Wednesday, March 31, 2010

SBG by David Cox

Questions?: The Process

This is a great example of an assessment cycle by David Cox, a math teacher in California. He's also planning to address my primary reservation about skill lists by developing projects that incorporate a group of skills.

Sorry for the lack of posts. I went on my school visits last week and I keep writing and trashing posts on it. It's hard to process all the great things I saw.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Professional judgment pt. 2

I was reading the last post and realized that if I were reading it I'd think, " if he doesn't want me to just enter in grades, what do I do?"

We just had trimester grades due.

Me three years back:
Picture a giant stack of papers on the right. Today is the first day I'm looking at these papers.1  I have my laptop open and three red pens. I grab a paper on the right. Check, check, check with my red pen. Enter something in the computer. It looks like a heist movie where they loop the surveillance feed. This takes hours. When I'm done with a class I look up and see what the final grades for my kids ended up being. I register surprise at a few of the grades. I then switch my class list to the next period and start over.

Me now:
Stack of papers still. Only this time they're spread out on the desk. I have a few recent tests out. Some labs. A few free responses and quick writes. I have some scribbled out notes from conversations I've had. A portfolio containing tracking sheets and self-selected work samples are in a folder. I've seen all or nearly all of the papers on my desk before. All of these belong to a single student and all of these are valuable data points. I decide if they have progressed (or regressed) from their last score and move on to the next kid.

The numbers still matter. The numbers inform your judgment. When we remove them from their context, they lose their utility.

1: I shudder to think how many missed learning opportunities I've accumulated over the years by amassing stacks of ungraded papers.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Safety in numbers

Once a month I meet with a small group of teachers at my school to talk about assessment issues. Today I shared a post by Jerrid Kruse titled Grading: the myth of objectivity. I definitely recommend adding him to your Reader if you haven't already. Here's a relevant snippet:
I suggest we admit that our assessments are merely a judgement. Our judgement of students’ understanding and effort as measured by OUR measuring sticks not THE measuring sticks. I believe that once we admit the subjective nature of assessment, we will be free to work towards more authentic and hopefully accurate assessment means.
This eventually led us to a discussion on one of the essential elements of standards-based grading: professional judgment.

We tend to hide behind the shield of numbers. We enter in grades and weights and let our grading software do the rest. If a parent comes in to complain about a student's grade, we point to our gradebook and say, "They got 60 out of 100 on the last test and their overall grade is a 72%." Nobody can argue with the numbers. In fact, we're letting the numbers do the arguing for us.

That's the problem. The numbers protect us and give us authority. One of the strengths of SBG is that I'm required to defend every one of my grades. I can't hide behind the mean or median. I have to own my assessments and own every score that goes into my gradebook.

I am constantly re-evaluating my methods of assessment. I have to take into account the student's total body of work. I have to be completely clear on what it means to have mastered a standard. 

I understand the hesitation in switching to a SB system. It's scary to be so exposed. I gather and record information obsessively, at least in part because I live in fear of the day a parent kicks down my door, demands to know why his daughter got a C, and I can't defend my grade.

Professional judgment is a key pillar of SBG and perhaps the scariest. However, I firmly believe that true assessment reform cannot take place unless we as teachers are willing to take responsibility for the grade we record in our books.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Translating to a letter grade

I apologize for not posting anything assessment related in awhile even though this is ostensibly an assessment blog. A post by Edumacation snapped me back into things.

As you know, I separate my different standards into topics. At the end of the trimester I usually end up with 4 to 6 topics. These need to be combined into a single grade for our traditional A-F report card. At the end of the trimester I might have scores that look like this:

Motion Graphing Forces Forces in Fluids
2.5 3.0 4.0 2.0

In my ideal world I could leave those as is. Throw some snazzy bullet graphs and charts onto the report card and send it on home.

I use a method called conjunctive scoring that I learned about in a Marzano book. The basic idea behind conjunctive scoring is that good scores can't make up for bad ones. No averages. This is how my scores are currently translated:

Grade Lowest score At least one
A 3.0 4.0
B 2.5 3
C 2.0
D 1.5
F less than 1.5

So in my above example the student's final grade would be C because their lowest score is a 2.0.

Motion Graphing Forces Forces in Fluids
2.5 3.0 2.5 3.0

This student would finish with a B because her lowest score is a 2.5 and she has at least one 3.

Clearly this is very different. There are no averages so it takes awhile for students to get it. You also really need to set aside time to circle back and allow students to go back and learn something they missed. This also requires a certain amount of balance in your topics. Obviously a killer topic can destroy grades. I would argue that some balance in the topics is something to strive for but there are ways to remedy this. The first year I tried SBG, the Motion topic killed kids because of all the math and because I just threw too much stuff into it. I tried to remedy this by separating out Graphing into a separate topic. That worked to chunk it a little more and helped focus my instruction.

I chose this method precisely because high scores wouldn't make up for lower ones. One of the problems with averaging is that you can accumulate enough points that the rest of the course is irrelevant.We've all had students who realize they're so far into A territory that they can coast the last few weeks of school. I've (hopefully) distilled my many, many standards into a few big ideas. In my view, it's ALL important. I like that a student can have all 4s and one 2 and she'll need to work those last few weeks on that one topic.

If the ultimate purpose of grades is to communicate, then an A should be clearly defined. If an A means a student has mastered or surpassed the standards set for the class, it follows that they should master or surpass every single one.

Side bonuses:
We're in our last week of school before the trimester ends and I always notice it's very focusing for a student to take a look at their concept scores, zero in on the lowest, and start working away at it. It's a lot more nebulous to say, "You need 8% more for a C."

There's also this interesting psychological component. If you look at the first example, she only needs to bring up two scores and she can immediately move from a C to an A. Mentally, students feel this is easier to obtain than needing 14% more or 150 more points to move up two grades. I'm sure it goes back to topic scores being more focusing than percentages.

How did I arrive at that scale?
It came through negotiation. My scale was slightly tougher last year. For example, I allowed only one 2.5 for a B. This year, another teacher is trying standards-based grading and we decided on a common scale. I'm reasonably happy with the new scale. There's an interesting passage in the blog I linked to earlier about what an A or B should mean in comparison to meeting standards. Those are the same arguments we had. We thought of it in terms of our state tests. Anyone with an A or B should be advanced or proficient and a C student should have a reasonably good shot.

What about non-academic scores?
I actually don't use them, but I have no problem with them. Again, ideally you'd want to keep those separate. Most schools have a citizenship grade or something similar, if you redefine that you're all set.
If you can't, you'll need to weight them. You would arrive at a score for your academic topics using the conjunctive method. For non-academic scores, the conjunctive method can be used, but in this case I think averaging is the way to go. Going back to the killer topic idea, imagine your non-academic scores are organization, participation, behavior, and work completion. There's really no reason for any of those to kill the entire non-academic score. For your final grade you take your academic score, let's say 90%, and weight it against your 10% non-academic. There are classes that would have much higher non-academic weights (P.E. comes to mind) but for the most part, keep the academic portion high.

The take home is that it's possible to translate your standards-based scores into a traditional letter grade and I'm reasonably happy with the outcome. If translating to a final grade is holding you back, I think conjunctive scoring is a good solution.

Monday, March 8, 2010

School observations

In a couple of weeks, I'm going to visit three other schools to see why they're so great and we're not. I've had this planned for about 3 weeks but I've finally got all of the schedules worked out.1

Although it'll be nice to actually see another science teacher teach a class2, I'm primarily going to look at the stuff those schools do that create a successful school culture. Well, that and to look at anything assessment related of course.

I've never done this before and am making it up as I go. I've scheduled the schools so that I'm observing a class and then I get to talk with a teacher during his/her prep. I have about 2.5 hours at each school. I've written out a ton of questions to ask and things to look for but I'm looking for help from anyone out in cyberspace.

I have my assessment-related questions, mainly pertaining to common assessments and use of data. I have teacher collaboration questions. I have school structure questions (interventions, advisory, scheduling, class placement).

Two of the schools were on a Schools to Watch list maintained by the CDE. One of those schools I'm specifically going to for the way they've built collaborative time into their schedule.The other one I selected based on a big science CST score jump.

The reason I wanted to visit other schools in the first place is because my school still takes the every teacher for her/himself approach. We do our own things with little regard to what everyone else is doing. I understand the need to unite under a core vision and have everyone working towards that vision, I'm just unsure of how to do that on a school level.

Any questions  I should definitely be sure to ask? Anything I should look for or ask about? Is there anything that your school does that's great and I should know about?

1:My principal was all for it, but now she's a little less so because I started mentioning it to people and we've got four of us going now. We're not a school that easily gets substitutes and four people out is probably about double our number of capable subs.

2: I was a university intern. I don't know if other states have these but I taught full-time while taking classes at night at the local university. That means I never student taught. By my second year I was the most senior 8th grade science teacher and I'm currently (my fifth year) the second most senior teacher in my grade level. I haven't had a lot of any mentors. One of the many reasons I turned to the internet for support.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The view from afar

There's this science fiction movie trope where the scientist, after seeing the carnage that his creation has unleashed, cries out,"What have I done? What have I done?"

An email correspondence with a fellow teacher made me start thinking about my "What have I done?" moment. My reason for having gone assessment crazy. It happened three years ago.

I can still picture her. She had dark brown hair and brown eyes. She usually had a pony tail and was on the small side. She liked to sit on the left with a table of 3 other girls. She smiled a lot and made me laugh. She brought me some dollar store ginger cookies for Christmas. She was on the basketball team but wasn't very good. It didn't bother her. She just liked being on the team. She turned every assignment in the entire year. She took every note. She even annotated them at home like I taught. She finished the year with an A every trimester. And she didn't learn a single thing.

Two things.

One. She wasn't gaming the system. She was a product of it. We created her. We asked her to sit in her seat and do what we say and turn in stuff on time. She was simply following orders.

Two. I knew she hadn't learned anything. I knew the whole year. I felt trapped though. I gave points for notes. She took them. I gave points for neatness. She was neat. I gave group grades for labs. Her friends were all A students and her lab reports were always formatted just the way I taught. Her test grades were never great, but I always gave test correction points. I gave extra credit for going to a science museum and writing about it. She did that. All the time, I knew she never really got what was going on. If I asked her something, she'd smile and parrot back what I'd just said or flip through her notes or let her friends whisper answers to her. Or she wouldn't know. She'd listen very carefully and echo it back. I justified her grades by telling myself there was nothing I could do. Points were points. If she got 90% of them, she deserved an A.

June came, then July. She was going to start high school soon and all the time I couldn't shake the feeling that I had done a huge disservice to her. I lied to her. Her grades told her that she had learned science. My grades. My lies. I think about her often. She comes back and visits. I feel conflicted when I see her. She's doing well in high school. I don't know how I feel about that. I wish her well and want her to succeed. I don't know how have the courage to tell her she's been living a lie. So I smile and give her a big hug. I ask about her classes. Her teachers. Her family and boyfriend. We laugh over a story that begins,"Remember that time you set the ceiling on fire...." As she's walking away I stand back, look at her, and ask myself, "What have I done?"

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Quote of the Day

Basketball Coach: D_?!? Why are you failing Mr. Buell's class?
D_: Mr. Buell's class is hecka hard! He doesn't let me copy like everyone else.
To my dearest D_. While you may drive me insane all sixth period, you have warmed my heart today. However I'd like to make a small correction. I do let you copy. You can copy all you want. Spend all class copying if you like. Go to Kinko's and copy an entire science notebook. Copy pages from the book. I've taught two of your sisters. Copy from them. For some people, copying is the best way to get started if they're really lost. If copying helps you learn, go for it. Just remember, you don't get points in my class. No points for homework. No points for notes. No points for worksheets. They're there to help you learn. Do you get points in the game for practicing your free throws?

What's that? You want to improve your grade so you can play basketball? Well then you'll need to change your focus from just completing your work, to learning from it.

PS: The "like everyone else" part at the end disturbs me so much. I know the teachers that allow copying, either directly from other students or the old trick,"We'll go over the homework in class and then you turn it in." In these teachers cases I'm pretty sure this is a classroom management issue. The teachers and students have entered into an implicit agreement. You be quiet for a few minutes and I'll help you out on your grades. In case you're curious, with the right (wrong?) scheduling, a student of mine could have 50% of his or her classes graded this way.