Friday, July 2, 2010

It's not the end, it's the beginning

Here's the gist: Your assessments are your starting point, not the finish line.

In the style of Gladwell or Pink, I'm going to spend the next 1000 words on something I just summarized in one sentence.

  1. There are 3 sheep, 4 goats, and 7 pigs on a boat. What color is the captain's hat?
  2. You're going on a field trip. Each bus holds 10 people. You've got 31 students going and 4 chaperones. How many buses do you need?
You've probably seen these questions before if you've read about mindless learning. A mindless learner might answer 14 to question one and 3.5 to question two. These are obviously wrong but notice the problem isn't a lack of basic math skills. Bad implementations of standards-based grading stem from the same problems. You might have all the stuff in place, but if you don't really get it, you're going to fail without realizing why.

The First Why: Why am I assessing so frequently?

If you think of a test as the thing you use to decide what to do next, standards-based grading makes a lot more sense. If you're still thinking of tests as something purely evaluative, you're going to feel like all you do is give your kids tests. I get that a lot from my teachers. When will I have time to teach stuff if I'm just testing all the time?

Yes, there are probably 15-20 minutes of "stop what you're doing and answer these questions" per week. I get that time back, and more, by using it to set the course for the rest of the periods, next day, or the rest of the week.

The old me would introduce something new. We'd work on it for a few days. Then I'd introduce the next new thing. Then the next new thing. Then I'd have a test on the last few weeks because, well, it's been a long time since my kids had a test. Then what did I do? I entered in grades. I'd be surprised by a few (good and bad) and then....move on. If some arbitrary amount of students didn't pass, I'd spend a day or two in front of the entire class "reviewing." Seriously. That's how I taught. I need to start drafting my own letter of apology.

Now? Sometimes I'll start with the new thing, sometimes I'll pretest.1 We get some feedback. I set up the next few days based on the results of the test. The non-intrusive assessment still takes place. I walk around. Give some feedback. Get some feedback. Adjust instruction again. Have a learning lab day. Then re-assess to see where we're going next.

If you look at the paragraph above, you'll notice the word feedback occurs three times while grading never enters the picture. Focus on feedback. Whenever possible, leave feedback but not grades or scores. I do spend time really breaking down certain assessments and I have been known to go all out with testing data. Most of the time, I'm simply looking to get and to give feedback. I get a lab report and take a look. I'll jot down a couple of specific pieces of feedback, including a next step for the student. The student can use my next step or choose their own. We get a chance to actually act on the feedback

Side note: One of the hidden benefits of standards-based grading is how much less time you'll spend "grading" papers. You're just looking for feedback. It's not this accounting game of going through and marking and tallying. You're also going to find yourself leaning really heavily on non-intrusive or only mildly intrusive forms of assessment. You'll ask questions as they're doing labs or working problems. You'll circle the room. You'll ask a question on a slide and choose your next slide based on the response. If you're worried about the paperwork that comes with standards-based grading, it's because you haven't changed your mindset yet.2

Teachers tend to worry about all sorts of technical details when it comes to standards-based grading. How will I input it into my gradebook? What should tests look like? How do I design my scales? That's important. But I'm going to freak you out a little here. That's the easy stuff.

The scariest part for me, BY FAR, was realizing that I might not know what I'm doing on Tuesday based on what happened on Monday. Take into consideration that I'm not an organized person. I don't write out my daily lesson plans and, despite being "required" to before I was tenured,  I've never actually submitted weekly lesson plans to my principal.  

So why am I assessing so frequently? Your assessments are the tools you use to help you move forward. The format is less important than what you do with them. You will like them. Your kids will like them. Ok, your kids will at the very least see the purpose of them. But if your assessments just go into this mystical gradebook and nothing ever happens to them, you've missed the point of standards-based grading. You're going through the motions and you're the kid who thinks 3.5 buses is a valid answer.

More mindful standards-based grading to come. Leave a comment if you'd like me to address something in the future. Here's a sentence starter, "I don't get why....."

Another last minute add! Twitter saves the day again. By @misscalcul8: Scroll to the bottom of this post for the words of wisdom from @PersidaB. Well said, Persida.

1: I plan on pretesting more this year. I didn't before because everything was new to my kids and felt it was just getting them discouraged. I've started a common assessment system this year and so we're going to pretest each unit, post test, then level the classes for a week. More on that when I actually, you know, figure it out.
2: I have now broken the record for "most times any blogger has linked to the same two other bloggers in consecutive posts."


  1. I don't get how much the assessment will direct my instruction. I feel dumb saying it but I'm not shy when it comes to asking questions. I always here about assessment guiding instruction but no one ever explains what that mean. What am I adjusting? If I didn't teach it well the first time, how will I do better the second time? Am I reteaching the whole lesson? Am I giving different/more examples? How should assessment guide my instruction?

  2. Jason:

    Yay! We should start an army, and I get to be in charge of artillery. Great post, clear and insightful.

    @Elissa: Let's say your assessment showed you that most of class understood standards 1 and 2, but not 3. Obviously standard 3 needs to be hit again, but you're right, you can't use the same method twice. Trying pairing students to teach each other. Try doing straight direct instruction over the obvious sticking point. If you think it's a developmental issues, try putting the process into more concrete terms for those kids that aren't fully abstract yet

    If the idea isn't directly necessary for the next topic, wait it out, and come back after the kids have stewed a little bit (a week maybe). This works for me; remember saying, "Man, after the test I totally got it?" That's because of the new coverage and the feedback. So just give a pile of feedback and allow for some remediation attempts in class.


  3. @Elissa:I was debating whether to go with Elissa or not here but Shawn already broke the ice on that one. Shawn's got you covered but since it' my blog I'm going to repeat everything again.

    Usually my assessments will have two patterns: either a specific misconception needs to be addressed or a general weakness in a certain topic.

    Misconception:Math specific advice would probably be better given by an actual math teacher but I'm guessing when you look at your tests, you see certain re-occurring mistakes. Like students expanding (x+3)(x+2) to x^2 + 6. From your assessment, you see this again and again so your goal is to design something for the next day, either for a subset or for the whole class, that specifically addresses that misconception. Maybe starting with the answer and factoring it...IDK. but you're addressing a specific misconception directly.

    Overall weakness is the LT1, LT2, LT3 thing Shawn was talking about. Before, when you just gave a Chapter 13 quiz, a 72% told you very little. Now, you can directly address LT1.

    Remediation is difficult for you because you've only had one year. Eventually you'll build up a portfolio of different ways to attack the same thing. All that blog reading/twittering you do should accelerate that process nicely though. That's what we're here for right? So when you give your test and realize students kept expanding that equation wrong, ask around to see how others taught it.

    I also hope you can see the advantage of having your tests with different grades for different learning goals. Having a lump score for a single test makes it that much harder to decide what to do next.

    @Shawn: The SBG Army sounds nice. I want to be the equivalent of Bean in Ender's game.