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Archive for the ‘standards-based grading’ Category

do-it-yourselfA problem I’ve been kicking around for a while is how to give my students clearer feedback on their learning progress. In a standards-based system this can be a challenge, because feedback is more detailed than a single percentage grade; a single assignment often covers more than one learning goal and therefore is given multiple grades. This detail can be very useful to the student for guiding their learning, but only if they are able to take it all in and manage the feedback in a positive way.

Unfortunately, most grade books out there haven’t mastered standards-based grading, making it difficult for both teachers to enter grades and students to access and understand them. I know this from first-hand experience: the past two years my middle school has been struggling to use Perason’s PowerTeacher Gradebook for our standards-based grading (and to think they claim it’s the “next level in classroom technology”- ha!). There may be some helpful updates on the way at some point- I haven’t fired up this year’s version up yet- but instead of waiting around for Pearson to solve your problems, how about taking matters into your own hands? (more…)

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Back in April, we hosted a Science Collaborative Workshop with 21 PreK-8 science teachers from 5 international schools. (Check out these previous posts if you’re interested in the planning process or my take-aways from organizing the event.)  Since we all use the same AERO science standards, one of our goals was to work together to create standards-based science units that could be used as exemplars for other international schools. We nearly accomplished that in the span of the 3-day workshop, but making these units accessible (and legible) on a website took over a month of continued collaboration remotely (and a little bit of arm twisting on my part!)

I’m happy to announce that these exemplar science units are now published and freely available on our website www.AERO-Science.org. The seven units are:

Please take a look and let me know what you think of our work! Each of the units was designed using the Understanding by Design approach and was a collaborative effort between teachers from different schools.

Next fall we will be holding a follow-up workshop at the NESA Fall Training Institute to continue and expand this collaborative project, so if you also teach at an AERO school, please join us!

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Something’s been gnawing at me for awhile about standards-based grading (SBG). Sure, it’s far and above ye ‘ole traditional ABC grading which conflates effort and learning and spits out a mathematically precise but meaningless grade on a ridiculously large 100-point scale. But moving from ABC grading to standards-based grading isn’t easy- it demands change on all levels of education (teaching, assessing, and reporting) and change from all parties involved (students, teachers, and parents). Changing grading is a colossal cultural paradigm shift.

If your school is like mine, it’s a shift that seems to be stuck in some middle-ground grading purgatory. Yes we have standards, and yes we try to teach and assess to those standards. Where the shift seems to stall is with the reporting, which throws a wrench in the whole system. Here’s a typical struggle:

It’s the beginning of the trimester, and we’ve got our standards clearly defined for our unit. We have our assessments planned too, each carefully crafted to hit multiple standards in a meaningful way. And we’re off- teaching, learning, humming merrily along. The first assessment comes along and suddenly there’s a little confusion. What exactly do we mean by “meeting the standard”? “Exceeding the standard”? “Approaching the standard”? Never fear- we collected student exemplars last year, which we can show teachers and students so everyone knows what’s expected. But wait- the students are all trying to replicate the “Exceeding the standard” work, going for that 4, even though most of them need to show proficiency in the standard first before trying to reach above it. Then grades go home and parents are concerned when their students are “only” meeting the standard- that’s like a B right?? So we try to throw in some parent education at that point, to break their bad habit of translating 1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s into letter grades. Finally it’s report card time, and in practice our new standards-based report card turns out to be a lot more complicated than it seemed on paper. What if a student exceeded on this assessment but approached on this one? How detailed should we report out on? Why do these parents keep getting upset with 3s- didn’t we tell them it’s not the same thing as a B??

You get the idea. Like it or not, reporting will always make or break the system, especially in the hyper-competitive, accountability-crazed world we live in. Despite the merits of SBG, the challenges of reporting out standards-based grades (as I discussed here) is unescapable. Even my grading rebel hero who did away with points all together in favor of pure feedback is returning to a hybrid points/feedback system for the sake of efficiency. That’s the reality for both teachers and parents, in addition to the wonderful details, we also crave a simple way of conveying of how a student’s doing (I mean learning!).

So here’s the deal: because we can’t escape our need for a simple grade (letter, number, or otherwise), SBG in its present form falls short of the cultural paradigm shift it demands. Parents keep translating numbers into letters, students keep trying to exceed the standard to get the top grade, and teachers drive themselves crazy trying to agree on the meaning of it all. At the core of these tensions is a simple truth: everyone wants to be successful, but everyone is different, so success should not have the same definition for all. SBG is a huge step forward, but because it’s one-size-fits all it just doesn’t feel right, and our efforts continue to unravel.

How can we complete the shift? I think we need to reach a little farther. SBG shouldn’t stand for standards-based grading, but student-based grading. Instead of criterion-referenced, I believe assessment and grading should be self-referenced. Is this more challenging? Yes, but ultimately I think it’s this extra inch that will bridge the gap and move us to a new culture of learning and grading. Here’s why:

  • Differentiated: We go on and on in education about differentiation, but so far I think implementation of this has been only partial. For true differentiation it needs to take place at all educational levels (teaching, assessing, reporting)- and it’s last two where it usually falls short. If all students are going to be assessed and reported on the same standard, then by definition we aren’t differentiating. Student-based grading frees us to adapt to student’s individual learning needs, and reflects that differentiation all aspects of education.
  • Learning-focused: In their essence, report cards should communicate what students are learning (or not learning). With one-size-fits all standards, this may not be the case. If a student is way below or way above the standard, the report card isn’t going to be very informative at all. OK, they’re below the standard- but has the student made good learning gains this semester? Yay- they’re above the standard- but is the student continuing to learn or are they twiddling their thumbs? Student-based grading focuses assessment and reporting on the learning that’s actually taking place, whether it’s above, below, or at the standard.
  • Goodbye norm-referencing: Even though standards-based grading claims to be criterion-referenced, if you use points it’s really not. Students (and parents) will always pay more attention to the letter or number at the top than the standards or feedback below. Even if you get rid of these on assessments, for efficiency’s sake you’re going to use points of some sort on a report card- and then the norm comparison begins (Johnny got more 4s than Billy!). Student-based grading means the report cards are different for each student. Students are being graded on the standards and benchmarks that are appropriate learning goals for them. With individualized report cards like this comparing Johnny and Billy isn’t easy- but that’s the point- we shouldn’t be comparing them in the first place.
  • Keep it simple: After thinking a lot about grading and points, I keep gravitating back to the simplest solution: the binary method (pass/fail, meets/does not meet). It’s easy to understand and does not fall prey to our instinct to translate numbers into letters. The problem with using binary grading with standards-based grading is obvious: many students will be somewhere above or below the standard, so the grades are oversimplified and less informative. Student-based grading tailors the learning goal to fit the student, so a binary grade works much better- a more specific learning goal allows for a less specific grading system, and with less confusion.
  • Success for all: Parents can’t help but want to see As (or whatever your top grade is) on the report card. So if your grading system doesn’t make the top grade a realistic goal for students, you’re going to run into problems. Student-based grading adjusts the learning goals for students based on pre-assessment to give them realistic challenges. So students going for the top grade or parents expecting the top grade is no longer problematic, it’s exactly what they should be doing.

All set to sign up for the student-based grading movement? There’s only one problem… this is just an idea. Sure it sounds great on paper, but I’ve yet to put it into practice (so if anyone out there is doing something similar- I’d love to hear from you!) Moving from ABC norm-referenced grading to student-based grading would be a step further than standards-based grading, because in addition to all that SBG brings to the table, the reporting benchmarks and standards themselves would need to be differentiated. In order for appropriate learning goals to be selected for students, pre-assessment would need to be very well designed. And to top it all off, the report card system would need to be flexible enough to handle individualized report cards. All these challenges however, if met successfully, would do what standards-based grading seems to be currently failing to do: to once and for all shift our grading paradigm from a culture of competitive point gaming to a culture that values individual learning.

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You know how you always think teaching is somehow going to get easier each year? I fell for that folly of an idea all over again this summer, thinking that because it’s my fourth year as science coordinator it would somehow be less work because I have it all planned out already. HA! Obviously I was forgetting that deep inside my soul resides a gnawing and persistant little bugger: Mr. Isn’t-there-a-better-way. And just when I thought I was getting set to cruise through the year, he had rear his ugly but inspirational head and get me off my metaphorical couch.

So here it is December and I find myself embroiled in several wonderful but seriously extracurricular projects that I’d love to blog about if I can  add a 25th hour to the day. Well, here’s on such project: The AERO Science Collaborative Workshop! Ok, I know it doesn’t roll off the tongue very well, so if anyone can come up with some sort of nifty acronym involving those words or similar, I’d be much obliged.

A little background: Project AERO is an educational arm of the U.S. State Department created to assist American schools abroad in implementing standards-based curricula. My school, along with most in the NESA region have adopted the AERO standards, in particular the K-8 science standards which were released two years ago. However, as international schools are by their nature isolated, we have very little opportunity to work together with each other and share what’s working with this standards-based shift. Yes, there are conferences set up by NESA and AERO which allow for some collaboration- but as with most conferences the focus is mostly on professional developments (aka listen to the expert at the front of the room).

So basically we’ve got several schools toiling with their heads down in the sand (quite literally in the Middle East), trying to complete this science curriculum overhaul with occasional  support from consultants here and there, but mostly going it alone. Which of course means a lot of work for everyone and not a lot of feedback or second-opinions on the best way to go about it. Why not get together and get our collaboration on?

This April we are attempting to do just that. With the help of my ASD colleagues and NESA science ed guru Erma Anderson, I’ve drafted a proposal to bring together K-8 science educators from five school (ASDubai, ACS Beirut, TASIM Oman, and ACS Amman) for three days of peace, love, and music…. whoops– wrong workshop– I mean three days of intense science curriculum collaboration. We’re hoping for around 20 teachers, with representation from lower elementary, upper elementary, and middle school. So far the response has been very favorable, and it seems I’m not the only one out there who sees the benefit in teachers teaching teachers for a change.

Now that my good idea is actually coming true though- I’ve got to figure out how to pull this off. So I’m eager to hear if anyone reading this has ever worked in such a collaborative cross-school setting before:

  1. What’s the best way to kick-start collaboration with a group of unfamiliar people?
  2. What organisation or set-up helped (or hindered) collaboration?
  3. What tools or technology did you use to facilitate collaborative work?
  4. What follow-up helped the collaboration continue after the workshop and build lasting collaborative relationships?

Here are some of my nascent thoughts on these matters:

  1. I’m thinking of starting with something called “Share Your Strengths” where each school briefly presents some of the curriculum work they’ve done that they think is good stuff. This will not only get our best ideas out there quickly, it should also give us a chance to build a little rapport and trust so we respect each other’s opinion when we dive into collaborative work.
  2. In my experience small group work (about 3 people) seems to be the most productive. You get a variety of opinions but don’t get weighed down by too many. So depending on numbers I’m thinking of breaking us up into teams of similar grade-level and possibly subject interest (so for example, a team of MS teachers working on a physical science unit). I don’t want to over-structure the workshop since I want it to be tailored to school’s needs, so the goal for each team’s work may even be left up to them.
  3. I really want to make sure the work that’s done is easily accessible to all after the workshop, and that whatever platform we use encourages further long-distance collaboration. I’m very familiar with GoogleDocs and GoogleSites, so I’m leaning that way. We also may have some teachers attending virtually, so we’ll need to figure out how to accommodate that (maybe Skype them in for certain parts?)
  4. I know how it is after a conference. You have all this stuff you’re excited about, but then you slip back into your daily grind and never get around to all those good ideas you had. I know 3 days isn’t much time to build “lasting collaborative relationships”, but I’d like to try to nurture the collaboration to the point where it’s self-sustaining. I’ve been blown away by the high level of collaboration going on in the blogosphere, so maybe I’ll even try to turn teachers on to that. The secret ingredient seems to be that blend of the personal and the professional- both intellectually and relationally stimulating.

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A few weeks ago I started playing with video assessments as an engaging and efficient way to do assessments with multiple classes (as a coordinator I work with 7 classes per grade- so efficiency is key!). Initially I was planning on using this method merely for pre and post-unit assessments, but since then it’s grown into something much bigger.

The bolt of inspiration came from John’s post (and Kelly O’Shea’s idea) to give short weekly assessments each Friday, as a way of students (and teachers) knowing where their learning stands on a regular basis. This reminded me of the holy grail of formative assessments: those wonderful feedback-oriented assessments for learning that everyone at my school always talks about doing but rarely does. I know there are plenty of good ideas out there for how to work quick formative assessments into your teaching, but in the whirlwind of a segregated 40-minute period school day, there never seems to be enough time. Why not turn homework into a formative assessment opportunity?

So, for the past couple of weeks, my 2nd and 3rd grade students have piloted a online experiment with formative assessments, called Show What You Know! Each weekend, I create a simple assessment with something engaging (video clips, funny pictures, an online simulation activity) and a series of questions on our school’s science website. I use GoogleDocs Forms to create the assessment questions, which is simple (and free) to use and collects students’ responses for me neatly in a spreadsheet. Then with a little conditional formatting magic (setting correct answers to be highlighted green and incorrect answers to be highlighted red), the responses look something like this:

Quickly scanning the spreadsheet I can find out which students are getting it, which ones need some review, and which concepts in general need some work for the whole class. From my coordinator’s perspective, I spend less than an hour of work and I have formative assessment data for 120 students without the hassle of grading. Pretty nifty. Most of all, less time spent assessing means more time left over for the most important part of formative assessment: giving students feedback and letting the results reflect your future teaching.

One key to remember is that these formative assessments are ungraded. The value of formative assessments evaporates if they aren’t a true reflection of what a student understands. So cramming, googling, and parent assisting need to be completely discouraged, and that means not tempting fate by attaching a grade to it. Since we’re still early in the year, it remains to be seen how accurate the formative assessments will be, and whether good-intentioned “homework helpers” will skew the data, but I can say from the first few weeks that it’s already been a very good indicator for several students who are struggling.

Here’s a few examples of our Show What You Knows to check out:

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Calm down- this is not a critique of Standards-Based Grading (SBG), which I’m a firm believer in. If you’re not on the bandwagon already, start here. That said, there is one SBG issue I’m grappling with currently that doesn’t seem to get a lot of play out there: points.

Abolish the meaningless cumulative letter grades, abolish the unfair 100-point system, but what system takes it place? There’s a few different choices to choose from, but each with their own pros and cons. Here are my thoughts on each:

Binary-system

The most basic and pure SBG point-system. Students either learned it or they didn’t. One advantage is its stark contrast to tradition ABC grading, so students (and parents) aren’t tempted to try and translate their SBG points into letters grades and avoid the paradigm shift that SBG should entail. The only real drawback I see to the binary system of grading is that it doesn’t recognize progress towards a standard. What do you do if a student doesn’t show complete mastery but only partial mastery? You’ve no choice but to grade that student the same way you would if they showed no understanding at all- this doesn’t seem fair or motivating.

3-point system

Easy fix, right? Just use the 3-point system! Seems so obvious I’m surprised I didn’t think of it until I stumbled upon it here. Now a 3 represents mastery, 2 represents progressing towards mastery, and 1 represents no real progress. While I like the shout-out to progression, introducing that third point does inject some grey matter into the proceedings. How much progress is enough for a 2? That would have to be spelled out pretty clearly on every assessment.

4-point system

Why make things even more complicated? Well, my school has adopted the 4-point grading system to also include a grade for students that “excel” or “exceed”, meaning they demonstrate a deeper understanding or a more advanced understanding than is expected. The thinking behind including this is largely motivational- as soon as you spell out what it means to go above and beyond, there will be students who will strive to get there. However, this tempting 4th point can also create some issues… now the 4,3,2,1 is very close to the old ABCs system. With that much similarity most parents are just going to translate a 4 to an A, so suddenly all of your students should be getting those 4s, and just meeting the standard isn’t good enough any more. Yikes.

Missing the Point?

Despite all of these pros and cons- which system is used might not really matter. After all, the whole point of SBG is to reign in grading for grading’s sake and to get back to the root of what grading and assessment is supposed to be about: feedback. Feedback for students, feedback for parents, feedback about learning. Slapping any number at the top of an assessment- no matter what point-system is used- will defeat the purpose of assessment entirely by distracting students to think about points rather than the content of the feedback. So maybe getting rid of the numbers altogether is the cleanest solution, even if that would require a complete re-invention of the report card.

Other SBGers out there- what do you use? What kind of effect does it have on learning?

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