education, grades, grading, high school, learners, scoring, students, teachers, teaching

Amending My Late Work Policy…Because Learning Rules

Since my first year of teaching I have not had a late work policy. I have allowed students to turn in work up until the last day of the marking period without penalty. (The goal with this philosophy is as follows: It takes some students longer to learn material and therefore if they do the work eventually, it should be counted. Also, in the real world, deadlines can be negotiable. And don’t pretend like that’s not true. How many times have you said to your boss “I need more time” and he or she has acquiesced to your request?) I liked this philosophy because it felt very “real world”-esque and isn’t that what I’m preparing my students for? (Well, back to this idea in a minute…)

Ultimately, I have decided that my late work policy needs some serious amending–for a few reasons. First, some students copy their work from a classmate after I have handed it back, which, in the end, doesn’t give me an accurate picture of what they know and are able to do. Second, some students forget about the work and don’t care until they see their (usually very low) grade and THEN they decide they need to do something about it (instead of learning the material in the moment, when the learning is needed). This forces them to care about their grade as opposed to their learning. Third, I get a slew of papers handed to me at the end of the marking period and I become inundated with work to grade that should have been handed in–and handed back–a month earlier and my other responsibilities (such as planning and prepping upcoming lessons) suffer.

Here’s my new idea. My students’ assignments will all have a due date and a deadline date. If students hand in their work on the due date, they will receive all the credit they earned on the assignment–usually determined by an answer key or rubric. Then, those who did not hand it in when it was due, will have a 3-day grace period in which they can still hand in their work–although for reduced (earned) credit. After the deadline date passes, the work will no longer be accepted and will result in the score of a zero. There are, of course, amendments to this policy for students who are absent or have extenuating circumstances.

Here’s the goal concerning this new philosophy: First, please understand that I don’t have students complete assignments for no reason. If there is something that has to be done, it has a purpose and it is relevant, which means I need the students to complete it in a timely manner so I can offer them feedback and determine if they need help. Second, it reduces copying answers from a classmate for credit. By the time I hand back the papers, the grace period is over and the deadline date has arrived. Third, it eliminates the end-of-the-marking-period burden of speed grading for no other reason than to help students recover credit–as opposed to truly offering pointed feedback for learning. Fourth, it emphasizes timeliness and responsibility.

Here are my difficulties with it: It’s not very realistic and it doesn’t give me–or those looking at the student’s performance in class–an accurate depiction of that student’s academic capabilities.

Here is how I justify these things: First, I (and most teachers around the country) work within a system that supports amalgamated grades. If we graded based on separate standards or academic and behavioral skills, I’d reconsider the policy. But until that day comes, I can’t wish we had disaggregated grades because we don’t. (And I can’t work within a wishful philosophy, because it’s actually an injustice to my students and to myself.) The other issue I have with the new late work policy is that it is not realistic (within the post-high school world). There have been many times I have asked a superior for more time to complete a project or to compile data. More often than not I am granted that extension without penalty. And think about it, so many people miss deadlines without penalties as well: new iPhone software creators, mortgage commitment brokers, and real estate closing attorneys. How many times have you missed the deadline for renewing your car registration or driver’s license? Heck, even your mail arrives late some days! But high school is not the real world. It is high school. It’s a different animal that is confined by timelines and due dates. The days go on and so does the curriculum, and there’s not a lot of flexibility when it comes to deadlines and timeliness.

I do my best to prepare my students for what they will encounter after high school, but I realized I’m actually hurting them by allowing them to hand in work weeks–and even months–late. I’m showing them that the assignments and their timeliness are irrelevant, when in fact, the opposite is true. I want a clear picture of what my students know and are able to do at a particular moment in time, and I want to be able to give them feedback on that work that is relevant and helpful. If I allow them to hand in work after deadline and only “grade” it for credit, I send the message that “grades rule”, when in fact, learning does.  

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education, grades, grading, teachers, teaching

Professional Discussions

When I was in college my professors warned against extended stays in the teacher’s room, and for a long time I avoided this meeting place, but recently, I have been spending a lot of time there. More so for the need of air conditioning and the desire for a sounding board or two, than for anything else.

On a particular day a few weeks ago two of my colleagues were chatting about a student who cheated on an assessment in their class. They were trying to determine the consequence he would endure for such a desperate act and here is what they came up with: The student would receive a bit more than half credit (of the grade earned) on the assessment. The justification for the decision was as follows:

“If we give him half credit, it will kill his grade.”

“Okay, so we will give him a little more than half.”

“Should we allow him to retake it?”

“No. He knows what is on the test now, so it wouldn’t make sense to have him redo it.”

“Okay. So his grade on the assessment is a 65.”

“Sounds good.”

I did not comment on their decision, but I was thinking about what I would do in the same situation.

I try to make sure that my professional decisions concerning assessments and grades are fair and thought out. So I took some time to reflect upon the situation I overheard and decided that this is what I would do if I were faced with the same dilemma: I would allow the student to retake a different test that focused on the same skills. Now, I don’t know if the assessment that was administered in the other teachers’ class was skills-based or otherwise; I didn’t ask, but my assessments are skills-based, and since the hypothetical situation I was exploring was based purely on what I would do in my classroom, I used only that information to form my decision.  

Here are the reasons why I would allow a retake:

  1. I try not to mix behavioral consequences with academics. If a student is talking to their peers, on their phone, or cheating in some way on an assessment, they deserve a consequence for that misbehavior; they do not deserve a reduced grade or a zero on the test. This muddles their grade and does not accurately show what they know about the concepts on which they are being tested.
  1. When a student cheats it means a few things could be occurring. The student was lazy and/or did not study. The student doesn’t care about school–or my class–and just wants to get through. The student felt desperate. The student lacks confidence. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.  Yes, I want and need to know why the student cheated so I can help him/her, but I also need evidence of what they know and are able to do, so in this case a retake is a necessary means to an end.
  1. It is not my job to score a student’s assessment–or any assignment for that matter–based upon their behavior or anything else but their work. It is my job to objectively assess their performance on assignments so they (and all stakeholders, really) have an accurate understanding of their achievement. I can’t do that if I sacrifice their grade for their misbehavior.

I don’t presume to know the answer to the student cheating situation, but I know that when my students and their parents see the grades from my class assessments and assignments I want those grades to reflect each student’s knowledge, skills, and abilities, which is why I would require a retake.

Regardless of the decision that was made between the two teachers, or the one I would make, I wish I could have found a way to say something about the situation without sounding abrasive, intrusive, or holier-than-thou because we need to be willing to have these professional conversations–even if we are uncomfortable “butting in”. (Good thing I have this blog, right?) I just didn’t feel it was my place to say anything; these teachers know their classroom procedures and assessments best, but I do hope that we start challenging different types of thinking in non-abrasive, non-intrusive, and humble ways. Not because one way is right and the other wrong, but because we need to consider different perspectives, listen to others’ professional opinions and evidence, and consider the procedures and norms of each other in order to find the best solution to any situation. My goal is to take what I outlined here, and bring that into professional conversations with my colleagues. Because I don’t know whose decision was “right”, but I do know it’s worth discussing. 

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education, effort, grades, grading, mastery, scoring, teachers, teaching

The Difference Between Right and Wrong

Last year an engineer received an important assignment. The project was to build a bridge.  He put in hours of time–even more than his boss required. He worked for months. He spent hours at the office viewing and reviewing plans. He spent 12-hour days on site telling the builders exactly what to do. He went home exhausted every night, but satisfied with his work.  When the bridge was finally finished, the day before it opened to traffic, it collapsed due to a design flaw. Such a flaw could have been potentially life threatening had the bridge crumbled while cars were whizzing across it.

 

Recently, I attended a presentation about the upcoming PARCC assessment and how to properly prepare our students for it. The presenter reiterated the fact that if a student answers a question incorrectly, s/he receives no credit for the answer. This idea is nothing new for multiple choice questions.  We all know there is one right answer, but the rule also applies to the writing portion of the assessment. It doesn’t matter how much time or effort the student puts into answering the question. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong.

 

This got me thinking about my grading practices.  I always offer partial credit on what I can. I think that a grade should reflect if a student is on their way to achieving a standard or approaching mastery of a skill, but this tidbit of “wrong is wrong” keeps nagging at me.  Consider our engineer, his bridge, and its design flaw. It doesn’t matter that he put hundreds of hours of time and copious amounts of effort into his project, all that matters is that the bridge that he designed was not successful.  His “mistake” could have cost people their lives. Now I’m not saying our students’ assessments are life or death situations, but I am proposing that we look into making sure our students “get it right” no matter what they are working on.

 

In English class there are times when there are no “right” or “wrong” answers, and that same sentiment is felt throughout all disciplines at one time or another. So for the sake of defining right and wrong, I will explain a bit about how I run things.  For example, in my class I often have students work on making a claim and defending it with strong evidence and clear reasoning.  The combination of these two things–strong evidence and valid reasoning–make an answer “right”.

 

But there comes a time when the evidence given is not strong enough and the reasoning is not clear enough in order for a claim to be supported. This makes an answer “wrong”.  At this point it is my job to make sure my students know that weak evidence and incoherent reasoning are not acceptable. (Note: poor evidence and unclear reasoning may not result because of insincere effort or because students were lazy– unfortunately this happens–but it could be because students simply have not mastered the necessary skills in order to provide the proper evidence and reasoning needed to prove their claim.)

 

I have decided that because “wrong is wrong” (which you can’t dispute, especially if you believe that bridges should be well-made) I am going to have to hold my students more accountable for the work they turn in.  Sometimes, and yes, I admit it, if I know a student worked hard, I will let certain mistakes slide: “S/he worked really hard and deserves this grade.” But this needs to stop.  That student did not deserve that grade, because their work was not correct. (See Why Grades Fail Our Students for more insight on the topic of fair grading.) I’m doing nothing but an injustice to those students who hand in work that is “wrong”.  We can no longer allow “effort” to become a part of our evaluation system. There are students who walk into my class and master certain skills right away, while there are others who come in and need extra help with a skill.  The effort each student puts into their work differs, but ultimately, it’s the outcome that matters. Their bridge is either going to stand or collapse. It’s my job to help them make a strong one that holds traffic, stands in even the worst weather, and won’t cost any unnecessary funds or take innocent lives. I do that by helping them master all the work in between being introduced to a skill and showing mastery of it.

 

The point is this: The end product, or summative assessment, is not always directly proportionate to the amount of time and effort a person puts into their work. We need to keep this in mind when we are offering students feedback, when we are grading their work, asking them to redo work, and evaluating their levels of mastery concerning particular skills. Remember, effort does not equal correctness. (Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying persistence and concentration are bad qualities, I value them very much!)  But we need to recognize the difference between dedication and diligence and true achievement. (They are mutually exclusive.)  Then, we need to establish a norm in our classrooms that supports students on their way to mastery through truly learning and using brain power as opposed to showing them that time and effort spent on something equals mastery.  Because even though time spent and hard work will get the project done, the bridge still has to stand.

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education, scoring, teachers, teaching

Reporting Outcomes: What is an “A”?

Several blogs have been popping up lately about doing away with grades (see Parents React to a Classroom Without Grades and Why It’s Time to Give Up Grades) and it seems a worthwhile topic to explore. Let’s take a serious look at a world devoid of our traditional grading system.

 

The Common Core has certainly pushed–some say forced–us (teachers, students, parents, administrators) to make some serious changes at the national level all the way down to our individual classrooms.  Some of those changes have been effortless and smooth while others have been laborious and frustrating. One impending reform is a transition to standards-based reporting as opposed to the traditional “report card”. This transformation will require doing away with our popular and widespread grading system. There are some benefits to this major shift that could become a way of life in our near future.

 

Learning Becomes the Focus in the Classroom

Passing. GPA. Class rank. Exemption status. Students concentrate more on these factors than they do on learning. Worse, grades become a motivational factor for students. (Grades should not be the reason why students work hard. Unfortunately, the reality is that grades are one of the only reasons students work hard and this is a problem.)  Numbers have become the point of obsession when learning the skills should be paramount. And the students are not the only guilty culprits who give in to number obsessions, districts do it too. They prepare the students for the NJASK, and the HSPA, and now everything being done in our classrooms relates directly to our new standardized test mandate: PARCC. Will our students be proficient?  Advanced proficient? We hope for those two labels to dominate our paperwork, but what do those labels–and their corresponding numbers–actually mean?  Can you tell me?

 

All Stakeholders Have an Accurate Understanding of What Students Know and Are Able to Do

Grades should be indicators of what students know and are able to do.  But sometimes teachers’ personal biases, test curving, extra credit policies, etc. infiltrate the scoring process and grades become skewed. (See Why Grades Fail Our Students). So, how are grades really relaying reliable information if they are influenced by factors other than student performance? It’s not to say that standards-based grading will completely rid the system of this misrepresentation of scores, but it will help level the playing field.

 

Regulation of the Reporting Process

At some educational institutions an “A” can fall within the range of a 100% to a 90%.  In others, an “A” may equate to a 100% to a 92% (I have worked at districts with both of these grading systems–these numbers are not arbitrary). With standards-based grading, letters and their corresponding numbers no longer exist when it comes to reporting student achievement and outcomes. Instead, each standard has its own label that indicates a level of mastery which shows what students know and are able to do.  For example a report card may look like the same ones you and I received in grammar school.  A skill is listed and various columns appear next to it with “S” for satisfactory, or “N” for needs improvement.  The column that is checked shows the student’s level of achievement for that skill at that moment in time. A standards-based report card is reminiscent of this.

 

——————————————————————————————————————–

RL.9-10.6: Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.

 

Beyond Mastery

Mastery

Approaching Mastery   ✓

No Mastery Yet

 

Comments: Formative assessments showed steady growth toward mastery, but ultimately the summative assessment(s) proved that the standard has not yet been mastered.

 

——————————————————————————————————————–

 

Of course the 4 levels of mastery must be outlined.  Those schools implementing the CCSS should make sure that each piece of criteria has its own indicators of mastery.  Those indicators should be uniform as well.

 

Meaningful Learning

With standards-based grading, the goal is no longer to get an “A” but instead, to master standards.  This may sound the same, but it’s not.  An “A” is nebulous when you really think about it. What do you need to do in order to get that “A”? (Answer most multiple choice questions correctly? What does that show?) What does the “A” really mean? (The student turned in a project on time?) With standards, the outcomes are clear.  For instance, let’s go back to our report card example: RL.9-10.6: Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature. The skill is to analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience. Either students cannot analyze a point of view or cultural experience (No Mastery Yet), or they recognize that there are different point of view and they know how to analyze, but students cannot fully apply the skill to a point of view or cultural experience (Approaching Mastery), or they can analyze a point of view or cultural experience (Mastery), or maybe they can even go beyond analyzing a point of view and cultural experience, by evaluating others’ answers (Beyond Mastery). It is clear what is expected of students in order to master each standard.  I suppose you could connect a grade to each level of mastery, D, C, B, and A, respective to the above example, but without the indicators those letters mean nothing.

 

We may be nervous about the ever-mounting changes in education, but remember, not all reform is negative.  Some ideas have a lot of validity.  As for doing away with grades, it doesn’t mean we are getting rid of assessments, it just means we are genuinely examining evaluation and how to represent it through a different lens.  And that lens has the potential to make the way we view reporting student outcomes much more coherent and transparent.

 

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Offering Students Effective Feedback

BRACE YOURSELVES. TEACHER MISTAKE LEARNING EXPERIENCE IN 5…4…3…2…

A few years ago, one of my policies was that everything my students did in class “would be handed in for a grade”. Well, as you can imagine that got overwhelming pretty fast. By the end of October I was ready to give up. (I stuck it out for the rest of the semester for the sake of consistency, but it wasn’t pretty–for me. If I learned anything from that year it was how to be an efficient grader.) I see now that such a policy was a response to students’ “laziness” instead of a viable teaching/learning strategy. So I never did it again. Instead, I started giving feedback.

The importance of feedback (and formative assessment) cannot be denied. I find that I prefer to offer my students feedback as opposed to grading everything they do, and, in turn, I find that my students really appreciate it. Throughout this year, I have “given out” less grades and more feedback, and my students have benefited from it. At first they all wanted to know, “what is my grade?”.  I told them that their work on such formative assignments were practice for the summative assessment and that practice isn’t graded.  They didn’t buy it at first, but once they realized that I was giving them information that could help them improve, they warmed up to the idea. It’s still a work in progress–the first marking period I didn’t have many grades in the book and our mandatory school assessments made their grades plummet–I spent an inordinate amount of time feeling guilty that my best student didn’t make the honor roll because of my class–but I worked it out as the year progressed. I also learned some important rules about feedback.  I have condensed them into an acronym (because that is what we do in education) to make it a bit easier to remember.

Think CUTS for Clear, Useful, Timely, and Specific:

Clear

  • Choose the best mode possible according to the student
    • written or oral
    • Avoid using vocabulary and syntax at a student’s frustration level
  • Focus: what is the content of your feedback?
    • Task-focused: includes correct v. incorrect, quality of the work, criteria referenced, need for information, neatness, format.
    • Process-focused: includes information about how student approaches the task, the relationship between what a student did and the quality of their performance, offering alternative strategies
  • Use a rubric or scale and make connections distinct
  • Be objective
    • Reduce “I” statements
    • Offer suggestions and considerations

 

Useful

  • Feedback should be info that connects to what students already know and takes them from that point to the next level and so on.
  • Decide on Type: individual or small/large/whole group
  • Give feedback on the most important targets
    • Constructive and helpful
    • Identify strengths and weaknesses
  • Ask questions to help students synthesize info

 

Timely

  • Return assignments with feedback ASAP
    • Students must still be mindful of the topic
    • Students must still feel the drive to work toward the learning objective or goal
  • Offer immediate oral responses if you can.

 

Specific

  • To the task, process, assignment, individual
    • Suggest how to improve the task and process
  • Use details when describing why something is effective or why something needs improvement
    • Always consider “because”
  • Use specific language that relates to the learning target.


Remember, there are many ways to give feedback, and I am talking about one specific way: through practice assignments such as rough drafts, or skills practice.  You need to find what works for you, but I think (and hope) this is a good starting point.  Happy Feedback-ing!   

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Think Outside the Grade Book

The district in which I work, like most other districts in my state and around the country, has adopted a new framework for teacher evaluation. Many teachers were scared when the change to the framework was first mentioned. What if this new framework was a “gotcha” plan to weed out teachers administrators no longer wanted? What if the ratings were not what the teachers thought they should be? What if this new “tool” was really the government’s way of kicking us all out of teaching forever with no chance of ever getting back in?? The hallways were buzzing for days. But then we all settled in and realized that the framework we were working within was actually helpful and pretty darn accurate. It’s not perfect, but we all adapted rather quickly.

We are currently working with the Danielson Framework in my district, and amid this rollover to Ms. Danielson’s system, I thought it might be interesting if we changed our grading practices of the students to reflect more accuracy as well. Just as an example, what if we took Danielson’s ideas for the working professional (teacher, in this case) and adapted it to a grading system for students? What might that look like? Let’s take a quick peek at a few examples.

Domain 1: Planning and Preparation

Knowledge of Content
Essential Questions: Does the student know the content or not?
Assessment Style: Multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, true/false, matching, etc.
Grade Type: Percentage, total points

Knowledge of Students
Essential Questions: Is the student aware of their own learning style/learning process? Does the student know how to approach learning content and learning skills in a way that works for them? Is the student aware that others learn differently? Does the student demonstrate working within their learning style successfully?
Assessment Style: Anecdotal notes from the teacher that present evidence, student reflections, rubrics
Grade Type: Rubric scale

Outcomes
Essential Questions: Is the student setting goals for him- or herself? Is the student able to set goals for him- or herself that are appropriately challenging? Does the student set goals for him- or herself that reflect their learning and working versus their compliance? Does the student set goals that are clear?
Assessment Style: Anecdotal notes from the teacher that present evidence, student reflections, rubrics
Grade Type: Rubric scale

Knowledge of Resources
Essential Questions: Does the student know how to access resources that are necessary for his or her learning? Is the student able to align these resources with the learning outcomes they set for themselves? Does the student choose and use resources that are appropriately challenging?
Assessment Style: Anecdotal notes from the teacher that present evidence, student reflections, rubrics
Grade Type: Rubric scale

Designing Coherent Instruction
This component of the framework is very teacher-specific. Since the students are learners and not teachers, it would not be fair to assess them on a component they would never encounter unless a specific lesson called for it. In that case, a rubric would be created using Danielson’s framework and it would be given to the students.

Designing Assessments
Essential Questions: Does the student know the difference between formative and summative assessments? Can the student create ways to formatively assess him- or herself? Can the student use formative and summative assessments to reflect upon their own work ethic, knowledge, and skill abilities?
Assessment Style: Anecdotal notes from the teacher that present evidence, student reflections, rubrics
Grade Type: Rubric scale

Now, this is by no means an exhaustive list of essential questions, assessment styles, and grade types (plus, there are three more domains to cover…), nor is it the only type of grading system that begins to truly assess what is important to employers, but it is meant to offer you a new way of looking at grading systems and what is important when it comes to what we assess and how we assess it. Teachers are working citizens of the community and their students will be soon, too. Why not assess them using a system that is used in the real world?

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