Category Archives: Assessment of students

Better late than early: A different approach to grading

The phrase "No More Grades" is repeated numerous times in red letters on a white background.

Everyone in education hates grading.

Students hate being graded.

Teachers hate grading papers.

Administrator hate the hours spent recording grades, reporting grades to watchdog agencies, wading through reams of paperwork showing how poorly their students’ grades compare to others.

An article I read today in The Guardian profiles a school in Germany that has gotten rid of grades for students below age 15.

Although other features of The Evangelical School Berlin Centre (ESBC) program are worth consideration, the idea of making about three-quarters of students’ time in public school grade free interests me.

Don’t let the no-grades policy fool you: ESBC is no Summerhill.

Maths, German, English and social studies are required subjects.

There are tests.

Students are expected to stay on task.

They have to come into school on Saturday morning to catch up if they waste time during class.

But the whole ESBC program is geared toward developing students who can motivate themselves to learn to adapt to change.

I’ve seen in my own teaching how freedom from the threat of a bad grade motivates students to persist at learning to write long after they would normally have given up.

In my college writing classes, I set as  my goal having every student writing competently by the end of the course. Most of my college students are like me: They arrived in college having never had any instruction in writing.  So while competent writing is not a very high standard, but it’s not easy for most student achieve.

I do put grades on all formal papers. My students are old enough to want to have some way of tracking their progress and a grade gives them one way to measure that.

But I also guarantee students that as soon as they’ve turned in two papers in a row that display competent writing I’ll drop all their prior grades and they can have a C for the course even if they never darken the classroom door after that.

The amazing thing is that once students achieve competence, they don’t disappear from class. They keep on writing, and their work keeps getting better and better. Occasionally someone ends up with a C, but mostly students earn Bs and As.

I suspect a grade-free program would be hard to implement: The learning content would have to be highly relevant, and teachers would have to be allergic to lecturing.

But wouldn’t it be fun to try it?


Thanks to Doug Peterson (@dougpete on Twitter) whose The Best of Ontario-Educators Daily brought the article to my attention.
 

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Grade incentives for learning that don’t suck

Andrew Miller posted a piece on Edutopia almost a year ago titled “When Grading Harms Student Learning,” which he ends with “an essential question to ponder: How can we grade and assess in a way that provides hope to all students?”

By the time Miller’s post showed up in my Twitter feed this week, it had drawn 31 responses.

Polar positions on grading

As you might guess, the comments on Miller’s post ranged from a recommending that grades be eliminated entirely saying indirectly that grades—or at least the standards they seem to represent—are an essential part of the school’s role in preparing students for life after school.

Mark Barnes takes the first position:

“Have you considered eliminating all number and letter grades? Is it possible that if a child does not complete an activity, there’s a problem with an activity? Number and letter grades lie about learning. Learning can never be measured.”

Mrs Hitchcock, an 8th grade science teacher from Eagar AZ leans, somewhat reluctantly, toward the tough love approach:

“On the one hand, our kids are more than just grades. On the other hand, we ARE still trying to teach kids to be responsible adults…Compliance is a HUGE part of being an adult, and public school is the only place a lot of kids will ever be held accountable for anything.”

Her sentiment was echoed by Kimberly Livaudais, who has taught 7-12 and at the college level.

“[college] students are so used to being able to turn work in late or re-test that many of them fail their first year when they have that rude awakening.”

Grades aren’t going away

I see no chance that schools will get rid of grading systems any time soon: They are too convenient.

(Convenience is one of the most desirable characteristics of 21st century products and services)

Nor do I see large employers abandoning grades as a hiring consideration, even while deploring the fact that grades are meaningless.

As an employer who also worked in human resources, I know employers who need staff ASAP are not going to look through electronic portfolios at least until they’ve narrowed the candidate pool to between three and five people: Portfolios aren’t convenient.

I also don’t see digital badges gaining traction among employers hiring for low-end, no-degree-needed jobs for the same reason: convenience. Employers hiring for those jobs aren’t going to click a half-dozen links to see what Josh’s badges mean.

And a surprising number of employers who ask applicants to email a letter of application don’t know those blue underlines in email messages indicate a clickable link.

My position on grading

My own position on grading sits somewhere between the two.
Don Doehla stated my position better than I can:

“We should have grading systems which honor growth, which empower, and which help support reflective practices.”

Such grading systems would accomplish Miller’s goal of providing students with hope that they aren’t doomed to a life of failure without encouraging students to think effort is the same as accomplishment.

Iteration is key to deep learning

I decided 40-some years ago that grading systems “which honor growth, empower, and support reflective practices” are incompatible with teaching content by units and with arbitrary marking periods. Even semester grades are a stretch for many subjects.

The most important concepts rarely can be mastered within a single unit: Important concepts are important because they apply to a great many specifics and have wide applicability.

Students need to be exposed to multiple examples of a concept and often need to be exposed to the concept in multiple ways. Squeezing a half-dozen examples shown via a half-dozen techniques into two class periods is not nearly as useful as spreading the material out in smaller doses over a period of weeks.

Teaching important skills requires even more iterations—which means a longer time frame—than teaching concepts.

The total amount of class time required for iterative teaching can be less than the time required for the concentrated focus, but is may very well need to extend over several marking periods.

Ditch the unit mindset

Shaking off the unit mindset allows teachers to work in environments employing procedures and processes such as:

  • annual outcomes
  • competency-based learning
  • mastery learning

I suspect many teachers would have no trouble getting rid of units if they could figure out how to grade a student’s achievement on a particular annual outcome when learning activities aimed at helping students master the outcome extend over months.

I do a couple of things in first year college English classes that may offer some insights.

My practice for grading

I set as my writing goal getting every student to write nonfiction competently. I call that C-level.

All topics that need to be covered in the curriculum are evaluated by means of written (“essay”) tests done in class.

All of the formal writing and informal writing (ungraded) assignments are about communications topics in the curriculum.

I evaluate each week’s formal writing—one paper is required each week—in terms of a list of characteristics of C-level writing. I word each characteristic so a student’s work can be assessed as meeting or not meeting the standard.

I tell students that once they reach C-level, I will drop all their grades to that point, even if they had straight F’s to that time.

Empower growth

With students writing just three days a week, I know it’s probably going to take a full semester before most students get to C-level.  That long slog is discouraging, so I provide a way for students to see measurable progress in one area that will contribute to their overall grade: writing mechanics.

Every student in the class has the same number of specific errors to master (usually three; never more than five),  but each student has his or her own list of habitual, serious errors in their writing to master during the course.

One student’s individual mastery plan might look like this:

  • put comma after introductory element
  • separate clauses in a compound sentence with a comma
  • distinguish between its and it’s

Each student gets a percentage of the paper’s total grade for having no more than X total errors of the types listed in their IMP.

I don’t grade informal writing, but I sometimes give bonus points—I call it an easy A—to  students who do all the informal, in-class writing every day they don’t have an excused absence from class.  For struggling students, the prospect of a few extra points may be enough to get them to engage with the informal writing, which will have more impact on their grade than the bonus points.

Hold students accountable

Students are responsible for mastering their own habitual errors. I have students graph their progress in eliminating their errors, and I keep track both of each student’s writing grade for the week and the part of the grade that is represented by the writing mechanics.

Once students see that their writing mechanics have improved enough that they could get higher than a C in the course, they are motivated to keep plugging away on the writing.

In my classes, no student ever fails just because of errors in writing mechanics, but no student gets higher than a C on a paper with more than the acceptable limit of errors from their own IMP.

Honor growth

When a student has performed at C-level or higher on three formal weekly papers in a row, I consider that student competent.  I strike through all previous grades and let the C stand.

The C represents what the student learned in my class. All the earlier F’s were for what the student learned in other teachers’ classes.

If they are happy with a C, students can stop turning in formal writing and still have a C for their grade.

Nobody has ever stopped working after earning their C.

For the final grade, I average the last three weekly papers, which approximates their performance level at the end of the class.

What’s your grading practice?

Have you found some ways to assess and grade without falling into the twin traps of giving away grades or punishing students for their prior teachers’ failings?

Please share.

 

 

 

 

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Why most parents’ kids are from Lake Wobegon

Photo from stage showing Garrison Keillor telling stories

“The Lake Wobegon effect” is a term for the tendency to overestimate one’s abilities relative to others.

Why do parents have such unrealistically high assessments of their students’ academic performance?

That’s a question Michael J. Petrilli asks at EducationNext in a blog post titled Common Confusion.

The Common Core was supposed to be associated with tests that showed more accurately the relationship between stated standards and student performance. As those tests have been used, student test scores have gone done—way down, in many cases—but parent’s reports of how their students are doing remains high.

A study released in May reported 90 percent of parents believe their children are performing at “grade level” or higher in their schoolwork.

In New York State, where I live, about a quarter of students fail to graduate on time. Of those that graduate and go on to college, about a third end up taking at least one remedial course in college. I can tell you  from my college teaching experience, if a student can’t pass the test to escape remedial English, that student hasn’t been at grade level for about eight years.

Chart showing2012 HS graduation rates in New York State and percentage of graduates that are college and career ready.

New York State’s report of college and career readiness of 2012 cohort of students.

Petrilli suggests giving parents more direct information about their kids’ performance on the report results, possibly even offering resources for concerned parents to use.

Peter Greene on his blog Curmudgucation takes issue with Petrilli’s comments, which Greene reads as being about Grade Inflation. Greene argues that if grade inflation exists in K-12 education, it’s allowed to happen because there’s no objective standard for what students should really be getting as a grade.

I find myself in agreement with both men on certain points: in particular with Petrilli on the need to report test results in ways that will make sense to parents, with Greene on the deleterious effects of the commodification of education.

That said, however, I think there is another factor that could be the causing parents’ assessment of their kids’ achievement to be way off:  The teachers could be accurately assessing what students have learned in their class, and the tests could be accurately assessing how well the students’ learning matched the standards but the material being taught and the material being tested may be very different.

I don’t have any hard data as to whether that is the case, but my observation of such things as topics for Twitter chats and for professional development workshops for teachers lead me to believe a great many teachers are focused on teaching such things as a growth mindset and grit, which can be acquired while engaged in activities that require developing those dispositions.

I think today’s educators spend way to much time attempting to teach things that they wouldn’t have to teach if they did a really good job teaching their academic content.

I don’t mean stuffing students with facts.

I mean teaching students to read, write, compute, listen, speak, and think in each of their academic subjects and giving students work that gives them the opportunity to exercise creativity, to be innovative and entrepreneurial, to treat others with respect, to make the world a better place.

To that end, it might not be bad if parents did ask their local school boards what they are doing to make sure teachers are teaching the right things.

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Why testing methods should matter to teachers

laptop computer with keys spelling COMPOSE highlighted. Banner says "Compose here."
Ignore for a moment the issue of whether standardized tests carry too much weight in education.

Do you want to handicap your students unnecessarily on standardized tests?

Probably not.

Steve Graham, who has researched and written extensively on writing in schools, says his research shows that students who take writing tests on a computer do better than those who answered in handwriting, but that is true only if the students were experienced in writing at the computer.

He writes:

A student’s mastery of the method of testing matters. For students with little experience, computer assessments underestimate their writing achievement.

(Handwriting that’s not legible produces a similar underestimation of writing skill.)

It’s 25 years since the first website went online: It’s time every student is fluent at composing at the keyboard.

It’s perfectly OK to have students use pen and paper to doodle their way to a plan for writing if that’s how they’re comfortable, but you need to have students practice composing at the keyboard regularly. I recommend practice at least once a week.

And, yes, you need to require keyboard composition even if you teach art or agriculture: This isn’t just an English teacher thing.

 

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The skills–grades gap

We’ve all heard gripes about grade inflation.

We’ve all heard gripes about college students’ lack of basic skills and study habits.

How is it that those two conditions co-exist?

Letter A made from a balloon illustrates article on grade inflation

That’s the question Donald Hurwitz, senior executive in residence at Emerson College, explores in an opinion piece in The Boston Globe this week.

I don’t think many people in education have stopped to ask that question.

If you read Mary Alice McCarthy’s recent  influential piece in The Atlantic about America’s love affair with the bachelor’s degree, you might have noted the anecdote about her nephew who  couldn’t march with his college class because he was three credits short.

His adviser pointed out that he had taken the same economics course twice—one year apart. My nephew hadn’t noticed. When his exasperated parents demanded an explanation, all he could offer up was that the class had been taught by a different professor, and held in a different room. He got a B both times around.

That anecdote illustrates the problem.

Both times the nephew took the economics course he got a B, but he didn’t learn enough to recognize the material the second time around.

The B for not learning is what appalls Hurwitz.  He says:

Undifferentiated grades suggest a failure to engage with students, to acknowledge differences. Very high, undifferentiated grades make it easy not to ask, why? If the fault lies with students’ attitudes or abilities, shame on teachers; in not demonstrating how discerning judgment is exercised, they fail to equip students to determine how seriously to take their schooling and themselves, to wonder what in the situation they are responsible for. They are deprived of the means and reasons to ask: Did I work hard enough? How much should I care? Does this subject matter to me?

In the end, the solution comes down to teachers.

Hurwitz concludes:

Failure to engage, to acknowledge differences, to own up to discerning judgments of others, permits students to do likewise, and it undermines the very idea of a community of learning.

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Education soup

Here’s how education actually works.

The chef tastes the soup: “It’s marvelous.”

Customers taste the soup: “This is just water with a bouillon cube in it—and the bouillon cube isn’t even completely dissolved.”

Chef tells customers: “If you want nutrition in your soup, you’ll have to add nutritious ingredients yourself.”

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Proxies push toward long-term goals

If your learning goals are long-term, say four or more years down the road, it is useful to use proxies to help you see on an annual basis whether you are shaping the behavior you want.

Let’s say you want students who enter eighth grade in September 2015 to be able to adapt to a variety of writing situations by the time they graduate from high school. You cannot test whether you met your goal until after students have graduated from high school. You can, however, substitute annual objectives that are inherent parts of the desired behavior. Here’s are the two steps you need to take:

First, develop a list of writing situations you think students are likely to encounter after high school.

Next, for each year prior to graduation, develop progressively more difficult objectives requiring students to adapt their standard writing style.

Achieving all your proxies does not guarantee that you will meet your goal; however, your chances of success are better than if you didn’t systematically attempt to move toward your goal each year.


A version of this post appeared in the December, 2011, Writing Points.  © 2011 Linda G. Aragoni

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Misaligned with the Common Core

As the Common Core State Standards are rolled out across America, CCSS opponents such as Diane Ravitch, decry the profits publishers are making selling “Common Core aligned” material, which often is nothing more than their old materials with a CCSS reference number slapped on them.

As troubling at that practice is, I am at least as disturbed by educators who putting a CCSS reference number on their materials and saying their curriculum and their assessments align with the Common Core.

Sample student learning outcomes posted to www.engageny.org, a website developed and maintained by the New York State Education Department, demonstrate just how serious the problem is.

The sample learning outcomes appear to have been developed by teachers. Each SLO includes information about the number and educational characteristics of students enrolled in the class, such as their ages/grade level, whether they had IEPs or were English Language Learners.

One SLO I examined is for a Computer Applications course. As you will see, the outcomes the teacher wrote (the author is not identified) do not specify what computer applications the students will study. That gap apparently did not bother the state education staff, but it bothers me.

Objectives for student learning

The Computer Applications course uses objectives borrowed from three sources, two of which are publicly accessible.

National Business Applications Standards

As a business owner, I hope the National Business Education Association’s standards include some instruction in

  • word processing
  • spreadsheets
  • Internet research
  • basic HTML coding
  • presentation/multi-media software

However, without paying a hefty price ($90 for the standards plus $9 shipping), the only way I or another member of the public has of figuring out what specific applications are taught in the computer course is to analyze the teacher’s description of the course assessments.

The teacher writes that the Computer Applications course “assessment is based upon keyboarding skills, multiple choice questions, and short answer section (error analysis).” The only application that suggests to me is word processing.

NYSED CDOS

New York State’s Career Development and Occupational Studies objectives used for the Computer Applications course include what the layperson would refer to as:

  • applying classroom knowledge in the workplace
  • “soft skills” and/or “employability skills”

The state education department provides a downloadable PDF that shows both  standards and suggested assessments  for the standards, which are remarkably hands-on and realistic.

These suggested assessments were not used with the sample teacher’s curriculum.

Common Core State Standards

The teacher aligned the Computer Applications course to eight English language arts standards for writing, reading, and speaking. This list gives the gist of the standard the teacher cited. Use the link to get the CCSS wording.

  • CCRW4: Produce clear, coherent, appropriate writing
  • CCRW6: Use technology to write and collaborate.
  • CCRW10: Write long and short pieces regularly.
  • WHST5: Plan, revise, and edit writing.
  • WHST6: Use technology to keep written information current.
  • CCRL1: Use standard grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
  • CCRL2: Follow standard edited English conventions.
  • CCRL6: Continually expand vocabulary.

Remember the teachers’ description of the assessment instruments? It said, “Assessment is based upon keyboarding skills, multiple choice questions, and short answer section (error analysis).”

Do you think multiple choice questions are likely to show how whether students write long and short documents regularly?

Is a multiple choice question likely to show how well students use technology to write collaboratively?

Will an error analysis show whether students are regularly expanding their vocabulary?

I don’t think multiple choice items are likely to be good ways of assessing those kinds of learning.

The central problem

The teacher who prepared this material has made a real effort to do what she or he thought needed to be done. But her/his understanding of teaching to a set of standards is flawed.

While every teacher in a Common Core school is supposed to pitch in with helping students master the ELA and math objectives, each teacher is supposed to look for logical connections between what they teach and the Core.

Finding those logical connections between Core and course curriculum is easier if teachers work with the specific year-by-year standards rather than with the CCR standards for K-12.

Teaching to the standards

Students need to learn computer applications so they can do things such as:

  • Write documents
  • Gather data through online search, surveys, etc.
  • Collaborate on work tasks with people who are in different locations.
  • Record  numerical information
  • Analyze information
  • Produce and distribute multimedia information to various audiences.

The computer teacher can teach any of those skills and show their applicability to the Common Core using the year-by-year ELA and math standards.

The teacher can also use skills required in the core, such as writing and math, in computer class tasks. For example, having students use software to graph their keyboarding progress would provide a logical link between the Common Core standards and the computer course itself.

I feel sorry for teachers who want to teach well but are left to figure it out without help from anyone with experience teaching to standards.

They deserve better treatment.

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Should Standards and Assessments be Piloted?

A call for piloting standards and assessments has been raised by educators around the world who are faced with the problems inherent in moving to outcomes-based learning.  This from David B. Cohen in the US is representative of the sorts of things I’ve heard:

Tweet Let's pilot new standards and assessments

That verb to pilot has a couple of common meanings.  Its most common meaning is to lead or guide, typically in difficult conditions.  That definition doesn’t fit the context of the Tweet. I suspect many of  Cohen’s Twitter followers would say the standards and assessments are the difficult conditions.

The second meaning is probably closer to what Cohen has in mind, but even it is not a good match for the context. To pilot can mean to set a course and see that the vessel arrives at its destination.  That meaning does not suggest that there’s flaw in the vessel, only that it requires a skilled operator.  I doubt that the folks who are opposed to new standards and new assessments would be caught dead suggesting that better quality teachers would have no problem using them.

It seems to me that although Cohen uses pilot as a verb, he wants the word to be understood in its adjectival meaning of testing or experimental, as in the phrase “a pilot program to train monkeys to run cash registers.”

Even assuming Cohen wants a  limited pilot program to test standards and assessments, I still see a problem.

Standards just are

By themselves, the number of people who meet a particular standard doesn’t tell anything about whether a standard is good or bad.

If the carnival ride has a requirement, “people must be 48-inches high to ride the Cyclone,”  having a random sample of 1,000 people line up against the standard won’t tell whether they standard is good or bad.  The standard might be set too high for the ride to be profitable for the operator or too low to allow people to ride in relative safety, but those determinations cannot be made just on the basis of the percentage of people who meet the standard.

Educational standards are supposedly the sort everyone can meet, while standards for joining the Rockettes or the Navy Seals are intended to be those which only a few can meet.  Both types of standards can be inappropriate for a multitude of reasons.

One of the criticisms of the Common Core State Standards is that some of the grade-level standards are not appropriate to students’ developmental level at that grade. If true (and I think it is), that’s a serious problem.

It is not, however, a problem that’s like to be solved through small-scale experiments. The folks responsible for the overall standards will have to be convinced by seeing lots of data over a few years—with some assistance from experts in child and adolescent development—that the objective needs to be moved to a different grade level.

Assessments are testable

Unlike standards, assessments can and should be tested.  Assessments, however,  are evaluated in terms of how well they measure achievement of the standards.

To a considerable extent, assessments can be tested by small groups of the intended users to get rid of the least valid, least reliable assessments. Of course, if the standards were inappropriate to begin with, the assessments are going to be out of whack, too.

I have some sympathy for teachers who feel they are being forced to work with new standards and assessments without adequate preparation. I’m also willing to grant that first couple years of new standards and new assessments are going to be a pretty tough slog.

However, I believe teachers can work with (and around) new standards and assessments if they put their minds to it.

A workable approach

A District of Columbia ELA teacher who spoke at a webinar I attended recently told about how she implemented the Common Core in her classroom. She chose a few grade-specific standards that she thoroughly agreed with and worked all year teaching in-depth to achieve that standard.

When the standardized test showed her students didn’t do well on those standards, she said that test was not a valid assessment of students’ understanding of those topics.  She knew her students knew that material well.

She did the same things the next year that she’d done the first year.

The second year her students did very well: Between the first and second years, the standardized test was changed so the test items aligned better with the standards.

I suspect that  teachers will find that if they work consistently through the year toward a few of the standards they feel comfortable working with their students to achieve,  do their own assessments to show students’ learning, and not change their teaching to align with a poor test, they’ll be successful, too.

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Advanced computer skills for Common Core

Educators have been wailing that students may not have the advanced computer skills necessary to show the extent of their learning when tests aligned to Common Core State Standards roll out.  I have spent quite a bit of time poking around the standards in English Language Arts.  I hadn’t seen any I thought required  advanced skills, but what do I know?

Curious about what advanced computer skills might be required, I signed up for a webinar offered by Atomic Learning on the integration of Common Core and technology. The webinar  began with quotes from teachers about the computer skills they feared their students would not have. Among the vague rumblings of fear were a few specifics.

One teacher feared students wouldn’t be able to open a PDF file.

Another was concerned that students would not know how to copy text from one file and paste it into another.

There’s no way to know whether the quotes are representative even of clients of the company, let alone whether they are representative of American teachers.

But it is rather scary to think even a couple American teachers consider opening a file and copying and pasting to be “advanced computer skills.”

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