Tag Archives: assessment

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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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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An alternative to one-shot tests

Testing isn’t bad.

Making a student’s grade depend on the outcome of one test is bad.

You and I can’t do anything about the SATs or state-mandated competency tests, but we don’t have to use all-or-nothing tests to assess writing skill achievement in our classrooms.

A good alternative is to phrase our assessment goals in terms of consecutive attempts, as is done here:

At the end of grade nine, students who have previous knowledge of the writing prompt and at least 24 hours to prepare will be able to write a persuasive essay of no more than 600 words in an hour without consulting their notes or sources other than a dictionary. The essay will meet the standards listed on the grading guide. Students will have achieved the objective when they are able to perform at this level on three consecutive attempts.

 A student can meet the standard after three attempts or after 30.  The only grade that counts is the grade on the three consecutive successful attempts. Everything up to that point is just practice.


[This post previously appeared in Writing Points  for September, 2008.  ©2008 Linda G. Aragoni.]

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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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Standards-Based Teaching Mindset

The controversy surrounding assessment of students and teachers in standards-based classrooms in the U.S. and around the world has obscured a fundamental problem in teacher preparation: The vast majority of teachers have been taught to think in terms of lessons and units, not in terms of objectives. They don’t have any training in working with standards.

A few truly gifted teachers can teach lessons and units, each with their own objectives, and manage over an academic year to instill in their students a knowledge of the major concepts,  essential skills, and attitudes required in that discipline.

The majority of teachers, however, teach as they were taught and as they were taught to teach: in disconnected units.

They may teach well.

Students may acquire a great deal of information.

Students are unlikely, however, to get the big picture that will allow them to use their knowledge to acquire and produce new knowledge.

The frustration  teachers who are told to use methods they haven’t experienced or been taught is intense. I feel especially bad for the teachers who are eager to teach better, but held back by their unit-mindset, as these two tweets for help reveal:
Tweet from teacher

Tweet by teacher

This teacher’s problem is a unit mindset: one concept, one week.

Working within a standards-based environment means teachers must think in terms of objectives for a year or longer. Those objectives are major concepts and major skills. Such objectives cannot be “hit in a short time.” They cannot be confined to a lesson, a week, a unit. They must be taught repeatedly throughout the year in multiple ways in multiple contexts.

Take, for example, the Common Core Reading Standards for Literature for grade 6 students. The nine standards listed are to be a focus for the year.

Learning to “cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text” (the first standard) is not something students will learn to do in one unit. So instead of teaching a unit on citing textual evidence,  teachers incorporate that activity regularly into learning activities until citing textual evidence becomes standard procedure for students.

Teaching within a standards-based environment allows—even demands—teachers assume more responsibility for selecting materials to use with their students. In addition, teachers have more freedom and responsibility for the pace of instruction: “This month’s unit” is on its way out.

We’re probably in for a long period of turmoil until the assessment issues are worked out, but when they are settled, I believe many teachers will welcome having more professional responsibility for managing their classroom learning environment and will do  better teaching in a standards-based environment.

They just need the right mindset.

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