent schools.

Figure A

Above, see the median scores of Wellan’s sixth grade class as compared to other school types in 2019. In all grades and most subjects in the past year, Wellan’s median percentile ( ) has outperformed US suburban/public ( ) and US independent schools ( ).

No scores are shown for the “Writing Mechanics” and “Writing Concepts and Skills” subtests because we opt to assess students’ writing through the WrAP (Writing Assessment Program), also created by ERB, which is considered to be a more comprehensive assessment of writing skills.

Figure B

Read below for an interpretation of this sample of Verbal Reasoning results.

Sample ERB Results for Wellan Students (Verbal Reasoning)

In FIGURE B, the teal diamond () represents the Wellan 6th grade class of 2019. The movement of the symbol shows changes in these students’ ERB test scores over the course of their three years in Upper Elementary as compared with students from suburban public schools in the US and independent schools in the US.

While this particular table focuses on Verbal Reasoning, the data trend is similar to that of other subject areas, and only one table is included for the purpose of this publication.

As depicted above in the year 2017, Wellan 4th grade students’ scores are on par with students from the two other types of schools. As the years progress, the mean scores of suburban public schools in the US () hover consistently between 540 and 550 out of 900 each year, which means that public school students consistently meet the average grade expectations for 4th, 5th, and 6th grade respectively. Each year, the mean scores of independent schools across the US (  ) escalate, exceeding grade level expectations more and more with each passing grade level.

The curve of the teal diamonds representing Wellan exceeds even that progress, with a notable spike in the 6th grade year.

What could explain this positive data trend? One possible answer: Individualized work plans. At traditional schools, teachers utilize one linear curriculum for the whole class, and students work on the same lessons simultaneously. Each year, 4th graders learn 4th grade material, 5th graders learn 5th grade material, and so on. There is a minimum expectation and also a ceiling to the content covered. At our school, students are allowed to progress at their own pace.

We’re proud of the achievement of this class! The most recent ERB results provide positive feedback about the quality of the academic preparation Wellan students receive.

That said, we recognize these statistics rely on a very small cohort size. We regard ERB test scores not as the “be all, end all” but rather as a window that lets us see where we need to go next. Test results don’t define our students; they are feedback loops that help students and teachers set new learning goals.

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