Assessing Inquiry, Innovation and Impact




The work we do with our Innovation Diploma students is audacious. And we know that. But we think it’s imperative that learners work on projects and ventures that can manifest far beyond the walls of school, and that the potential impact from their work doesn’t end with an 87 in the grade book. Innovation Diploma aims to provide opportunity and space for learners to work on projects generated both from personal interests and needs from the community. We operate, like a start-up would, with clients or users helping define the scope of our projects and products rather than classroom teachers. Because the projects we work on stem from ill-structured problems or opportunities that are complex in nature, it becomes increasingly difficult to assess this kind of work with the ways that are traditionally accepted in the classroom. For the past year and a half my team has been striving to find the secret sauce that would provide our students with feedback on the process, progress and products they create. One key ingredient for us has been the 4 C’s. We intentionally prioritize the assessment of 21st century competencies (Mount Vernon Mind and the 4 C’s) and build on the content knowledge they need to work on the projects they are invested in.

While we don’t have a formula that would easily be plucked up and applied to all schools anywhere, we do think we have some key components to how we help students grow and develop the necessary skills and habits of mind that are necessary to be successful now and in the future.

1. Eliminating Traditional Grades: We have found that traditional grades do not work for the kind of project work our students are involved in and pursuing. Instead, we use a standards-based assessment with a red (novice), yellow (emerging), green (proficient to advanced), with the 4 C’s as our standards. Throughout project work, we refer to our standards and tie standards to specific tasks.

2. Clear Rubrics Tied Specifically to Learning Outcomes: We literally use our standards as Lego pieces as we build rubrics for assignments. We look at what our students will be doing for a specific project and build rubrics for deliverables. What is great about this approach is that, over time, student learners become much more familiar with the learning outcomes because they interact with them in so many forms and combinations. Using a Green, Yellow, Red color system, we make it easy to talk about where you are as a learner, which we do in our one-on-one advisory sessions and as whole group check-ins. We’ve built laminated color-coded cards with all our learning outcomes to easily reference during our work sessions. Rather than saving the assessment until the end of a project, we weave it in during small moments of feedback, during whole group share outs, and in manageable chunks along the way.

3. Personalized Advisory Structure: Relationships are foundational to learning. We meet one on one with each student every other week for twenty minutes, and using protocols we’ve created or have modified from National School Reform, we are able to discuss progress and provide direction and scaffolding based on individual learner needs.

4. Regular Documentation of Progress and Growth: We aim to provide feedback that can easily be documented to reveal a larger picture of student growth. Our tools, Haiku LMS and Folio Collaborative, allow us to document both growth against standards and narratives on progress. This documentation is key to be able to see growth over time.

  • Folio Collaborative – Folio Collaborative is a growth tracking tool developed by McDonogh School in Maryland that is used exclusively by adults in the education field. It’s a comprehensive process that involves personal reflection, ongoing goals, classroom observation, and multidimensional feedback. For iDiploma, because we blur the lines between school and the real world, we chose to use this software for our students. We document all advisory meet ups with a summary note. As the students become more involved in the program, we ask that they write the notes. It helps them to reflect on what they heard in the meet up and it helps them truly take ownership. Early on, a note may look something like this:

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  • Haiku LMS – This tool allows us to tie learning outcomes to each “assignment,” so that we can build a more complete snapshot into each of our student’s learning and growth as critical thinkers, for example. A snapshot report might look like this:

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5. Infusing Metacognition:   Students must assume increased responsibility for planning and regulating their own learning. It is difficult for learners to become self-directed when learning is planned and monitored by someone else. Because of this, we provide a tremendous amount of opportunities for students to take over their own learning. Early on in the program, we set the expectation that they reflect weekly on their learning and progress and that they share this narrative on their blog. We also ask that they make their thinking visible – we use black foam core boards, post-its, and large sticky paper to share ideas and our learning regularly. This emphasis on making thinking visible and reflecting on learning helps our students see their role morphing from passive consumers to an active creators who can and should be in charge of their learning journey.

6. Authentic Feedback from Clients/Users: Part of the work we do requires our students to deliver products or ideas to external clients. The stakes are high for that kind of work because ultimately it’s about whether or not they meet the needs of their particular client or user. This kind of feedback and assessment is incredibly important if we want our students to understand how their work is valued outside of the walls of school.


While our approach is imperfect, we know we’re moving in the right direction. With a curricular framework that requires our students to be agile and responsive to the needs around them, we need to model the same as facilitators of that kind of learning. We need to stop repackaging the same approach to assessment (using numbers and letters as the primary means to communicate mastery) and completely overhaul what it means to assess student growth. This approach requires students, teachers, community members and parents to be part of solution – so that feedback can be authentic and meaningful, and so that our students understand how they are progressing and contributing to the world.

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