Repairing Grading One Fix at a Time – part 3

This is the third in a series of posts devoted to sharing my experiences in a Standards Based Grading classroom. Each is focused on one ‘fix’ for broken grades From Ken O’Connor’s book A Repair Kit for Grading – 15 Fixes for Broken Grades. (O’Connor, 2011)

Fix 3 – Don’t give points for extra credit or use bonus points; seek only evidence that more work has resulted in a higher level of achievement.

In my experience there are at least two general categories of extra credit – tasks that are unrelated to the learning experience, and additional (extra) assignments or items that either address a deeper understanding of a standard or allow students to make up missed points. Both are at best unnecessary and at worst inappropriate.

I have seen it all (and done it all in my early teaching) with extra credit…giving points for donating kleenex and markers, points for bringing in food for the food drive, points for dressing up during homecoming week. Although we need things like kleenex and markers in our classrooms, these have absolutely nothing to do with the academic achievement of students. When they are included in a grade, it is in turn inflated and does not accurately communicate a student’s proficiency level.

When teachers give a bonus question on an assessment or an additional project that can be completed for extra credit the message to students is clear. These tasks are for some, but not for all. Many of our students won’t even attempt these items or assignments. Don’t we want everyone to practice and be assessed at all proficiency levels? This is how we can truly know where our students are in relation to the standards. Give each one the opportunity to showcase his or her learning at its highest level.

With regard to giving an extra assignment for students to make up points, why would we create an entirely new assignment if the original one was not completed? All this does is add to the workload of teachers who are already inundated. A better choice – have the student go back and do the missing assignment. If it was important enough to assign, it is important enough to complete. Save yourself some time!

I besides the ‘extra’, I have a problem with the word credit. To me, this implies that students are being compensated with a grade instead of it being communication of a proficiency level. This breeds extrinsic motivation for learning which works against our drive to create lifelong learners. An engaging environment that supports and guides students to be intrinsically motivated is created when we communicate that learning is not simply a collection of points, rather an enduring experience in which all can be successful. 

In my classroom, the words extra credit were eliminated from our common language. Students were given every opportunity to learn, and knew that if they did not complete the work, the only option was to complete it. All were expected to work toward mastery of the standards and shift their focus away from grades. Once they understood why we didn’t ‘do extra credit’, the questions about it subsided and we better focused on the task at hand, learning.

The game of school…for teachers?

Much is said about students who excel at the ‘game of school’. This game is played when students collect points to earn grades without concentrating on what is truly important – learning. Educators don’t want students associating learning with point collection and compliant behavior. This game skews the focus for kids and evokes fear along with a competitive environment where there are winners and losers. How does one exactly win at school? Straight As? More than 100 percent? And losing…is it an F? Learning is not a game, it is life.

But are teachers playing a game as well? Are they waiting to be told what to do by administration, because of fear with evaluation and job security? Do they seek the one set of best practices that will work for every class period, every day so that all kids are treated equally and district initiatives are met? The focus on learning gets warped for teachers as well – especially when they feel overwhelmed and backed into a corner with demands from ‘higher up’.  Sometimes I wonder how many classrooms have both sides not only playing their roles in the game but playing them really well. I also wonder what knowledge, understandings, and skills these students are carrying forward once the directions for the game have been read and everyone is following the rules.

I am positive that I played the game of teaching at certain points in my classroom experience. I was guilty of doing what I felt I needed to do for the people outside my environment rather than making sure I was working to meet the needs of those within it. I always cared about my kids, but didn’t realize what the ‘game of school’ was with regard to my students or my teaching. Here is the tricky part – when the game is being played well on both sides…boy, does it look good. Kids are compliant, the teacher is in control, everything is in order. Or is it? Is student learning in order? Probably not.

boardgame

How do we reduce the ‘game of school’ on both sides? How can we help both students and teachers see the game for what it is and move beyond?

A new view on assessment – a student’s perspective

I had the chance to quickly visit with an eighth grade student about assessment. The conversation that ensued was so wonderful that I had to share it!

Student: ‘I look at assessment differently now.’

Me: ‘How so?’

Student: ‘When they (the teachers) give us a specific test date, we are just cramming the information in our heads for the test and then we forget it.’

Me: ‘What’s more important, assessing on a particular date or learning?’

Student: ‘Learning.’

Me: ‘What would happen if you prepared for an assessment, thought you were ready, but it didn’t go well? Would your teacher allow a retake?’

Student: ‘They should.’

Me: ‘What’s most important?’

Student: ‘That you learn it.’

In this particular class, the students have a voice and choice in when they assess. So then the conversation shifted a bit.

Me: ‘When are you going to take this assessment?’ (some of the students in his class were assessing that day)

Student: ‘I don’t feel ready for the assessment today because I have been really busy with basketball and need to do more practice. I am going to take it Thursday because I’ll have enough time to prepare. In the meantime, I am going to practice and start the work for next week.’

Would you, as an instructor, have a problem with this? Do we penalize a student who needs more practice with a concept or skill, or allow them the time and space to develop proficiency? Do we save ourselves time in the end by making sure there are no gaps throughout the process? What about student confidence…isn’t this essential as they move forward?

It all goes back to this sentiment…I don’t care so much when you learn it, I care that you learn it.

**A quick side note…did you notice that grading didn’t even come up in this conversation? It wasn’t about getting a good grade, it was about learning. He knows that when the learning happens, the grade will follow.

I love it when the light bulb turns on!

When I was in the classroom, there was nothing like it. It’s the moment you can physically see a student ‘get it’. The light bulb goes on, the eyes shine brightly, and the child sits up straighter. A look of pride sweeps over their face. I love this.

It is one of the things I miss most about being in the classroom. I didn’t really take the time this fall to realize how much those moments meant or how much I missed them. I guess I didn’t have a lot of time as I was learning my new role and district. I didn’t realize it until I got to experience it again. This experience was a little different, though. I got to see it from a teacher.

At my school we are doing the monumental work of shifting to standards based grading. We are analyzing practice, creating new reporting procedures, and re-evaluating assessment. I have been able to talk to all different content area teachers, listen to their concerns, and celebrate their learning and growth. I have gotten to see the lightbulb go on a few times and witness the moment they ‘get it’ whether on a small or large-scale.

The most powerful light bulb experience came with one of our math teachers. His practice was already standards based, but after some conversation he realized revising his grading policies could make a huge impact. He reflected and commented that it felt like a ton of bricks hitting him. Why would non-academic factors be included in a grade? Why not open up assessment opportunities and give kids a voice? Why not relinquish some of the control to the learners themselves? Not only is he finding success with the shifts, he can better spend his time. He can create tools the students use to learn instead of making sure all the homework grades are entered. He can consider all the divergent learners in his environment instead of deciding how much their binder organization grade will count. The lightbulb has turned on and it is shining brighter each day.

Ready for the next level? I walked into his room the other day and he was talking with a student about assessment. She was asking about a concept with which she lacked confidence. This teacher simply said that she needed to practice until she felt prepared and explained that he was willing to provide any support necessary. The student was concerned about a quiz on Friday and that she may not be ready. The teacher commented that the assessment date was set, but why would she assess on that day if she didn’t feel proficient?

Whoa. Not only had the light bulb turned on for this teacher, but it turned on for the student as well. Learning was communicated as the most important feature of the class, not compliance to a particular timeline.

Empowerment is empowerment no matter whether with teachers or students. Once they can take something and make it their own, the light bulb goes on. And I love the light bulb.