Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 6

This is the sixth post in a series about my journey with Standards Based Learning and Grading.

Assessing to learn


Assessment was a fearful term when I was in school. It was and still can be associated with standardized testing, high stakes learning, and a competitive environment. Assessment can create fear of failure and bad grades. It can signify an endpoint to learning, a time to move on and start something new regardless of what has been learned or mastered previously. Assessment is something that many times is done to students, as a rite of passage to the next topic to be covered.

For assessment to be meaningful, it must have purpose in the learning process. If it is treated as above, it has no link to growth, improvement or increased proficiency. Assessment must take on a completely different role to add to and become an integral piece in student learning. The role of assessment is one FOR learning. Assessment guides the learning process, facilitates decisions about instruction for teachers, informs students about practice and levels of proficiency, and ultimately shows us when learners have demonstrated mastery and are ready to move on to new standards.

Feedback and assessment go hand in hand. If an assessment is not paired with feedback for growth, an opportunity for learning is missed. Formative and summative assessments should be learning experiences for our students. In my classroom, formative work is practice, never scored, and given feedback for further study and assessment. Summative assessments are larger, more in depth and focused on my standards. Summative assessments are performance based, applying the knowledge, understandings, and skills my students have practiced and honed throughout the unit of study. I score summative assessments, but students are able to continue to show improved proficiency of standards through reassessment.

“When it comes to deciding whether to allow a student to redo an assignment or assessment, consider the alternative—to let the student settle for work done poorly, ensuring that he or she doesn’t learn the content. Is this really the life lesson we want to teach? Is it really academically better for the student to remain ignorant?”
-Rick Wormeli

It doesn’t matter whether all students achieve mastery at the same moment, in fact, it shouldn’t happen that way. I respect the fact that my students are individuals. It is exceptionally difficult to accurately predict when a student will have completed enough practice to demonstrate mastery on a summative assessment. We may have a good idea of about how long it will take for our students, particularly if we have delved into the unit of study in previous years. But to determine when a summative assessment is appropriate for each of our students – formative practice, feedback, and open communication among all the learners in the classroom is necessary.

It is time to change the face of assessment for our students. We must support them to be courageous and show us their proficiency at frequent checkpoints. If we can accomplish this, we will move beyond fear of assessment to maximize learning.

Use your professional judgement

I had the wonderful opportunity today to see Dr. Thomas Guskey (@tguskey) speak on the topics of Standards Based Grading and Reporting. I have read a good deal of his work, and really enjoy his viewpoints, opinions, and advice.  His writings are a crucial part of my standards based learning and grading journey.


One of the topics he touched on that resonated with me is professional judgement. Dr. Guskey assured us that our professional judgement in regard to student achievement and grading is not only more accurate than relying on percentages, numbers and computation, but less subjective, and more consistent.


This always feels like an oxymoron to educators.  How could someone’s JUDGEMENT be less subjective than numbers, computations, and math?  We first have to establish that we are criterion referenced, rather than norm referenced. This is standards based culture, where a student’s proficiency is measured against a set of learning targets. We are not pitting students against one another in a competitive game of school. Rather we are working to help all students succeed. Subjectivity decreases when we are transparent about where students are on the learning continuum and are clear about expectations, targets, and standards.


Many times educators get too wrapped up in a game of numbers, how many questions students got right and wrong, and percentage grades…we must remember that this is NOT the focus. Learning is the focus. Grades and scores simply communicate proficiency levels at a given moment in time. To effectively convey these, we must use a scale with 4-6 levels and established descriptors for those levels.


Why only 4-6 levels? Dr. Guskey spoke to the fact that once we move beyond 6 levels, not only do we struggle as educators to accurately differentiate them, but now we will have a difficult time helping students and parents understand the level of proficiency. If grades and scores are supposed to be communication, we have a problem. Less is more with proficiency levels when we want them to be meaningful.


It is time for the judgement piece of the grading puzzle. Once we have built a scale with informative, purposeful descriptors we can be much more consistent with grading. Educators looking at an assessment are much more likely to be consistent with four levels rather than 100. Students are going to be much more adept at self-assessment and making some of the judgement themselves when appropriate. Accuracy improves when we spend less time worrying about defining so many levels and more time gathering evidence and providing quality feedback to our students. When done properly, standards based grading is far more defensible than any percentage or average.


Trusting your professional judgement is challenging in a grading world full of computerized grade books, automated scoring programs devised to make grading easy, and students and parents who only know a traditional system. But we must trust. We must always do what is right for our students presently. We cannot succumb to the fear that surrounds change in grading practice. My one word for 2014 is Courage. It takes daily courage to work toward reforming traditional grading practice, but I pledge to do just that. My professional judgement tells me that this is essential to move learning to the forefront in education.

Moving beyond compliance to develop citizens

The word compliance is tossed around frequently in educational discussions and conversations. I have used it in a few blog posts myself, and it can have quite a negative connotation. Compliance can imply that students are not making choices about their own behaviors and acting on them. Rather, they are taking what they are told to do and following directions without making their own decision.  

This is where I feel the word compliance has no place in our schools. I want my students to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills. My students should not leave my classroom without having made some tough decisions and experiencing the results – whether good, bad, or somewhere in between. I want students to conduct themselves with respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, and caring because they have seen the value in those behaviors and have decided to demonstrate them. However, I don’t live in a dream world. I realize some of my students are too immature or inexperienced to make the right decision all the time or choose what an adult would do.  Adolescents will make mistakes, falter, and act inappropriately. This is not to say that I want my students to become dysfunctional members of society, or that I want them to impolitely challenge authority at every moment of their lives. But as these students grow into adults, they need to make their own choices, learn from mistakes, and recover from failure.

It is at these moments when the role of the educator is essential. Educators must model the behaviors they seek, and this is not always easy. It means we have to open ourselves up and recognize that we are imperfect. We have to model the great decisions we make as well as acknowledge the poor ones. We must show how to positively respond for growth and change when we make mistakes. We must admit to being human. Relationships have to be developed, and inappropriate behaviors addressed. Students deserve the whole learning experience, not just content delivery, scripted curriculum, and a culture that demands compliant behavior with no explanation or reasoning. Above all, we teach more than just content, skills, or understandings – we teach kids.

Survey says…

I asked my 9th grade students for narrative feedback on their first semester experiences in my classroom through a survey about our standards based learning environment.  We always have room to improve and grow, but we also have so much to be proud of.  My kids create the learning environment with me, and the responsibility for maintaining it is shared as well.


Several major themes seemed to develop from their responses – they enjoy the freedom to work at their own pace and choose their work, they do not feel stressed out regarding learning in my classroom, they feel safe to try new things and revisit their learning when proficiency levels are below the learning target, and they preferred a standards based grading system to emphasize learning over points, scores, and grades.  Here are a few examples of their responses:


On Freedom:
“I have the freedom to learn how I choose.”
“I like being able to have the freedom to do the things you need during class, without scripted backwork.”


On Stress Levels:
“I enjoy how unstressful the learning environment is.”
“I do not feel pressured to know everything right away – there is time to become proficient.”


On Safety of Learning:
“The learning environment is welcoming and makes you feel safe.”
“We can redo our assessments, so we can get better and better at it.”


On Standards Based Grading:
“I enjoy the learning atmosphere because of the grading system.”
“I like that we don’t have traditional grades, because it makes more sense.”



There is one more comment that I would like to highlight. It humbled me as it also reminded me what a huge impact we as educators have on kids.


“What I enjoy most about Spanish class is how I learn not only the language, but how to be something in the world.”

Expectation

As we opened second semester in my classroom, we did a variety of reflective activities that will help us make the next 18 weeks as productive as possible. We spent a day reestablishing the norms for our classes, and one of the things I asked my students was what they expected from me each day. Each class came up with a variety of things, and I was impressed. Here is the list of adjectives from my 5 classes:

  • supportive
  • kind
  • different
  • challenging
  • creative
  • fun
  • happy
  • kind
  • impactful
  • empathetic
  • trustworthy
  • honest
  • reliable
  • patient
  • confident
  • respectful
  • understanding
  • appreciative
  • outgoing
  • helpful
Quite an extensive list of expectations that I will do my best to fulfill! I was inspired by their thinking – most of these adjectives also came up on the expectations for themselves and their peers. My students realized that we all need to bring our best each day. Each person plays an integral part in the learning environment. We spoke about continuing to create a culture of learning in the classroom and how to do it. We decided together how important risk taking is to learning and determined methods to support each other through the process.
I am keeping the list of adjectives very visible by my desk as a reminder. My students have set the bar high for not only me, but for themselves. Time to support each other for the good of learning!

Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 5

This is the fifth post in a series about my journey with Standards Based Learning and Grading.



It’s all about learning…standards based learning



Standards set? Ready to jump in? Awesome…bring on the learning!

Once learning standards have been established, they must be unpacked for all stakeholders. This involves breaking them down into manageable pieces that relate to instruction, knowledge, skills, and understandings. For me, know, understand, and do statements create meaning out of standards that can seem a little overwhelming to students. These statements are easily adaptable for entire units of study or particular standards. I use them to guide instruction and learning experiences in my classroom. My students use them to inform decisions regarding formative practice and pacing. The know, understand, and do statements serve as checkpoints along the journey to mastery.

Once these statements are derived and communicated, standards based learning can become the primary focus. Standards frame the learning experience, but formative practice is crucial to growth and improvement. Students and teachers work together to accomplish the common mission – mastery. Learning is a messy experience with forward progress moving at different rates for all students. Standards based classrooms allow for risk taking, embrace failure as an opportunity for learning, and model recovery from that failure. Success is not a venture of if, but rather when.

Differentiation is made easier and more seamless by opening the lines of communication regarding expectations for learning. Students can manage their own formative practice once standards are clearly unpacked. The ownership of learning and responsibility for it can be placed where it most certainly belongs – with our learners. The role of the instructor changes to a facilitator and supporter of learning rather than someone who dictates every moment of the experience.

Growth is a natural part of standards based culture. It is inherent in what students do each day with formative work and feedback loops. By removing the grades from formative practice and replacing them with meaningful feedback, learning never stops, and continual improvement is the norm. Another essential component in a standards based learning environment is the respectful task. Students become apathetic, bored, and fearful when formative work is not at the appropriate level. Open communication allows for students and teachers to create and choose the tasks best suited for learning.


The standards based classroom climate is collaborative and positive. The ‘gotcha’ mentality is removed and the door is swung open to learning. Proficiency, mastery, and success are pursued by everyone. Collaborative learners are a powerful force in an environment where they help, guide, and support each other throughout the process. Student leaders emerge and are unleashed to assist others and hone their leadership skills. Too many students come into our schools with a fixed mindset. They are either smart or not, successful at school or failures. Standards based culture shows students that growth is not only available but accessible and attainable for everyone.  

Bottom line in a standards based learning environment…Students are empowered to learn.

Courage

As 2014 opens, I am accepting a challenge from members of my PLN to choose one word to focus on and lead me throughout the new year. My word is courage.

Courage to be autonomous

First and foremost, I will need to find the courage to be autonomous in my classroom. Autonomy is at times difficult with all the mandates, rules, and requirements that are handed to us as educators. My charge is to provide the best learning experience possible, and I have to rely on my research and professional judgement to make decisions while staying within the parameters of my district’s expectations. This can be a fine line to walk, but essential to my students’ success.

Courage to treat all kids fairly

Once I find the courage to be autonomous, I will be able to help my students in the best ways possible. Differentiating for their needs is not always easy or orderly. It will take courage to continue to learn about them, further relationships, and challenge them to improve more than they thought they could. To be treated fairly, I must address my students’ needs on a daily basis. I will pass my courage on to my students as they take learning to new levels. Many of them have been in overly cautious learning environments for too long and still struggle to see their potential.

Courage to try new things

I’ll admit it…I am a recovering perfectionist. It continually takes courage for me to try new things and innovate. I am always reminding myself that just because something worked very well for one group of students, it doesn’t mean that it is the right choice for my current kids. When I try new things, there is always this little voice reminding me that it probably won’t go as planned, and of all the little things that could go wrong. Over the years, I have gotten much better at pushing forward and ignoring that voice, but to be honest – it still takes work.

Courage to help my colleagues

This year more than ever, I want to help other teachers. I got a taste of working and learning with my colleagues this fall by introducing twitter to the staff and working with small groups to demonstrate new digital tools. It has taken a different type of courage to open up and share my practices with my peers. Starting this semester I will embark on a new endeavor with them. We will be forming peer observation groups – voluntary, collaborative groups of teachers committed to learning and growing together. We will observe each other and have reflective discussions on how to improve our practice. I am so excited to bring this new opportunity to our staff.

Courage to write

In June of 2013, I started my blog. I had been encouraged by various members of my PLN to start one, and I am very glad that I found the courage to start writing. It has been a powerful tool to share my thoughts and reflect on my teaching. This year, I want to continue with that same courage to write. I was never a “writer” in school. It takes bravery for me to push the publish button every time I blog.

Courage to leave an impact

Finally, I want to be courageous enough to leave an impact with my students.  I love that students are happy when they arrive to my classroom, and sad to leave.  I am constantly talking about learning and growth rather than points or grades, and they are slowly changing their mindset.  If I could leave them with only one sentiment, it would be the quote from John Dewey, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”