How to… adapt year end assessments for distance learning

Educators were asked to completely change their practices during the COVID-19 distance learning period last academic year. Justin Kirby, Curriculum Coordinator at GEMS American Academy – Abu Dhabi (GAA) outlines how the high school teachers at GAA took on the challenge of adapting year-end exams to fit a distance learning model.

We have all faced something unique and challenging over the course of the last academic year. We all rose to the occasion and as educators, became recognized for the outstanding ability we have to be flexible, committed and undaunted. In light of this, I want to reflect on something specific that showed how an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

As I reflected on our school’s quick transition to distance learning, I was immediately drawn to the impressive changes in our assessment practices. While distance learning, due to COVID-19, was the driving factor in the need to adapt our assessment practices, our school’s recent shift to Standards-based Learning (SBL) was our reason to be prepared.

End of Course assessments

During the distance learning period, the question arose about the End of Course (EOC) exams. How could students write a final exam? How do you provide that opportunity at home and ensure academic honesty? Do we cancel our final exams?

One of the many reasons that we had run end of course exams was to prepare our students for high stakes testing, like the IBDP World Exams. Since pre-existing formats for testing was no longer possible with distance learning, we needed to implement an effective alternative. We wanted our students to be able to show a year’s worth of learning, but in a meaningful and authentic way. After these discussions, it was decided that our EOC exams would take the form of a capstone project, or project based assessment. The next question was, how do we set this up?

Professional Learning Communities

Over the last two years, the secondary school at GEMS American Academy – Abu Dhabi had shifted its teaching philosophy to that of Standards-based Learning. During the shift to SBL, the teachers had been planning and collaborating in PLCs using Richard DuFour’s guiding questions (DuFour, 2010).

  1. What do students need to know?
  2. How will we know if they have learned it?
  3. What do we do if they have learned it?
  4. What do we do if they haven’t learned it?

Having this focus while planning, our teachers were already able to think about the right questions when moving to distance learning. We were not at the drawing board, we were already prepared and ready to use our knowledge to find an effective and meaningful solution.

 We had spent several months (to be honest, it felt like years) of professional development on how to design qualitative rubrics. All of this information was now going to be used to create proficiency levels for those reportable standards.

Standards-based learning

Three years ago when we announced the move to implement SBL, we would have never guessed how this knowledge and philosophy would be used in 2020.

During those previous years, our teachers were fortunate enough to be supported and guided by standards-based experts Dr Thomas Guskey and Tom Schimmer, both of whom had provided PD for our transition. Our teachers worked on making our curricular standards into a more digestible format. This allowed parents and third party academic institutes to more easily understand what was being assessed. This was done using a review cycle, and adjustments were made as we continued to grow and learn about SBL and how it works for GAA. The results of this work became our reportable standards and were now going to be used as the criteria for our distance learning EOC assessments.

Student voice and choice

Considering the fact that these end of course projects were going to be done at home, there was a need to ensure a level of academic honesty. When projects or questions are posed to students, and when they are focused on the student’s need to express their own knowledge of larger concepts, as opposed to simply regurgitating facts and figures, the student is almost unable to cheat or look up answers online. Ensuring a well-posed question or task was crucial, and considering that our PLCs were already involved with moderation and collaboration as a critical aspect, our teachers were ready.

Even though the IBDP exams had been cancelled, our IBDP teachers still wanted to provide our students an opportunity to showcase their learning. They set out to create an interdisciplinary project that allowed students to showcase their learning in a personal and meaningful way. The students were tasked with choosing two or three of their IBDP subjects to use in their project.

In this interdisciplinary project, students were able to choose almost every aspect of their assessment. They chose their topic, IBDP courses to draw content from, and even the method of demonstrating their knowledge. This meant that some students may write reports while others recorded video presentations. There was no limit to the method in which they could demonstrate their understanding.


Being able to pause and reflect on any success is much needed at times. However, the way in which education is so rapidly changing, it is more important than ever to celebrate these successes. We educators are amazing and we need to recognize that more. Two years ago, none of us would have ever believed that our collective set of skills, knowledge, and efficacy would be put to the test in the way it was. Thankfully, due to the commitment and dedication that our teachers have shown, we were able to deliver authentic, meaningful, personalised, rigorous, and relevant assessments when it didn’t seem possible. Our ounce of prevention was absolutely worth the pound of cure.