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.

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.

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.

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.

Searching for camaraderie

It is better to walk alone, than with a crowd going in the wrong direction.  – Diane Grant

I wanted to share a story in this post about a journey with grading reform. Too many educators feel like they are on an island in this push and look anywhere possible for support and guidance. If that’s you, hopefully this will support your mission!

Jason’s story begins several years ago. As a mid-career educator he was fed up with traditional grading practices that took his students’ focus away from the learning that was going on in his classroom. He was sick and tired of the time lost discussing points, grades, and weighting of assignments and assessments. There had to be another answer…

Here arrives standards based learning and grading. After researching the practice throughout a school year, the following summer was spent talking about standards, behavioral grading, motivation and in turn making decisions about implementation – implementation in a traditional setting with limited support. Implementation with one other colleague on board, with the remainder of the 200 staff members maintaining traditional grading practices. It was not necessarily that the majority of co-workers disagreed with the shift (although some continue that mindset to this day), rather most had never reflected on their approach to grading in this manner and didn’t know anything different. To them, the change seemed too daunting to undertake.

This was and continues to be a tough journey. Going it alone takes courage, perseverance, and grit. Jason has transformed his environment into a culture of learning where all students know they can succeed, understand that learning is a messy process, and aren’t afraid to fail along their journey to proficiency. It was an honor to work with him and together we continue to envision how reforming grading practices positively impacts student learning. As he continues to refine his methods, students will benefit for years to come.

Jason is currently a high school social studies teacher. You can connect with him via Twitter, @j_ozbolt.

 

Something’s missing…

Something’s missing…do you ever get that feeling? You can’t put your finger on it right away, but something is just not quite right. When I think about some classrooms, I get this feeling. The student hands are up as a teacher explains an assignment. Kids are persistently asking whether it will be collected or graded, how many points it is worth, how they can ‘earn’ a grade, is there an opportunity for extra credit…

Something’s missing…

Do these students know what they are learning and how it is relevant? What skills they are working to develop? What key understandings they must take forward to demonstrate proficiency? With all the time spent on those other questions and discussions, the focus on learning gets lost in the mix.

Something’s missing…

In traditional classrooms with traditional grading practices, students rely on compliance, assignment completion, and point collection to ‘achieve’ and/or ‘prove’ learning. Because so many of us (students, parents, and educators alike) have been immersed in this type of culture for so long, it may feel as though all the puzzle pieces are in place, the classroom is running well, and learning is happening because of this.

But something’s missing…

In standards based classrooms and culture, something is missing as well, actually several things. Percentages are missing, points are missing, frequent grades in general are missing.  Averaging is a practice of the past. Behavioral grading has been replaced with relationships based on trust that garner positive behaviors and intrinsic motivation. Students and parents may miss the percentages and points, especially at the beginning of the move toward standards based grading. Students who play the game of school well will also miss these and need reassurance along the way that when the learning happens, the grades will follow.

The missing pieces in standards based culture don’t need to return for our students to learn. They don’t carry a meaningful place in the journey of learning. Instead of missing pieces to the puzzle, they can become roadblocks that are at the very best cumbersome for our students and at the worst insurmountable. Even without them, the feeling of something lacking disappears and all the pieces fit together. Students are developing skills and understandings to be lifelong learners.

This newly constructed puzzle will transform education for our students. It will remove obstacles to learning that eat up those all important instructional minutes and opportunities to practice crucial skills and understandings.

At last, nothing is missing.

Fulfilling the promise

I wrote a blog post earlier this year about my promise to start tough conversations in regard to grading reform. I am happy to say that I am working hard to fulfill that promise and help to move others forward. All the while I continue to learn myself about how to make grades a healthy part of the learning process. In my perfect world, grades would disappear, but I live in a reality where letters must be used as a reporting mechanism. As I write this post, I recommit myself to work toward this goal and not be afraid of the difficult dialogues that inevitably occur when approaching this very personal topic for educators.

I have moved into a leadership role of sorts in my new school district. I am an instructional coach who thankfully is not a part of the evaluation process. My district has moved to Standards Based Learning and Grading at the elementary level, and will change over at the middle schools (including mine) next school year. This is a huge transition, and I want to ease it as much as possible throughout the year. I have been welcomed so whole-heartedly into this learning community and am devoted to work with my new colleagues to improve instructional practice.

This week something occurred to me…my journey with healthy grading practices has become our journey. I am not alone in charting this course, yet I know I will carry a piece of the leadership for this initiative. I am so proud of the district and staff for deciding to embark on this voyage, and feel ready to serve in whatever capacity necessary. I have so much respect and admiration for my new colleagues, their commitment to student learning is visible in every nook and cranny of the school.

I bring my experiences, my knowledge, and my resources to share. There is so much power in the words, “I have been there.” I will be able to connect with their successes and failures along the way. I can talk them through problems and concerns. I am able to calm fears and reassure everyone that this is a work in progress and it will change and improve with each year of implementation.

Our motto is “Engage, Inspire, Empower.” The transition to Standards Based Learning and Grading will no doubt challenge us to the core as educators. I find comfort in the fact that I have already seen the strength of the staff and I am confident they are prepared for this undertaking. Grading reform will allow our students to engage more completely, to become inspired to learn for a lifetime, and will empower them to take charge and own their learning. We will be able to communicate learning goals and determine paths to achieve mastery in a clear, concise manner. We will use feedback to let students know what we value most in the classroom. We will accurately report achievement, habits of work, and growth in a meaningful way.

To say I am excited to transform my journey into our journey is an understatement. When I made the promise to promote healthy grading in any way possible, I had no idea I would be given this opportunity in a new district. I have been given an avenue to fulfill my promise, and I will not take it for granted. Here’s to an awesome year of growth, reflection and tough conversations in the name of student learning.

I will continue to post and share about our growth, trials, tribulations, and success along the way!

Work out of respect, or respectful work?

We have all had these kids…the ones who are gifted, brilliant, or very far ahead of their peers with regard to their readiness levels, yet arrive to our classrooms after years of not being challenged. School is an act of compliance and conformity where learning is only for the few who fit the ‘middle of the road’ parameters. They enter our buildings prepared to jump through whatever hoops teachers place before them and fully understand how the game of school works. They sit in class quietly and complete every assignment maintaining the status quo of their environment without thinking, creating, or learning.

I was made aware of a student who fit this bill. He was a world language student studying Spanish. Assignments were rote and the same for everyone. Filling in the blanks was the norm rather than creating language. He completed assignments not because he needed the practice, but out of respect for his teacher.

Wait a minute. He commented that he completed assignments out of respect for the teacher…let that sink in.

How troubling! His love of the language was getting lost in countless meaningless assignments. Getting an ‘A’ was never a question because point acquisition was an easy endeavor. This class was becoming, as he put it, a ‘joke’ rather than an opportunity to communicate with people from around the world and learn their varied cultures. Compliance had more value than growth.

 This situation makes me feel a little ill to be quite honest. I know the scenario has played out in the same fashion for years, but to have such a clear example right in front of me gave it a new reality. Students deserve much more than a school experience that lacks learning. Aren’t there are ways to show respect without succumbing to a sub par experience?

Some of you may be wondering, why these students don’t self advocate for more. Many reasons abound, and I believe they become jaded with the process and get used to the idea of being bored. Disenchanted kids forget what risk taking, recovery from failure, and learning feel like and need a spark to remember. They are conditioned to perform to the same level as other peers even though deep down they yearn for challenge. The ceiling is placed low and they have forgotten the joy of breaking out and pushing past it. Their intrinsic motivation gets shoved back so far it is very difficult to uncover and release.

Why would we want to create this for our students at any level? They should enjoy the challenge of learning and excitement of curiosity with new levels of understanding. Completing mundane tasks runs the risk of negatively impacting learning for a lifetime. Students become robots, and they will be released into a world of work that requires the exact opposite.

As we begin this school year, let’s flip the table concerning respect. Let’s honor our students as learners. Let’s design experiences and tasks that are relevant and meaningful. Let’s be responsive and involve students in the decision-making process. Kids will stop completing assignments to show you respect and compliance. They will work because they want to learn. This is the ultimate respect a student can show you.

A thank you to Brian Durst and his student for the inspiration for this post.