Restorative Assessment

(Be sure to view the accompanying video at the conclusion of the article featuring, Principal, Mark Erlenwein.)

How do we enable students to see failure as an opportunity instead of a final-measurement?”

Each May and June, podiums and pulpits are packed away after another year of commencement ceremonies have come to pass at schools across the nation. Countless keynote speeches amplified over PA systems filled the air with classic quotes and inspiring quips glazed with novel ideas designed to linger in our minds and replay on social media loops in perpetuity. 

A popular and trendy commencement speech topic which is quickly becoming cliché is about the importance of making “mistakes” and experiencing “failure” as a key ingredient for true learning as a necessary part of life’s journey. I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment and the brute truth behind this message. However, I couldn’t include this same epitaph in my own commencement address until I felt that “I” as a school leader had done something of value to operationalize, mechanize and model the systematic process of failure in my own school. We often talk about this notion of “failure” as a crucial not-so-secret ingredient for learning, success and innovation. Seldom do we as education leaders intentionally design instructional and assessment systems that mimic the conditions of the real world where there are multiple-opportunities based upon a natural process of failure that is not linear, nor punitive, but rather unitive and restorative in nature. In effect, the operative challenge is, how can we enable students to see failure as an opportunity instead of a final-measurement?

At Staten Island Technical High School, we’ve worked tirelessly as a collective school community to reimagine the hypersonic forward momentum of education. We’re dismantling the roads often traveled and repaving them with a new mindset around the navigation of our student’s journey. Like any well-designed system for transportation, there are traffic signals, proper lighting, entrances, exits, a shoulder, rest stops, speed limits and especially u-turns accounting for the margin of human-error that accompanies travel. Technology has enabled cashless tolls and phone-based GPS systems, making it rarely necessary to ever slow down or ever get lost during a road trip. These metaphors serve to ask the question; as we’re building new 21st century education pathways for students, are we including innovative systems to aid in their navigation that puts safety and a higher probability to arrive at each destination at the forefront of our efforts.

Our SITHS faculty are truly artisans within the vocation of education and receive tremendous inspiration and support from one another, admin and especially our students. Our collective approach aims to cultivate curiosity, capacity, the courage to try and the validation of failure. We collectively have championed a reimagination of student achievement by applauding student efforts as they FAIL (First-Attempt-In-Learning), SAIL (Second-Attempt-In-Learning) and TAIL (Third-Attempt-In-Learning) success.  Students are nurtured towards a gracious knowledge that learning and true development comes from the journey, which was, in fact, was always the goal. This is not only a testament of true, authentic learning, but also critical to prepare students for the challenges of the real world. 

A school’s assessment philosophy and system of practice often mitigates the most well-intentioned instructional designs and their effectiveness. Assessment design is easily overlooked as the limiting factor of a school’s attempt at meaningful education reform. At Staten Island Technical High School in order to create a generative practice around the idea of gracious, safe and productive failure we have gradually adopted mastery-based learning and assessment practices. We have steadfastly transitioned away from the “one-and-done” assessment approach for project-based learning, student portfolios and traditional assessment practices re-designed around multiple-opportunities. As an education leader I asked myself, “how can I better support this practice thoughtfully and compassionately,” in order to scale our efforts schoolwide, putting the odds in favor of the students while supporting the faculty. Out of this challenge the “SITHS Restorative Assessment Center” was born.

The implementation of project-based learning and student portfolios has been a successful journey that started in 2016, when we created our MakerSpace, a Hi-Tech, Lo-Tech, No-Tech learning space to engage our students and teachers across the curriculum in thinking beyond the classroom to prepare students for today’s global marketplace. The makerspace ( setting has served as an immersive learning environment and alternative to supplement the classroom environment to execute creative, innovative, and meaningful project-based learning modalities. Beyond the makerspace, other innovative PBL activities have been carefully planned with intentional checkpoints, feedback and a revision process before due dates and the resubmission process. Curating our student’s finished work, both tangible and digital via shareable web-based portfolios has also created an invaluable sense of pride and a process for memorializing and showcasing students’ progress, creativity and critical thinking. However, the reality of Advanced Placement, Regents and college entrance exams looming at the conclusion of the year, still makes it a necessity to include traditional multiple choice and extended response assessments with our school’s “restorative” twist.

Alongside the rich PBL work, teacher’s have developed exceptional practices around delivering frequent feedback and eliminating unit assessments in place of more frequent-formative micro-assessments, and most notably, employing thoughtful mastery-based assessments re-designed around providing students with multiple-opportunities. In essence, students are now able to exercise their voice and choice to backtrack and re-assess if they haven’t achieved a benchmark or grade that the student (or teacher) identifies as not meeting or exceeding competency in a skill or topic. I like to refer to this practice as “Restorative Assessment,” building intentional “U-Turns” in the learning and assessment pathway. 

Out of great care and compassion teachers transitioned from larger unit assessments and endured the lift to create multiple-versions of more frequent micro-assessments, with the addition of a restorative layer. Teacher’s took on the responsibility of managing and administering the re-assessment to students at mutually agreed upon times and locations before, during and after the school day. We recognized immediately that this level of care, compassion and innovation came with a shift in the workflow and workload for our teachers. This is where my admin team and I made the decision to hire new additional faculty to manage what would become our “Restorative Assessment Center.” We felt strongly that it was our responsibility to provide additional support to teachers and students if we expected a schoolwide shift around restorative assessment practices to flourish and be sustainable, equitable and manageable. 

After hiring new faculty to run the Restorative Assessment Center, we established a system in which teachers could submit re-assessments to be administered and proctored to students during lunch periods (4,5,6 & 7) or after school (Periods 9 & 10) as needed at scheduled times, as per a student’s request. Teachers would make students aware of their appointment and once the re-assessment took place under the supervision and proctoring of the restorative assessment faculty, all final work would be delivered back to the teacher for grading. In most cases, the new grade earned would replace the previous grade and students would continue to receive the choice for additional opportunities if needed to achieve or exceed competency with content or a specific skill. Students also have the choice of proceeding with or without additional support in preparation for the re-assessment. In the spirit of equity and accountability, certain conditions needed to be true in some cases with the restorative assessment process. For example, a student submitting a “paper” early, or on-time would earn the benefit of early feedback and the privilege to request an extension or schedule a re-assessment if needed. Additionally, it is the responsibility of the student to initiate and maintain communication proactively with their teacher around the intentions of requesting a re-assessment, or to discuss extenuating circumstances connected to the request for an extension or extra support.

Since the implementation of these practices, there have been inspiring and positive outcomes that have served as invaluable lessons and opportunities for our school community. Powerful bonds, trust and relationships have been cultivated between students and teachers. These stronger partnerships are based on a foundational practice that maintaining close communication is crucial in order for students to receive targeted support to learn and thrive in school and a 21st century globally competitive society. Setting the conditions around real-world application and instances where sometimes people (students) need extra time, an extension or someone to simply listen and hear them, is plausible and “should” be a present and operable part of the student-school relationship. In the real-world people get second-chances and there is room and there are conditions for multiple-opportunities to exist, especially when proper communication and accountability systems are in place.

Another powerful and welcome outcome has been that academic dishonesty instances plummeted. Students know that they have multiple-opportunities in the event that they do poorly on an assessment, due to gaps in learning or extenuating circumstances. There was a concern among early-adopters of these restorative practices on whether or not students would abuse the privilege of this unique system. What we found is that by merely having the option for re-assessment, it removed the necessity or temptation to cheat or plagiarize. The conditions were set intentionally in the student’s favor and aligned to the students rate and pace (speed limit) of learning. Coupled with the extra time a student would need to consider for the restorative assessment process, students didn’t abuse the privilege by exhaustively re-assessing and in turn acknowledged and respected the thoughtfulness and compassion that was rooted in our practice. While a roadway’s speed limit may be 65 MPH, our tendency to meet or exceed that limit sometimes leaves members in our caravan, whose vehicle can’t travel nearly as fast, left behind or even lost. 

Some of our teachers took the restorative process to another level by instituting in-class “group reassessment” opportunities. Essentially, students were paired in small groups and tasked with working together in teams to support one another in the re-submission of incorrect responses or previously submitted work. Students who were strong in specific topics helped the students who required extra support. While this practice may seem like organized cheating or plagiarism, when designed and executed properly, the primary goal of restorative assessment around building towards mastery and eliminating learning gaps is realized. I’ve found that the biggest pivot in thinking with restorative practices of assessment is moreso a shift in looking at grading as a “dynamic” versus “finite” process and measure of a student’s progress. When a pothole forms in the roadway of a student’s learning, creating opportunities to (re)visit that gap and add some asphalt builds confidence and grit for the  journey ahead. When our students know that there is “road-assistance” for mistakes and failure, it is akin to having an “educational air-bag” accompanying our students along the way.

Ultimately, what has been cultivated through the implementation of restorative assessment practices is a compassionate mechanism for empowering student agency and self-advocacy. Beyond the instructional and assessment moves, shifts around “creating an environment of respect & rapport” has been essential in developing a greater bond and trust between teachers and students. Students have never been more encouraged and supported through a growth-mindset to see failure “truly” as an opportunity instead of a final-measurement. Students have grown more comfortable asking for help because they know the adults serve in partnership with their personal growth and development. We believe whole-heartedly that when we “really” know our students well, they feel safe to tackle the complexities of becoming independent learners. In a world recently where the adults have made it more complex for one another and especially our children, who are more often secondary or tertiary in the thought process, I’m so proud of our faculty’s service above self for the betterment of our students. I have a newfound hope that more adults and especially educational leaders will consider restorative practices beyond discipline that cultivates a true love of learning and a pure trust in one another.

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