Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 2

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


Culture Shock


So, you are thinking about changing the way you grade?  Traditional systems do not work for you?  Get ready for a culture shock.  Most grading systems are antiquated and are used to rank and sort students.  They create cultures of compliance, competition, and fear.  Yet, many in our profession cling to them like glue.  They are afraid to analyze why they grade, how they grade, and what they are communicating to their students and parents.  They hide behind percentages and letters.  This culture must shift.  Compliance must be replaced with citizenship, competition with collaboration, and fear with risk taking and confidence in the learning process.  


Grades and scores are communication.  They represent a student’s proficiency level in relation to standards at a given moment in time, nothing more, nothing less.  But are grades this simple in today’s schools? No, they are not.  Grades are a haphazard mix of achievement, growth, and behaviors.  They are used by some as motivation and repercussion, when in reality they can elicit the opposite result that is sought.  Grades are not punishment, nor are they a means to encourage positive behavior in the classroom.


The premise of moving to a standards based system is a simple idea.  Learning is the most important feature in a classroom.  Everything that we do should be learning centered – including grading and assessment.  Learning is messy and chaotic.  Learning does not involve a teacher handing out information and the students regurgitating it.  Learning is taking a risk, trying something new, persevering and relentlessly seeking new and further understandings.  We must take this idea and make it apparent in everything we do as educators.  No time can be wasted in a student’s mind worrying about how many points they need to earn a grade, when they should be considering how to grow their proficiency and improve their mastery.


Just because the premise is straightforward doesn’t mean that converting to a standards based system is easy. Grading is a very personal part of what we do as educators.  Deciding to analyze your grading procedures and practices is a reflective experience that takes bravery and honesty.  Changing to a standards based system is a complete paradigm shift from what most of us were taught and practiced during our teacher preparatory programs.  It is a shift from the way we ‘did’ school, from the way it has been done for generations.  It is a shock to our system, but a wonderful way to model learning, growth, and change for our students.


Creating and nurturing a standards based culture for learning is no easy task. Diligence and grit are required to evoke and maintain change.  All must make a commitment to learning – students and teachers alike.  A community of learners struggling, growing, improving, failing, recovering, and succeeding together.


Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 1

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


My journey of positive deviance

Positive deviance…the way I see it, I will do anything to help my students learn.  I don’t care whether it will make me popular or well liked among my peers.  I am driven, passionate about education, and willing to work as hard as possible to reach every student.  I want to create passionate lifelong learners.
That being said, at times I am not the most popular in the building.  I am seen as the one who is always pushing the barrier, always innovating my instructional practices.  I have been told to my face several times, “Oh, well, that works in your classroom, but it could never work in mine.”  How do you know unless you try?  I understand that no two teacher’s classrooms will or should look exactly the same.  But to keep with old methods just because that is the way it has always been done or because it is the way you were taught is a ridiculous notion.  Times change, people evolve, research continues, learning happens, and we cannot in good faith sit idle and expect our profession to stagnate.  If we stagnate, our kids stagnate.  If we don’t work to improve and learn ourselves, what kind of example are we setting for our kids?  We must be the lead learners in our environments.  We must model what we expect and lead our students to seek knowledge.
Standards based learning and grading were an easy fit for me.  I needed to be learner focused.  I wanted a system that clearly communicated proficiency and mastery levels to my students and parents.  I desired to be criterion referenced rather than norm referenced.  As good of a fit as standards based learning and grading are for me, they are still finding their way into my school and district.  It is a tough road to be one of only a few charting this course, but it is well worth it to see the positive change in my students.  The culture of learning that is present in my classroom is a testament to the value of standards based learning, assessment, and grading.  My students are performing at higher levels and are more engaged in the learning process than ever before.
At the beginning of my teaching career, I was a traditional grader.  I had been taught in my undergraduate work and throughout student teaching how to assign points to assignments and assessments, grade behaviors like participation, and was encouraged to have a ‘no tolerance’ approach to late work.  I followed these practices and maintained the status quo in the educational world.  My students learned information, but did they excel?  No, they maintained the status quo as well in an system based on one size fits all standardized instruction and assessment.  Every student was supposed to be treated exactly the same in order to be fair.
After 10 years of teaching, I needed a paradigm shift.  I had finally recognized that my students were individuals and had very different needs in the classroom.  Being fair to my students meant that I not only needed to understand them as learners and people, but also that they required a variety of instructional methods, assessments, and practice.  I reflected, studied, read, and evaluated my methods.  I began to differentiate my instruction and felt like my students were changing along with me.  Relationships were formed, trust was established, and a learning environment conducive to growth was created. 

Once I had successfully implemented differentiated instruction, I still felt like I was missing something.  I started to reflect on my assessment and grading practices.  Why was I still demanding points, due dates, and compliant behaviors in my grading policies?  Back to researching, planning, and implementing new strategies all over again.  Now standards based learning, assessment, and grading drives my classroom experience and my students excel.  Students go above and beyond my expectations on a daily basis.  They are learners first and foremost.  They seek knowledge, understanding, and new skills over points, scores, and grades.

Assess for the sake of learning

After several engaging discussions with my PLN on the roles of formative and summative assessment, I felt the need to get some ideas down on pap…well, get some ideas down.

Practice FOR learning

The nature of formative assessment is that it is FOR learning.  I prefer the term formative practice, because to me that is the heart of formative assessment.  I use a sports analogy to explain to students how our classroom works.  Formative practice is just like training for any athlete.  Formative work is low stakes when taking a risk to learn something new.  Failure at first is expected, but equally expected is a rise from it to find success.  If an athlete doesn’t do the work to improve and get better, they are not going to perform when it is game time. The same is true of the learners in my classroom.  If they have not practiced their speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills in Spanish, the summative assessments will not show proficiency or growth.  Feedback is the key to learning during formative practice.  Scores, numbers, and letters are not necessary and can be in fact detrimental during the practice phase.

Show me the learning!

Summative assessments ‘sum up’ the learning and put it all together.  In the sports reference, the summative assessment is the game, meet, or competition.  Time to show what you can do and what you have been working toward.  There are those that argue that if you have been collecting evidence with the formative work that a summative is not necessary.  I disagree with this for several reasons.  I feel that the summative assessment is the time to synthesize concepts, ideas, and understandings and apply them.  A summative assessment also gives additional evidence of what the final score, rating, or grade should be.  Evidence tells the story of a student’s growth and achievement and eventually drives grades.  The more evidence, the better in my opinion.

Chatting about standards based learning and grading ignites my passion as an educator.  I want to create the best learning environment possible for my students and I love the way my PLN challenges me to ‘bring it’ each day.  October is Connected Educator’s Month, and I would not be the teacher I am today without so many of the inspiring people I have met on Twitter.

How do you use formative and summative assessment in your classroom?  Leave a comment and keep the discussion going!

Matters of proficiency

Proficient or not proficient…that is the question.  In learning, that’s all that matters, right? If you are proficient at something, move on.  If not, continue to practice and improve until proficiency is achieved.

In my standards based classroom, I use a 4 point / level scale for summative assessments.  Formative work is never graded or scored, I just give feedback for growth.  But should there be just two levels instead of four? Proficient on my current scale is a three.  A four is distinguished, while two is approaching proficiency and one is emerging.  But why do I need all these descriptors when all that really matters is whether they can do what I am asking them do to in the language?

I have thought about this long and hard the past few weeks and here is my answer.  Because I have to give letter grades at the end of the grading period, I need these different levels.  I must use the standard A, B, C, D, and F to communicate proficiency no matter how I would share it in a perfect world.  Now, my scale does not perfectly correlate to these levels, but I do need a way to determine whether the student is performing above, at, or below the expected level of mastery of the standards.  The part I am unsure of is whether I like it or not.

Is proficient not enough? What does proficient mean to you? I define it for my students as the level of language production / interpretation I expect from a Spanish 1 or 2 student.  To achieve the level of distinguished (4) you would have to go above and beyond what I expect.  Is this right? If distinguished is where we would ideally like all kids to be, should that be the level of proficient?  If so, does the standard need to be rewritten to elicit the optimal responses?  I realize I will always have some students that go above and beyond my expectations, so is this additional level necessary to show their achievement?  Furthermore, do I need the lower tiers to show when they are approaching the proficient level rather than just emerging?

My mind will continue to ponder these questions as I make standards based grading work within a traditional system.  What are your thoughts? Leave a comment and let the discussion continue!

Kids and success

In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure. -Bill Cosby

Inherently kids want to be successful.  They don’t show up to school thinking about how wonderful it will be to fail at school.  No matter how tough they are on the outside, they all show up wanting to be themselves, grow, and achieve.

This has been very apparent at school in the past few days.  My students are getting to a milestone in Spanish class – the first round of summative assessments.  This week, they will show me what they can do in the four skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  They have been working for weeks, and it is show time.  There are nerves, excitement, and a lot of apprehension.  For many of my students, this is their first time taking an summative assessment in Spanish, and for all of my kids this is their first time taking one from me.  Little do they know just how prepared they are.  We have been working very diligently.  The students have been practicing all four skills, and they have been given tools to practice additionally at home.  Yet any time you take a risk and try something new, there is a possibility of failure.

I must be realistic.  Even though I feel that these kids are well prepared to assess, some will fail.  Some will fall below the line of proficiency.  Some will do it out of nerves (the wonderful test brain freeze, anyone?), some will not have done enough practice.  But standards based learning and grading will save the day.  It will swoop in to help these students find their way to proficiency.  More practice will take place, formative feedback will be given, and they will reassess.  Why? Because it is important that they learn it, not when they learn it.

Some of my students are arriving at the point of retakes and are finding success.  The smiles that light up their faces when they know they improved is one of my favorite parts of teaching.  They appreciate a second chance, and are ready to move on and learn more language.  Success breeds more success, and that is what I want to spread in my classroom.

Be a champion for your students.  Demand that they learn, show them how to get up after they fall down, and lead them to success.  We will create a class of students who are excited about learning, and who know how to seek and find knowledge.

Be relentless

As I was looking for inspiration for my next blog post, I reflected on several conversations I have had with colleagues at work as well as with members of my PLN on twitter.  I realized I had been asked the same question several times in the past week – What do you do when students won’t do their work?

With a standards based, differentiated classroom, my students don’t always do the same work.  All I care about is that my students an interpret and produce language at the end of the day.  It doesn’t matter how they get there, just that they are always growing, learning, and improving.

Ok, so back to the question…what do I do in my classroom when students won’t do their work?  There are so many things to consider, but here are a few…

  • is the work too easy?
  • is the work too hard?
  • have I considered learning profiles?
  • is the work interesting and engaging?
  • is there something going on in this student’s life (safety threatened, basic physical needs, etc.) that must be addressed before they can focus on school?
  • have I effectively communicated the importance of the skill we are working on?
I believe there is one more way to answer to this question, and maybe it is the best one.  This has been the best solution for me, the answer that made a difference when I was frustrated, backed into a corner, and didn’t know what else to do.
Be relentless.  
Some of our students simply want to be left alone to fail.  This is completely unacceptable.  Form relationships with them.  Talk with them – every day.  Know that there will be good days and some that feel unproductive. These kids are persistent, but you must prevail.  When they see that they have someone on their side, fighting for their education, their future, their growth – they still may not respond.  These students may not feel the impact of your shared struggle until much later on, but it is still worth it.  Don’t give up.
Be relentless.  
Be positive, assure them that they can find success in your class, and show them how.  Seek evidence of achievement and explore areas for growth.  Don’t let their negativity impact other students.  Celebrate the positive and address any negatives in a firm but caring manner.  
Be relentless.
Allow everyone in your classroom (yourself included) to make mistakes and learn from them.  Showcase the learning that happens in response to a failure.  Admit the failures you make and model the behaviors you want to see in the aftermath.  Model perseverance in pursuit of learning goals.
Be relentless.
Show your students that learning happens everywhere, not just inside the walls of a school.  Often learning gets a bad reputation as being boring and something you just have to get through in childhood and adolescence.  Change this and show them how they learn all the time in every part of their lives.  Learning is a constant for us in a world where many things are inconsistent.
Be relentless.
Be prepared to change what you thought was appropriate work.  Keep trying different types of work until the student latches on to something and engages.  Ask the student what type of work they want to do, letting them know that doing nothing is not an option.  Don’t get angry when they don’t want to do what you suggest, work with them to find the best answer.  Let them see you are on the same team, not in opposition.
Be relentless.

Moving toward September

As I work through my third week of school, I finally feel like things are settling down a bit.  From the whirlwind first three days, to the introduction of genius hour, and time spent getting to know my kids, we are ready to get into a bit of a routine.  This week, I am introducing my learning contract for our first thematic unit.  I enjoy giving my kids a contract for each theme to allow them to drive their learning experience, find good practice and resources, and gain essential feedback prior to our summative assessments.

I love to see the student responses once I show them that the ownership is theirs.  Fear and anxiety always appear – concerned that they won’t make the right decisions about practice or pacing.  I remind them that this is my role.  I will help them when they feel stuck, guide them when they feel lost, encourage redos and retakes whenever necessary, and further them on the road to autonomy in their learning.  That is our job in high school, is it not?  Before we send our kids on to colleges, universities, the military, trade school, or the workforce, don’t we want to make sure they know how to learn on their own?

The first theme/contract is always a precarious one.  I need to give them autonomy and control while showing them all the resources, practice, and feedback available.  What I usually end up doing is meeting with small groups of kids to offer suggestions and give some feedback not only about their Spanish, but also their decisions on practice and assessment.  I talk to them about practicing until they feel ready for an assessment, and remind them they should be retaken until they reach the level of proficient or distinguished.

I also want to make sure that I infuse some incredible learning experiences for my kids this year.  Experiences that we share together no matter where each individual student is on their journey.  This is something I struggle with as I need to let my kids grow, improve, and learn at their own pace, yet want collective experiences as well.  I do have deadlines for my assessments each theme (although they can retake after the deadline to improve their mastery) so I am thinking I could capitalize on the days following those deadlines to create some unique adventures where we apply what we have learned.  Stay tuned for those, creative ideas take time to develop!

Here’s to a routine, but holding a few tricks up my sleeve to keep them on their toes!

Meet the parents

I had my yearly curriculum night this week, an evening that some teachers dread.  Even though it makes for a long day (and night), I enjoy the experience of meeting the parents, letting them see a bit into their child’s world, and hopefully getting them on board with what I do in my classroom.

My biggest challenge with this night – I only get 10 minutes with each class to explain my grading system, how to get extra help, my curriculum, my expectations, contact information, etc.  Any of these could take up all 10 of those minutes, but I must carefully divide my time, try not to overwhelm my parents, and maintain my enthusiasm for learning and their children.

So, here is what I did this year.  I welcomed my parents and thanked them for taking the time to come and learn about my class.  I let them know various ways to get in touch, and included my blog address and twitter handle.  I set out my expectations, which are:

  • Work hard every day.
  • Have fun.
  • Search for learning in every experience.
  • Relentless pursue success and mastery of the standards.
  • Be kind.

At this point, I could see parents nodding along with me, and looking like they were agreeing with what I had to say.  So far, so good!  After that I needed to get into my differentiated methodology and standards based grading system, but I had to tell them one more thing first.  I said, “You need to understand that your children and their learning is the most important thing to me.”  At the high school level we can get very bogged down with curriculum guides, standardized testing, and content standards.  I knew that it was imperative for me to communicate that learning is the focus of my room, relationships are key, and once those are in place the rest will follow.

I spent the rest of my time explaining how I differentiate for all learners, how standards based grading works and makes grades meaningful, how redos and retakes impact student success and learning, and how we would infuse technology in the classroom.

By the end of the night, there were many thank yous and smiles as they went on to their other classes, but my favorite comment of the night from one parent was “Thank you for all your enthusiasm, my daughter loves your class.”

Bring your enthusiasm and love of learning to your class each day, and extend it to your parents!

A glimpse into their world

Wow, what a day!

Today was my first day of the 2013-14 school year and it was a game changer for me.  I began today with my message clear.  I wanted to get to know a little about my students, let them know this class would be different than others, and tell them a bit about me in the process.

I opened by talking to them briefly about the class, but not in the traditional manner.  Here is what I said.

Get ready for the experience of a lifetime!  Welcome to your Spanish travel adventure.   I will be your tour guide and if you think this is going to be one of those boring, documentary style trips…think again!  We are going to have fun, get experiential, and hopefully learn along the way.  We will do everything in our power to make learning Spanish relevant, meaningful, fun, and easy.  Wait a minute…did she just say easy?  Yes, we will work with your brain, learning style and preferences to make learning Spanish as easy as possible this year.  You will work with your travel mates (take a look around…see the wonderful group we are travelling with?) to develop language, communicate in an entirely different way, and build a community of learners.

You will pursue your passions in this classroom through a concept called genius hour…To be continued next week.

We will focus on learning.  There are no points in this class, only standards, feedback (from me, your classmates, and yourselves), and assessment.  The word homework is not used here, only practice.

We will embark on  our journey soon, but there are some  housekeeping details we must attend to before departure.

_____

After this, we took attendance and took care of any misplaced students.  Our next activity was to figure out Spanish names.  I let my students decide what they would like to be called in my room, as long as it is in Spanish.  I know this is not reality when they step outside my room, but they really enjoy choosing an identity for class, and we always seem to learn some new words along the way! (I had a student today that chose Sacapuntas as his name – Pencil Sharpener)

The final activity for the day was to take pipe cleaners and create something that tells about them.  Here are a few examples:

Fish
Swimmer
Musical note

We closed by introducing ourselves and the pipe cleaner creations we made.

The moment of the day was when one student approached me on his way out the door. “It was nice to meet you.  I can tell I am really going to enjoy your class.”

Edu-Win.

Why standards based grading?

Standards based grading is something that has transformed my classroom into a true learning environment. Points have disappeared, as well as grades on formative assessment.  We simply learn, practice, apply, connect, assess, rework, revise, and reassess.

This may sound wonderful, and it is a huge improvement over what I had previously done with grading, but let me be clear…this was not an easy road!

But despite the challenges of writing standards, developing scales, working with (and at times against) our computerized gradebook program there was this excitement.  I felt that this new system would be a game changer for my students, and I was right.

No longer did my students and I discuss points, extra credit, homework, or the value of assignments.  The conversations were centered about learning – where they were in the process, what our goals were, and how to achieve those goals.  We replaced percentages, numbers, and letters with meaningful feedback for growth.

Sometimes my students struggled with the new system, having spent their elementary school years with a traditional grading program.  In the beginning of the year there were a lot of questions and some push back.  But when we got to the end of the year, I read my students reflections and talked with them during the last weeks of school.  Things had changed!  They enjoyed a year without the high stakes of grades infiltrating every assignment and assessment.  They sought learning over grades, with the assurance that once you achieve the former, the latter will follow.

Why standards based grading?  I believe it is imperative for the future of our children.  It teaches them perseverance, responsibility, and to focus on learning.  We are in this business to create lifelong learners, right?  Then the time is now, we cannot wait.  Our students deserve more than just a letter or a number.