Thursday, October 29, 2009

Roadblocks to learning

It would be bad enough if it cost me $25 for a single article, but I'm only getting access to the article for 24 hours. I understand these journals need to make money but what's the use of publishing if the people who might actually benefit from the research can't access it. Can't we make some sort of Netflix-like arrangement where I pay a flat fee and I can access any article or journal I want? I need to enroll in a college somewhere just so I can get access to an academic library.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Curse your silence!

It's time for my yearly presentation to the staff on improving assessment practices. By now, they've heard it all before. Currently about 20% of the staff is actively working with me to improve our practices. A few have jumped all the way into standards-based assessment. I know what my next step is. I have to talk to teachers who have been doing more of the same and figure out what is holding then back. Are they satisfied with traditional grading? Do they see the problem but don't feel they have the time? Do they see the problem but feel standards-based is not the way to go? Really, I don't know. There's a part of me that automatically wants to throw all those teachers into the "doesn't want to improve so I don't want to deal with them" group. I know that's not really the case for most of them. Maybe all of them.

So why is this conversation so hard for me to have?

Is it my personality? Or is it part of those ingrained cultural mores of teaching? I don't know. But if I'm ever going to spread good assessment practices to the rest of the school, I'm going to have to overcome my problem.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Part 3 - The sacrifices

The final post in the series on criticisms of SBG. This was probably the second biggest hurdle for me.

This was my dilemma: How do I include my rocket project in standards-based grading?

For background, the rocket project is my favorite project of the year. Students build and test paper rockets. Here's a video from last year's class blog. I loved it. They built multiple rockets and had three different launches. In the end their grade was based on three things:

  1. How high their rocket went
  2. How straight the flight was
  3. Their ability to describe and calculate the forces acting on their rocket would I include this giant project in my grading system? Unfortunately, there isn't a California standard that had to do with building rockets. I could have included it in my general Science Skills standard but really it didn't fit. I was worried I would have to abandon the project all together. In the end it wasn't really a sacrifice. I simply changed how it was assessed. My standards all include a performance assessment component. Not only do they need to be able to calculate speed on a test, they also need to be able to set up and perform an experiment to find the speed of an object.

So in the end I only had to get rid of options 1 and 2 for the grade. It seems simple now but this caused me a lot of angst. I think this worked out for the best too. In the past so many kids failed just because they didn't complete their rocket or their car. If they really don't want to make a rocket, they can come up with an alternate assignment. I have a number of students who didn't complete the car and now are just coming after school to figure out the speed.

The biggest surprise for me was that I had the same number of students complete the car as before when it was, "Do the car or you fail."

Now what did I actually have to sacrifice? I got rid of quite a few labs. It turns out that a lot of labs I do are only tangentially related to the standards. Basically, I did them because they were fun. For me, that was really hard. One of the reasons science teachers become science teachers is that it gives us an excuse to blow stuff up. Are my student's suffering because of it? I don't think so. It turns out my definition of fun is not the same as most of my kids. It also turns out that if I looked or thought a little harder I could come up with a replacement lab that's more aligned.

I think you don't have to sacrifice your pet project if you don't want to. You just have to change the emphasis. Instead of my students building a junk car and trying to get it to roll five meters, they attempted to find the difference in speed between a high incline and a low incline. If a student has learned everything they've needed to learn, why should they fail just because they thought the car was a stupid project?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A brief interlude...

Before I finish the third post in my series on criticisms of SBG I wanted to share an article from SciAm. I'm unwilling to pay $11.95 for one article so I'm going to have to take Scientific American's word for it on what the research actually says. The gist is that if people tried and failed to retrieve information first, they recalled it better in the end. Here's the money quote:

People remember things better, longer, if they are given very challenging tests on the material, tests at which they are bound to fail. In a series of experiments, they showed that if students make an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve information before receiving an answer, they remember the information better than in a control condition in which they simply study the information. Trying and failing to retrieve the answer is actually helpful to learning.

At the very least this seems to argue in favor of pre-tests and guiding questions. Where does this fit in SBG?

The way I structure my class is twice-weekly quizzes. It seems like a lot but I like for students to have pretty up to date information on how they're doing. It also allows me to change gears mid-week. The quiz (I actually call them progress checks) usually covers every standard they need to learn for that topic. If it's a packed topic, they'll get every standard at least once a week. They can see where they are and what they still need to learn. There's a nice practice effect as well. In SBG all that matters is where they finish so the students aren't penalized because they continually fail the quizzes. I've struggled a little with this because I worry that they're reinforcing wrong ideas in the beginning. The SciAm article even mentions that worry.

In SBG, all those quizzes don't hurt the student's grade because all that matters is where they finish. If I graded them traditionally I wouldn't be able to give all those quizzes because it'd be unfair to the student's grades if I kept quizzing them on things I hadn't even taught yet.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The disadvantages of standards-based grading part 2

Last post I wrote about some common complaints I get from my staff about standards-based grading (SBG). For the most part, I don't consider them to be valid criticisms. The following arguments I get are arguments about the incompatibility of SBG with our current structures.

SBG doesn't work because our (middle school, high school, colleges) won't accept the grades.
In the system I use, students still receive a standard A-F grade in their subject area. The only difference is how that grade is calculated. Even if I kept it separated by standards, it doesn't seem to matter. A school district in Alaska has been using a fully standards-based system for years with great results.

Besides, my high school doesn't seem to care at all about the student grades. I teach science. The students that do well are supposed to advance to biology as a freshman while everyone else takes a class called Introduction to Physical Science which is essentially a redo of 8th grade. They used to use grades and teacher recommendations. Then they started using CST results. Last year they stuck everyone in Intro unless parents complained and moved them. Next year they're putting everyone in Bio. Clearly this is a dysfunctional high school. My point is not to complain (maybe a little) but I wanted to point out that what they do doesn't really seem to take what you do into consideration. Do what's best for your kids and don't worry about the rest.

We still pass on students that aren't proficient in each standard so grades don't really matter.
This is certainly true and perhaps there will be a day of fully standards-based schooling, like in Chugach, Alaska. However, this doesn't mean that SBG isn't a better system for student learning. Looking at a student's A-F grade from last year provides some help but not a lot. I can usually get a general sense for how the student is doing but I don't really have a way to help him or her until I get to know them better. Now imagine a standards-based report card:

Reading Comprehension


Writing Mechanics


It's very easy for me to tell that the student needs to work on writing mechanics but his or her reading comprehension is fine. I can lay out a plan early on. As an administrator I know that even though he or she might have an F in Language Arts, I don't need to put him or her into a reading intervention class. SBG communicates more clearly what a student's strengths and weaknesses are.

I don't like being different.
Ok, nobody really says that to me. That's what it sounds like though when my staff gives me reasons like, "Nobody else does it." or "I don't want to be the only math teacher using this system." Peer pressure doesn't just affect our kids.

My principal/superintendent will never go for it.
In this case you have two options: stay traditional and fight for change or go undercover. Option 1 is fairly obvious. You keep doing what you're doing but track down your principal and berate him or her with research papers and articles until they let you try it. Option 2 is what I did. Go stealth mode. Go to SBG without telling anyone. Your kids will start telling other teachers to change to the way you grade. The parents will ask them why they don't have this same system that helps little Johnny figure out what he needs to improve. Your test scores will creep up. You'll start destroying everyone on the benchmark assessments and the CST (or whatever your state has). Then, when your principal and everyone starts asking you what you're doing different you act innocent. "Hmm..well..I've tried more cooperative learning this year. Oh and I used that oh so helpful ELD matrix you left in our box. Plus I've been putting more student work on my walls like you asked me to in my last teacher eval. I really don't know. Oh wait. There's this one little thing....."

The take home message is yes, structural issues get in the way. But if you're waiting for something to be perfect before you start something, you'll never start anything. Change what you can. If you get a critical mass, someone will listen.

Part 3 later in the week.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What are the disadvantages of standards-based grading?

Sorry for the lack of updates. The power cord on the ibook I use broke and I can never remember to bring mine home from school. I'm in dead-battery land so using my laptop at home is a stressful race against time. I'll be better. I promise.

So what are the disadvantages of standards-based grading?

When you compare it to traditional grading based on points and percentages, I don't think there is one. I think standards-based grading is superior in every way. However, there are valid criticisms that I think should be addressed. It's a long post so I'm going to break it up into a few parts.

Part 1 - the criticisms from my staff
Part 2 - incompatibility with current structures
Part 3 - the sacrifices

Part 1 I'll write about today. Part 2 this weekend.

The following are the most common complaints from the rest of the staff each time I present assessment ideas:

1. Parents/kids won't get it.
2. Kids won't do X if they're not graded for it.
3. It's my class and I'll do what I want.
4. It's too much work.

Parents/kids won't get it.
False. They do get it. It just takes time. If you're a teacher, you know we live in fear of the hands-on (read: helicopter) parents. We hate posting grades at 3:00 and getting an email from a parent at 3:01. We don't like having to explain ourselves. In my experience, the key is the kids. They really have to get how it works deep in their very souls. For me, nearly two months in, I fully admit that not all of my kids understand how the grades work. I try to take a few minutes every week to highlight certain key points to the system to the whole class. When students are working solo or in groups I'll take a few kids aside that I know don't get it and try to break it down for them. It takes time. It doesn't really click for a lot of kids until two weeks before the first trimester ends when all of a sudden they're very interested in their grades. By second trimester it runs smoothly. Expect confused and annoyed parents at first.

Two things really save the day for the parents in the end. First, the kids by in. If you really work at teaching the system, the kids can explain it to their parents and really sell it to them. The second thing is the portfolio system. If your students are keeping track of their own learning, you probably have some sort of portfolio system showing their progress in their learning goals. Bring it to a parent conference. At our school we have these cluster conferences which consist of all the teachers, an admin, parent, and kid. It usually devolves into 8 adults yelling at a kid and at least 2 people crying. Not good, not helpful. It really clicks with parents though the conversation goes like this:

Parent: Why does Student have a 1.0 GPA?
Math teacher: Student doesn't do his homework. He has a 45% in class. He's failed his last 4 quizzes. He needs to work harder and stop talking in class.
Me: Here's Students's portfolio. Student what have you learned and what do you still need to learn?
Jose: I already know when an object is in motion and how to calculate acceleration. I need to learn how to calculate the speed of an object and the difference between speed, velocity, and acceleration.
Me: When Student learns those things, his grade will improve.

Ok. I admit I'm embellishing that conversation. Usually I have to read the portfolio to them but in my perfect world, that's how it goes. Either way, the path is clear and parents get that "learn this and your grade goes up" is far more clear than "you need to pass your next test and start doing your homework."

Not only do parents/kids get it, but most of them really believe in it. There are definitely students that don't like the system, for reasons I'll post on later, but so far, students really buy in.

Kids won't do X if they're not graded.
True and false. I have 8th graders. By now they know how school works and they can spot a waste of time. If you're wasting their time, they won't do it. The history teachers at my school have an assignment early on where students need to color in the map of the US and label all of the states and capitals. They lose points for not coloring neatly enough. Clearly, this is a waste of time. If that was my assignment, I'd just copy it. If you want your students to know the fifty states and capitals, clearly there's a better way. In standards-based grading, students probably wouldn't do it. What they will do is anything that's clearly related to learning the standards. I have this conversation a few hundred times at the beginning of the year:

Student: How many points is this worth?
Me: You don't get points for doing work. It will help you make progress on your learning goals. If you learn it, your grade goes up. If you just do it and turn it in but don't learn anything, it won't help you.

You'll get that a lot. If you make it clear that THIS is the learning goal and this assignment will help you reach that goal, they'll do it. If your assignment is a waste of time, they won't. And you know what? They shouldn't.

It's my class and I'll do what I want.
Ok, that's not what teachers really tell me, but I can see it in the back of their minds. First off, it's not your class. You're being paid by the state to educate children. You're not working for yourself. We are not lords ruling over our fiefdoms. Second, nobody is telling you how to teach your content. Standards-based grading is a way to assess. You can still teach how you want to, but you now need to assess differently. There are clearly some best practices that standards-based grading lends itself to but if you still want to teach the same way you can. You're really missing out though. In school meetings we talk a lot about formative versus summative assessments. Generally, people say things like, "Formative assessments are quizzes and quick things, summative assessments are tests." Generally, people are wrong. Formative assessment needs to change your instruction. It's what you do with it that matters. Standards-based assessment makes it much clearer what the teacher and student need to do next.

It's too much work.
True and false. At first, switching is a god awful amount of work. The front-loading is ridiculous and you feel like you're spending all your time just teaching your students how to tell what their grade is. It's terrible. But where you lose time on the front-end, you make up for it in instructional time once things start moving. I have been able to gain weeks of instructional time by cutting the fat out of my curriculum. By focusing on the standards I was able to cut out a lot of the extra stuff. In terms of grading itself, it's a breeze.

Grading goes faster as well. In the old way, you were an accountant. You made little red marks all over the page and tallied up points and it took forever. Now, a quick glance tells me where they are on their learning goals and I can focus on writing feedback. Yes, it's terrible at first and yes, you will have to re-write every assessment you have but you'll gain time and it will be focused time.

Part 2 will be coming shortly.