Tag Archives: culture of learning

I’ve got the standards based philosophy, now what?

When making a shift in grading practices from traditional to a standards based system, step one must be a change in thinking. Reflection upon current practice to see how it aligns to learning is critical. In most cases, traditional grading systems rely on compliance and high stakes assessment to determine the all important letter grade. But what does the letter actually mean? In a nutshell, not much. In a standards based world, grades are communication of academic achievement in relation to the standards. The focus is always on learning. But now what? What if I understand all of this, want to make a change, but don’t know what to do?

1. Separate behaviors from academic achievement. These two elements must be kept independent of one another for grading and reporting to give students and parents accurate information as well as to maintain the integrity of grades. When these two are mashed together, it is unclear how much either one contributes to the grade. Decide what behaviors you will hold your students accountable for throughout a marking period, but don’t combine them with achievement.

2. Identify the standards. Are your standards pre-determined by Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, or the C3 Framework? Are they set by your state? Do you determine them yourself? Once you know your standards, you have clear targets for your stakeholders, assessment, and instruction. Another consideration with standards – you may want to consider rewording them into student friendly language if they are difficult to understand. Clarity is the goal here!

3. Develop ideas and plans for summative assessment. This is simple backward design – begin with the end in mind, and so important for a standards based classroom. From here, you can develop formative practice and instruction for the students. Everything you and your students do must be tied to the standards, so keep that in the forefront of your mind each time you plan.

4. Determine what will be graded vs. given feedback (this goes back to the decision-making process for formative versus summative). In standards based culture, feedback is given much more often than a grade, so be purposeful in this decision. Feedback guides student learning; grades communicate a judgement about proficiency. When you give kids feedback, make sure it is timely, meaningful and actionable – our goal is student learning!

5. (If applicable) Decide upon a method for determining final grades. If you don’t have to do this, consider yourself lucky. If you do have to combine standards and scores for reporting, keep in mind that standards based grades are much more accurate and meaningful by being criterion referenced and evidence based.

6. Revisit the ‘why?’ and prepare for questions. Whenever a change this significant is on the table, there will be questions and/or pushback. If you are going to effectively explain this shift to students and parents, you’ll need to be well versed in the ‘why?’ of standards based grading. I found over the years that it was very helpful to revisit the key ideas. Every time I reviewed the reasons for making the change to standards based grading, it strengthened my convictions and deepened my understanding. I was able to better defend my practices to anyone who questioned me.

There are many more items on the to do list when converting to a standards based system, what else would be on yours?


The fear factor of accountability

The right thing to do and the hard thing to do are usually the same. -Steve Maraboli

Do teachers fear holding students accountable for their learning? What about students holding themselves accountable? Teachers holding themselves accountable?

True analysis of proficiency levels at the beginning of the school year or throughout a unit can make us feel vulnerable as teachers. Do I really want to know where my students are starting? Or would I prefer to start where I always do with the first unit and proceed according to the curriculum guide as the year progresses? I was asked at one point in my teaching career if I would actually use pre-assessment results for something…I was shocked to be asked this. If I were going to take the time to give a pre-assessment, I had better do something with it! I had never thought of not analyzing the data or results to inform my instruction. But I suppose in communities of compliance, for some teachers giving a pre-assessment was just checking off another box on the form of good teaching. ‘No one told me that I have to USE it for anything’…sigh.

Another concern with accountability is communication, and at times tough conversations. We open ourselves up to a different type of exchange with kids, parents, and colleagues when kids are not achieving at a high level even at the beginning of a unit.  Students feel pressure and don’t necessarily want to bear the burden of accountability, yet this is a shared responsibility. Parents are such a critical support in their children’s learning, but sometimes would rather give sole liability for success to the school or the teachers. We risk pushback from teachers who feel kids have the right to fail, not complete formative practice, and even refuse to assess.

I believe this stems from a few factors. Our students are overly concerned with grades and perfection. They pass the accountability of failure along to the teacher especially when put on the spot about a low grade. Students must be held accountable to a high standard learning and know that apathy is not an option. Help them understand nothing will be perfect and the learning process is a series of steps forward and backward. Hold them to the fact that learning never stops, and they are never finished with it. Assure them that you are working with them, not against them. Giving students ownership of learning and accountability for it is not easy or comfortable for them, but it’s the right thing to do. Letting them off the hook by allowing a zero or time to sit idle because their work is ‘done’ does them no favors in the future.

Teachers are also accountable in the learning process for addressing students’ varied needs, maintaining and delivering high quality curriculum, instruction, and assessment, creating a culture of learning, and supporting students in failure and success. Teachers need to make learning experiences meaningful, relevant, and respectful to the student. Grading practices that support learning lead back to student accountability. Instructors provide and are responsible for the support, but learning is for the students. For many of us, student growth is or is becoming a part of our evaluations. This can be a scary new world of accountability, but when the learning happens, the growth will follow. Providing high quality instruction and assessment in a culture of caring and trust will produce the gains we are looking for.

Are you ready to be vulnerable and guide your students to share accountability with you? It may not be easy, but it is the right thing to do.

Choosing to act

The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. -Amelia Earhart

As I watch students work and learn, I pay close attention to the decisions they make. Adolescents need a lot of guidance with decision-making, but cannot be expected to make choices like adults. Meeting our students where they are developmentally and helping them grow will elicit much better results than demanding other behaviors. But teenagers also need space to try out making their own decisions, even if they are not the ones we would make.

Learning is an active process. Our students need to be the ones making the choices and taking action. As an educator, to truly become the guide on the side is difficult – allowing our students opportunities to take risks and fail is not as easy as it sounds. Many times we can predict how things will turn out and want to step in, but the experience can be ruined for our students if we interfere. We have to resist the urge to play superhero and come in to save the day.

This is not to say that we should give up complete control and guidance with our students. But at the moment of failure, we need to behave in the appropriate way. We need to encourage our students to respond themselves. It then becomes an experience of learning, of growth, and of tenacity for the student. So many times failure is seen as the end, but in a  standards based culture of learning, it is just the starting point.

This call to action is not something that our students are used to. It takes practice, encouragement, and patience from the instructor to allow them to find this call. Our kids need to be given the opportunity and sometimes taught how to take action. They have been given extrinsic motivators in their past educational experiences and have no idea how great it feels to be intrinsically motivated.

Once students decide to act, the biggest hurdle has been crossed. They may not choose the course of action we would, but we need to see them out. We need to guide our students to become good decision makers, what an essential life skill! They need to make some poor decisions in the process to learn and grow – this is completely normal and necessary. When they find success on their own, it is so much more than any success we could hand them.