Tag Archives: formative assessment

Repairing Grading One Fix at a Time – part 4

This is the fourth 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 6: Don’t include group scores in grades; use only individual achievement evidence.

As you read this series, you may notice that we have fast forwarded from Fix 3 to Fix 6. As I provide some perspective through these posts, this is the next natural progression for me. Feel free to go back in the book to read about and reflect on fix 4 (academic dishonesty – something I have previously addressed in this post), and fix 5 (attendance).

Collaborative work is clearly important for students to experience and practice throughout their formative years. There are very few careers for adults that are completely solitary. The need to work together with others effectively is a skill to be developed and taken forward. To accomplish this, teachers must provide opportunities for kids to work as teams in a variety of situations. They must work with a variety of personalities and be given guidance on how to handle disagreement when it inevitably occurs.

But should these experiences count as a grade? No. We cannot accurately determine how much each person contributed to the process and product created by the group. Often I get the comment ‘Standards Based Grading means we can’t do group work.’ Obviously I feel this is false, it should simply not be used in an academic grade. Individual evidence from students is necessary to precisely determine proficiency levels in a meaningful way.

The other effect of grading group work is that it changes the dynamic of the team immensely. The collaborative environment is transformed into a competitive one. Some students take over the process because they don’t want anyone else playing a part in the grade that is assigned. Some hide because their proficiency levels may be lower, figuring that others will give them a better chance at a good grade. Some don’t contribute as much because they don’t have a dominate personality and are scared that their ideas will get shot down when the experience is high stakes.

In my career as a student, group work felt much like this:

group work meme

 (thanks to weknowmemes.com)

Personally, I was the one who did 99% of the work because if my name was going on it, I was not leaving the quality of the work to anyone else. So, how do we fix it? Remove group marks from the grading process and use them as a formative activity. Give feedback to  students about their work and explain how active participation in teams will advance their individual learning journey.

What’s the right way?

As I travel and work with educators across the country to improve grading practices, I have noticed a common theme. Teachers seem to be searching for the one right way to implement standards based grading. They don’t want to do something ‘wrong’ when making the transition.

The truth? There isn’t one right way. From my perspective and experience (and humble opinion), there are several non-negotiables when switching to standards based grading, but implementation is owned by the district, school, administration, and teachers. This is a process, full of baby steps. There will be successes and failures. It is a learning process that requires a paradigm shift – a shift that is easier for some than others. My consistent advice to teachers and schools is to take it slowly, talk about the non-negotiables often, and develop an implementation plan that works for your schools, students, and teachers.

Here are items that would go on my non-negotiable list:

  • Criterion referencing – Kids must be measured against standards, not against each other.
  • Staying away from averages – No penalizing kids for where they start with a standard, only report where they finish.
  • Grading less and giving more feedback – Formative assessment should include feedback only, no grades…clearly puts the focus is on learning.
  • Separating academic achievement from process (behaviors) and growth – Accurate meaningful grading practices are the goal. If these are not separated, the grading waters are muddied.
  • Shortening the scale – Reducing the number of levels of proficiency has positive effects. Inter-rater reliability increases, students are better able to self-assess, and grading becomes less subjective. (But remember…subjectivity in grading can never be completely eliminated).

Once these key components are established, teachers and districts can move on to other decisions. Standards can be developed or chosen for assessment. Teachers can discuss what evidence elicits proficiency levels for each standard. Teachers can collaborate to design formative and summative assessment strategies and tools. Reporting features can be explored to best communicate with students and parents.

What’s the silver bullet of standards based grading? It really comes down to developing practices and a mentality about grading that support learning. Utilize practices that honor the natural learning process and allow kids to demonstrate their learning in a safe environment. Beyond this, the ball is in the court of the stakeholders within the school district. When students own their learning, they engage on an entirely new level, right? Ownership of learning isn’t just for students, it is for all learners. Let’s not search for the holy grail of standards based grading; let’s find what works for us and move forward.

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.

Much ado about homework

Homework. It is such a contentious topic in education, and a very personal one for so many teachers. I frequently get asked about the homework policy in my standards based classroom. The truth is, I don’t even use that word in my classes. So technically, I don’t have a homework policy. I do however have practice policies.

But before we tackle what practice looks like for my students, I think the bigger question is – What is the purpose of homework? Isn’t it to practice? Isn’t it to inform future instruction and further formative work? If so, does it matter where and when it is done as long as the students are progressing? I don’t think it does. Obviously, we need to practice skills, understandings, and concepts on the journey to mastery, but how much does each student need? In my humble opinion, the answer to this question varies for each student. There is no way for me to assign the same practice each day to everyone and get the same results. Students need differentiated practice no matter whether it is done at home or in the classroom. Building appropriate student choice into the practice routine increases engagement and ownership of learning for our students.

So, what does this look like? In my learning environment, practice is happening all the time. Practice can be orderly or chaotic. Sometimes we do whole group practice; there are occasions when we all need to practice a certain skill or concept. Whole group practice also builds community, and this is an essential component in developing a culture of learning. Other times, we practice in small groups. Small groups provide for more student voice and space to build collaborative skills. Individualized practice is a great opportunity to see where each student is in relation to the standards. I can give valuable descriptive feedback for growth and help them increase their proficiency levels. Varying practice modes ensures that we are reaching all of our students in the manners they learn best.

So let’s get back to policy. How much practice do I assign? The students and I determine how much is appropriate. I don’t mandate that the practice be done at home or at school – that is for my students to decide. You may be wondering at this point if any of my students would practice at home then? The answer is yes. They practice at home when it is necessary. Do all my students choose the right amount of practice? Of course not – this is when I step in as the professional in the room. I have a 1 on 1 conversation with the student to see where their practice is lacking. But then it is up to them. They have to decide that the practice is valuable and will contribute to their growth, and I can’t do it for them. They are in high school and need to be provided opportunities to make their own decisions. We need to trust our students.

What about when they fail? The student made a decision about practice that didn’t work out and now what? Well, it is time for another conversation and more practice. Maybe the answer is something the student couldn’t fathom, but now they are more open to different ideas. The standards we have in place in our classrooms are worth the work and struggle our students put in to achieve them. It is valuable to have the few that made poor decisions go back and complete additional practice. Once additional practice is finished, the student and teacher can reassess proficiency levels. This teaches them responsibility. Students must accept their decisions and learn how to recover from failure.

Do I live in a perfect world where eventually I get all my students to complete enough practice to achieve mastery on all their standards? I wish, but no. My goal is to get as many of them there as possible by working with them to achieve their goals. Our students want us to work collaboratively with them and yet need ownership of their learning. It is a tricky balance to maintain, yet this is how we best prepare them to be lifelong learners. It is a sloppy journey with many setbacks and stumbles along the way, but  so important for our students. We make such a significant impact on the learners our students become.

So, does it matter what we call it, homework, practice, formative assessment? The title doesn’t matter so much as what we do with it. Practice must be differentiated, respectful, student owned, relevant and needs to inform future instruction and practice. Let’s make sure it is meaningful and valuable for our students.

What are your views on the H word? Leave a comment and continue the conversation!