Sunday, May 9, 2010

My first assessment failure

...and certainly not my last.

Before I knew anything about standards-based grading, I only knew that the way that we graded stunk. So I developed my own system. It turns out there's a reason teachers who have been in the classroom for only two years usually don't develop their own systems. My system sucked.1 I wanted to share it though to let you know what I learned from it and why the new system I use is much better.
I called it the Learning Matrix. Here's what a sample sheet looked like:
Learning Matrix

I based it off of two principals that still show up in my work with SBG:
  1. Separate learning goals instead of one lump score.
  2. Start with the end in mind and create a path to get there.

I decided to base it off of Bloom's taxonomy. Why Bloom's? I don't really remember at this point, other than we're always getting it thrown at us and maybe I figured I should use it. I recall at that time I used Costa's questions to create my question bank so I'm not sure why I didn't use that. Perhaps it just had a whole bunch of levels which I thought was cool. I don't know.

It worked somewhat similar to the skill checklist that many math bloggers use. The students had a set of questions or tasks that were specific to one of the grid boxes. Once or twice a week students would pull out the matrix and look at their grids. They'd select a box and find the accompanying assessment and work on it. The lower levels would involve definitions while the higher levels might be involve the completion of a mini-lab. After completion they'd bring it up to me and I'd give them a quick oral assessment. If they could satisfy my grilling I'd stamp it and they'd color in the box. There was also a pocket chart with the grid on it. Students would move an index card with their name on it to whatever they were currently working on. The idea was that a student could look for someone working on a higher level for help.

So what went wrong?

Ultimately the problem with this method was its basis on Bloom's. Bloom's is a classification system, not a learning progression. A learning progression lays out the steps needed to get to a learning goal. The current system I use creates a learning progression. How do I know this? Because I designed it that way. I started with my goal (in this case, the 3.0 concepts) and worked my way backwards. Let's say my 3.0 goal is for students to be able to calculate the average speed of an object. What do I need to know in order to do this? Some basic vocabulary, an idea of what motion is, some SI units, and how to measure stuff. That's the 2.0.2

I was waylaid by two other big things.

Number 1: I didn't teach the verbs. This wasn't necessarily a problem with my system so much as it was a problem with my teaching. I have a number of assessment pet peeves. Grading things that should be practice. Extra credit for non-academic stuff. Rubrics that focus on product guidelines instead of understanding. But gun-to-my-head I think I might say that my number one assessment pet peeve is grading something you don't teach. How in the world were my kids supposed to be able to "evaluate" when I didn't teach them how? I expected their mastery at one level to automatically gift them with the knowledge of how to do the next level. Even worse, I'd be surprised that they always got so badly stuck after starting a new level.

Now? I directly teach any higher order thinking that I will assess. If you're expected to "Compare/contrast speed, velocity, and acceleration," I'm teaching my kids how to make a comparison matrix. If I expect my kids to evaluate something, I'm teaching them how to create decision making criteria. Now, when a compare or evaluation question shows up on a test, they've got a set of skills to draw on. We need to directly teach thinking skills along with content knowledge. I used to think they just didn't get the content. They got the content. The thinking skill just got in the way.

Number 2: False equality. Not all topics need to be learned to equal depth. For the rest of their science lives, do all students need to understand the atomic theory? You bet. How about Archimedes Principle? Umm...not as important. The state of California dictates what I need to teach my students each year. That doesn't mean they all deserve equal time. In the new system, the atomic theory gets its own topic while Archimedes Principle falls under the topic Forces in Fluids. Some things (I'm looking at you polymers!) get demoted all the way down to just being vocabulary.

What's the take home message?
More than anything, that experience made me realize that this is going to be a long process. I felt like some sort of mad genius when I was designing the system. Two years into a formalized standards-based system, I'm still tweaking and learning. If you've been implementing a standards-based system you know what I'm talking about. If you're planning to, you'll know what to expect.

PS -  Don't forget to explicitly teach higher order thinking skills.

1: It still didn't suck as much as the way we regularly grade.
2: I could definitely be wrong in the setup of the learning progression. Perhaps learning doesn't occur in that order. However, my scales are fluid from year to year and I take solace in the fact that the research on learning progressions isn't all that solid.


  1. I really like how your examples of explicitly teaching higher order thinking skills are not content-specific; when you want students to compare/contrast, you teach them a format or structure for comparing and contrasting in general as opposed to just telling them that the similarities and differences are x, y, and z, and when you teach evaluation, you teach them decision-making criteria rather than "the right answer."

    I often see well-intentioned teachers try to build their students' higher order thinking skills by explicitly teaching them the answers, and then asking seemingly open-ended and higher-level questions on assessments that are actually little more than memorized responses. Your method is way better, and I look forward to hearing more!

  2. Thanks Grace. It was a big epiphany for me that I had to directly teach thinking.

    Your second paragraph is dead on. If you directly taught it, it's memorization. That was something I didn't get for a long time.

    There's a book called Developing Minds ed. by Arthur Costa that was really helpful. If you've ever read those Leading Edge books from Solution Tree it's like that: A collection of a bunch of different articles by various experts.

    In that Leading Edge series there's a book On Excellence in Teaching. An article by Debra Pickering parallels what I said above. Agree to teach higher order thinking. Give them structures to get them started but the freedom to break free from those structures.

    Just discovered your blog and am enjoying reading through it. I look forward to future conversations.

  3. How, oh, how does one teach higher thinking skills? I just finished my first year, and figured out quick that my 6th graders were struggling with first and second order inferences. I think it must have come naturally to me, b/c I don't remember learning how to do them. So, how do I teach them? I guess I'll go now and google "teaching inference" and "teaching thinking".