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progress chartOne of the most successful things I’ve ever done as a teacher (digitally or otherwise) is creating a way for my students to track and reflect on their learning progress. It’s one of those things that seems so obvious once you do it, but it took me 11 years of teaching to finally try it out this past year. The feedback from my students was so overwhelmingly enthusiastic that I can say unequivocally: whether you’re a “high tech” or “low tech” teacher, you NEED to try this out with your students!

Learning Logs are not a completely new idea of course, in essence they are simply a progress chart, but I was reminded by reading Marzano’s classic book The Art and Science of Teaching that they can be so much more than that- especially in our new standards-based era of grading and assessment. By design, standards-based grading gives students more information, instead of an overall numerical grade they receive more specific feedback about each of their learning goals. But more information is not necessarily better. What I’ve discovered is that often students become so inundated with standards-based marks that they lose the bigger picture of what they are learning well and what they are not. And don’t even get me started about the so-called “standards-based” reporting systems (cough! cough! -PowerSchool- cough! cough!)…

The purpose of a Learning Log is two-fold: first, it is a tool that students use to keep track of the many standards-based grades they receive, in an organized way that makes it easy for them to see their progress. Secondly, the act of keeping a Learning Log gives students the opportunity to reflect on this progress, which encourages students to be proactive when there’s something they haven’t mastered yet. Learning Logs also become habit-forming; every time my student received feedback on their learning, whether it was an assessment or homework I graded, or even a quick formative assessment in class that could be peer or self-assessed, they would add it to their Log. After a couple of weeks my students were so into their Logs that they were reminding me about filling them out! (more…)

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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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We just completed our Kindergarten unit about living and nonliving things. As with all our elementary science units, we collect pre and post assessment data, in order to get an overall idea of how well students learn the intended concepts. Of course the main idea of the unit is differentiating between living and nonliving things, so we focus our pre and post assessment on this skill with a simple paper and pencil activity:

I remember back in my grad school days reading a study about student pre-conceptions (don’t you dare call them misconceptions now!) about what’s alive and not alive: I believe it was a study by Inagaki and Hatano (2002) reviewing different studies of conceptual change in children to learn how they think about living things. Good reading, even if it’s not required for a response paper!

Our own data from 7 classes of Kindergartners shows some interesting trends:

I broke it down a little further by categorizing these items as animals (cat), plants (tree, flower), animate objects (car, cloud, computer) and inanimate objects (ball, teddy bear, block):

Not surprisingly, animals (the cat) is the most obvious to Kg students of all the items, but I was impressed that plants followed so closely behind. Our Pre-K students do have a general plants and animals unit however, so perhaps that has some influence on this.

What’s most interesting to me is to notice which nonliving objects are misidentified the most: car, computer, cloud, and teddy bear are all misidentified by about 1/3 of the students! It’s pretty easy to understand why- 3 of them move and change, and 1 resembles a living thing.

Over the course of the unit, students learn about the characteristics of living things (they grow and change) and their needs. Students experiment by trying to grow seeds and blocks, also take care of a goldfish to learn about what it needs to live. In addition they play lots of sorting games to reinforce new ideas about what’s living and nonliving. How well does it work? Check out the post-assessment results:

Note: These results are missing one class that I haven’t received data from yet

Not too shabby. Granted this is not a very deep assessment (we have others for investigating students’ understanding in a more meaningful way), but for a quick check of factual knowledge this is good to see. It’s also useful to see what wasn’t learned as well, clouds appear to be especially confusing for some Kindergartners. Thinking about it, they do fit our characteristic of living things by growing and changing, and it’s difficult for students to investigate what clouds need or don’t need. So I’ll have to think more about this one- maybe the right approach would be a research investigation, posing the question Are clouds a living thing? and having students consult various resources (library books, websites, parent interviews) to collect “data” and then reach a conclusion as a class. Something for next year!

And that’s the wonderful thing about doing pre/post assessments (besides being a great example of learning for student portfolios)- it’s almost impossible to collect data like this and NOT have it influence and improve your teaching. So give it a try- I dare ya’!

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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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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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Over my years of teaching I’ve probably used Google image search about 10,000 times. I like to create a lot of my assessments and worksheets from scratch, so I’m constantly searching for that perfect photo or piece of clip art to illustrate something. But as others in the bloggossphere like Dan Meyer have pointed out, using hokey clip art in this age of giga-pixelated multimedia is inexcusable. Using videos in the place of clip art leverages the engaging and real-world qualities of a video clip, and encourages students to see the science in real life. So, this year I’m going to experiment with video assessments. The idea behind a video assessment is that students will watch a video and then explain it demonstrating their scientific understanding (as a side note- videos could also be used to great effect for introducing a new concept, or could even be made by  students themselves to demonstrate understanding- but this is for another post!).

The inspiration for this came from Greg Schwanbeck and his post on dy/dan a couple weeks ago. In the comment thread one of the teachers asked about the logistics of doing a video assessment in the classroom, and it is a little tricky. After all, you want students to be able to watch the video at their own leisure, and go back to a certain part if they want. Anyway, I gave this some thought, and I’ll share with you my prototype Video Assessment 1.0 for your critique: click here to check it out.

The assessment is admittedly simple- I’m just reworking a pre-assessment that I give to my second graders at the beginning of their unit on Forces and Motion. What I’m looking for as a teacher is to see whether they can identify the kinds of pushes and pulls acting in each video, and whether they are familiar with their scientific names (friction, gravity, etc), and any misconceptions they hold. I would also like to include a clip with magnetic force, but try as I might I couldn’t find a good one, so I’ll probably just have to film one myself.

The webpage for the assessment was made using GoogleSites, which allowed me to embed the questions from a GoogleForm that I created (both of these Google tools are free, and I highly recommend using GoogleDocs if you aren’t already). There is an option to embed videos from YouTube directly, but because I wanted to resize the videos to make them fit together tightly on the page, I first ripped them from YouTube using this website and then uploaded them to GoogleDocs in the GoogleVideo format, which lets you resize them.

The cool thing about using GoogleForms for an assessment like this is that when students click “Submit”, their responses are automatically collected in a spreadsheet for you. I work with seven 2nd grade classes at my school, so this is a very seamless way to collect a lot of data. All I’ll need to do is simply send the link of the assessment webpage to teachers so they can share with their students. By using laptop carts and headphones, each student will get their own laptop so they can do the assessment on their own and watch the videos as many times as they need.

One design issue I have is that I would prefer to place each video directly next to the question, but GoogleForms doesn’t allow for embedding videos. So students will have to do a lot of scrolling up and down between watching videos and answering questions. Anyway, we’ll see how it goes down- but in the meantime I would appreciate any constructive criticism you have.

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