Change the lens, change the language, change the practice

When taking a look at standards based practices and grading reform, many times people get stuck on logistics, letter grades, and conversion charts. I would to argue that none of that really matters unless the standards based learning piece is in place. This is the ‘why’ for the shift and if we simply jump to the ‘what’ the change can go by the wayside and be tossed in the virtual trash heap of educational initiatives that ‘don’t work’. There are many ways to go about the implementation of a standards based system depending on the needs of your school or district. I believe the lens with which we look at grading and learning as well as the language we use is what impacts student achievement and learning.

We can’t just change the reporting system, or change letters to numbers (or to symbols for that matter) and expect proficiency levels to automatically improve for our students. So what can we do to make those key changes to create a standards based, learning focused environment?

Change the lens, change the language, change the practice.

The lens with which we have traditionally looked at grades is flawed. Grades are used for multiple purposes, with very few having to do with communication of learning. How can grades shift to something meaningful for everyone involved? Looking at grades through the lens of communication rather than other lenses such as motivation or compensation provides a clear purpose for the process.

Language and how we speak with kids is an absolute game changer. It can transform the learning environment to a place where grades are not part of daily conversations. In my classroom I had a couple of students waiting to talk with me during class. I overheard their dialogue as they waited.

Student 1: “I’ve got to figure out what my grade is on this (pointing to an assignment).”

Student 2: “Dude, she is not going to talk with you about grades. You’d better figure out how to talk about the learning.”

When you change your language, so do the kids. Disclaimer: this is not an easy task. Throughout my transition, students would catch me using more traditional language and point it out. We held each other accountable for making the change in how we talked about learning. It was a group effort, and we were all better for it in the end.

Once the lens and language have progressed, the practices follow suit. As I mentioned, changing the practice without the shift in lens and language will not elicit the change in anything else for our students. Practices morph and transform. We separate behaviors from academic achievement and growth for clear communication. We set learning standards and targets that are transparent and join students on their journey to proficiency. We eliminate punitive grading practices that work against motivation and the drive to learn.

Change the lens. Change the language. Change the practice.

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?

 

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.

Does it work?

I had the pleasure of speaking with a group of educators recently about late work. Feelings regarding the impact of late work on grades run deep with teachers. Many believe that students will not complete work on time if there is no penalty on their grade. They feel this teaches them the importance of timeliness. That it teaches them to be responsible.

The best question I can think to ask when talking about penalizing grades from late work is:

Does it work?

If you have reduced marks for late work, did the student make sure to turn in all work on time from that point on? As I asked this, I saw heads shaking in the audience. This can be a huge realization for teachers. They have never considered whether their late work policies are producing the intended results. These penalties were written to encourage a certain behavioral outcome which in most cases did not happen.

That is the heart of the matter. Although this practice seems logical, it simply doesn’t work. The kids who are late with their work are usually late no matter what happens to their grade. What does work is forming relationships with students. Find out why the assignments are habitually late. Develop a plan to complete work on time and hold them to it. Check in with them frequently. Show care about their learning. Let them know they can always come to you and talk about revising the plan if necessary.

In my classroom experience, these strategies worked. They worked diligently to meet deadlines and spoke with me personally when they couldn’t meet them. We developed plans for some who needed additional structure. We valued learning over due dates.

As my friend Brian Durst (@RESP3CTtheGAME) tells his students, “It’s due when it’s done.”

How do you handle late work? Does it produce the intended outcomes? Share your experiences and we all grow.

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.

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.

Repairing Grading One Fix at a Time – part 2

This is the second 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 #2: Don’t reduce marks on “work” submitted late; provide support for the learner.

Late work…the bane of a teacher’s existence. What to do when students aren’t timely with their work? How is timeliness given the weight and importance it deserves if I am not including it in their grade?

In my experiences with kids, students who are late with their work are late regardless of whether it is a part of their grade. There is usually some underlying issue that is causing the tardiness; kids want to meet the deadlines you set and know they are important.  But could it be that something is going on outside of school impacting their focus or the amount of time they are able to devote to work? Does the student simply need more time to complete the assignment well? I am definitely not arguing that deadlines shouldn’t be set or enforced in some way. When a student is late with their work, it warrants a conversation. As with anything else, relationships are what matter in schools and classrooms. Talking with students to problem solve and determine goals for future assignments will encourage them to rise to the occasion so much more than some type of punitive grade.

When late work is assigned a reduced grade, academic achievement is not reported with accuracy. Grades should report where students are in relation to the standard(s) at that moment in time. A ‘no tolerance’ policy for late work with reduced grades or zeros has several detrimental effects. It will work against student motivation – some students will stop trying when they feel there is no way to pass. It communicates that this assignment is not important enough to complete or that the content or skill is not important enough to practice. It tells students that you, as a teacher, value compliance over learning.

Students don’t know less because they hand-in something 3 days after it was due, but if we lower the grade that’s what we’re saying. – Tom Schimmer

But they will have to have everything on time to be successful adults, right? No, adults frequently complete tasks late. This doesn’t mean that an employer doesn’t want assigned work completed. Deadlines are often mutually decided upon and employees still must complete the work they were given. If the work was assigned, it is important to complete it well. This holds true in education as well – if the assignment was important enough to give, then it is important enough for all students to complete. I would much rather have a student produce quality work that demonstrates their level of proficiency than something completed haphazardly just to get it in on time.

How do we solve the problem of late work? Meet students where they are. Help them understand the importance of the work they are undertaking. Don’t take no for an answer with regard to finishing quality assignments. Agree to deadlines jointly with students to guide the learning process.

Repairing Grading One Fix at a Time – part 1

I am grateful to have the opportunity to talk about Ken O’Connor’s book A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades (O’Connor, 2011) with my colleagues over the next few months. We are transitioning to standards based grading next year which will be a powerful change to ensure the focus of our school is on learning. My charge is to share the story of how various fixes manifested in my classroom over the years. Before I begin the series of posts, readers should know that this book prompted monumental transformation in my practice. If you have not read it, I would highly recommend it.

Fix 1 – Don’t include student behaviors (effort, participation, adherence to class rules, etc.) in grades; include only achievement.

This fix was a game changer in my career as it was the first shift I made toward healthier grading practices. After reading this chapter, removing behavioral grading made complete sense; it would improve accuracy in reporting academic achievement to students and parents. Fix number one forced me to honestly reflect on my methods. Behaviors such as class participation were embedded in my grading system. I was a Spanish teacher after all, and they needed to participate! At that time, awarding points for a quick student response seemed like a good motivator. This was false, although I didn’t realize it until I incorporated the fix. I was willing to try something new, but met the challenge with skepticism. Once implemented, this uncommon approach made a positive impact in my classroom. Participation happened organically and student stress levels decreased.

I hadn’t recognized that academic achievement was not assessed by using a participation grade. I recorded classroom behavior and included it in a letter grade at the end of the marking period. Encouraging students to participate in classroom discussions and instruction is important, but here are a few considerations. Do we instill fear or anxiety in students when their willingness to volunteer becomes part of their grade? Are quieter students who are quite capable of showing proficiency being punished? Do our grades communicate proficiency with regard to standards when behaviors are included?

And effort? How do we assess effort, or is it even possible? There are students who seem to display the copious amounts of this day in and day out. But are they just the outspoken ones? Have they been playing the game of school so well that they are conditioned to show ‘good effort’ in an endeavor to gather points? What about the kids who are overly bored by assignments that are too easy, or the ones that are utterly frustrated by something that is too difficult? Should these kids be punitively graded for not displaying the appropriate amount of effort? No. Respectful, meaningful tasks will elicit great effort from students.

Determining which behaviors are included for reporting (separately of course!) at the end of the term is an essential process of collegial conversations among staff members. Making decisions about which are truly valued should guide a common language throughout the school or district that will unify students, parents, and staff alike.

The crux of the issue is this: as educators we want students to develop into good citizens and productive adults. This can be accomplished in a proactive, supportive manner even when students know behaviors aren’t graded. Forming relationships with students and modeling appropriate comportment are significantly more productive to evoke positive student behaviors. We can communicate strengths and weaknesses in a meaningful way when they are separated. Clarity in reporting is critical for student growth. Don’t cloud accuracy in grading with behavior, break it down for students and parents so plans for ongoing improvement can be put into place.