People Get Emotional When you Talk about Changing Grading Practices

Over the years I have followed newspaper articles from communities where grading and reporting changes have taken place and quite often the conversations lead to heated arguments, animosity, teachers getting suspended and/or fired, principals getting losing their jobs and court cases.

Possibly the most controversial change that really gets tempers flaring is when schools decide to not assign zeros to missing student work. While the two sides don’t usually get physical, the battle can be nasty.

"Untitled" by RyanMcGuire is licensed under CC0 Public Domain

“Untitled” by RyanMcGuire is licensed under CC0 Public Domain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Under these circumstances it’s very difficult to change overall practices. Instead of the focus being on changing assessment practices to improve learning, individuals take a myopic approach and the two sides get bogged down in the single issue. The fear of having to face upset parents, students and teachers typically leads to continuing the status quo. The status quo, even though flawed, is just easier to continue.

Fortunately, the Graded community was appreciative to discuss assessment practices that improves learning. Our teachers, parents and students saw the value of being able to give feedback to students on academic performance and separate feedback on learning habits. There wasn’t a battle around the typical divisive issues (i.e. zeros, extra credit, participation, group grades, homework grades). The only issue that created a stir throughout the year was reassessments (more on this in another post).

These are the responses from the high school faculty at our opening faculty meeting for the 2014 – 15 school year.

From the start of the year we were continuously learning in these four areas (and others).

What did I learn?

  • That it is never too soon to prepare for rolling out these changes. Ask teachers to respond to these prompts as early as possible.
  • Having a community that supports the concepts and initiative makes the rollout easier.
  • Even when you have the support of the community, there will be disagreements and critics.

What’s it like to change grading and reporting practices that have been around for over 100 years?

1923 Gradebook Page 1

At Graded, In 2012 we started working on plans to redesign our assessment practices to better meet the needs of our students. The most difficult work happened during the 2014 – 15 school year and everyone in our community was on a steep learning journey.I am so proud of our faculty for taking the risks by stepping out of their comfort zones by trying something new. For me, it was probably the most challenging year of my career. I have been wanting to document this journey since last August and with so many educators embarking on these types of changes, now is the time to share. My story of our work is probably much like that of others who have decided to break the cycle of the use of grading practices that don’t promote learning and a growth mindset. Jeff Lippman shared the story of our middle school in this November post, Gathering Feedback For Growth: Grading and Reporting Changes.

Teachers have been assigning grades to students, based on averages, since at least 1870 (Guskey) and most of us have only experienced a system where final grades determined by averaging all marks. We attended school where teachers used this system and then, as educators, we adopted these practices when we started teaching. And, most of us have been in systems where the grades included scores that reflect learning habits. This means that the final grade is not truly indicative of the student’s knowledge and skills.

This is an example of how we used to handle students turning in work late. This practice factors learning habits into the grade.

This is an example of how we used to handle students turning in work late. This practice factors learning habits into the grade.

So, after two years of prep work we decided on the following.

Purpose

All grading and reporting, as part of the school’s overarching assessment philosophy, strives to be comprehensive, equitable, and transparent in the spirit of continuous improvement. The purpose of grading is to communicate achievement of academic standards and habits of learning to all stakeholders.

The impetus for change:

  • In the 2012-13 school year we adopted new Achievement Descriptors. It is impossible to fully implement those descriptors without separating academic achievement from learning habits.

  • The schoolwide focus on assessment over the last three years has led us to question the current Grading and Reporting paradigm.  In order to align our work with our philosophy, changes are necessary.

  • Feedback from teachers, parents and students in addition to Challenge Success data in both the MS and HS suggest that the focus of our students is often on the “grade” rather than on the “learning”.

  • Our current system of grading does not encourage a growth mindset amongst our students as it punishes risk taking and failure.

  • Our current system of grading does not clearly help students gather information about their strengths, weaknesses and areas of potential growth.

Academic achievement grades will not include:

  1. Grade penalties for late work.  Teachers do not reduce grades or give zeroes as a consequence.  Instead, there will be a non-academic consequence which will be reported in the learning habits assessment and supported by the procedure described below.

  2. Group scores: While teachers are encouraged to design tasks that involve collaboration, those projects should be assessed individually for each student.

  3. Grade penalties for academic dishonesty: This will be treated as a disciplinary matter. Teachers will not reduce grades or give zeroes as a consequence. Graded’s policy is designed to ensure that academic work is completed with integrity.  When students do not demonstrate academic integrity, the Policy on Academic Dishonesty will be applied.

  4. Extra credit or bonus points: There will be no “enrichment assignments” that are meant only as a means to “raise the grade”.

  5. Overall participation grades: Unless participation is a part of the academic standard that is being measured, students should not be given a “catch all” participation grade.  Examples of appropriate participation grades: Oral participation in a socratic seminar in relation to a reading (speaking and listening standards). Oral Participation in a science debate.

  6. Homework grades where the purpose is practice or reinforcement, should not be included in the academic achievement grade.  Teachers should keep a record of these formative assessments and provide feedback on progress in Veracross.

  7. Zeroes when evidence is missing or as consequence;  teachers will use IE for Insufficient Evidence and students will be subject to the late work policy as described below.

As a faculty, we struggled with really difficult decisions and the we were learning throughout the experience. While there were times when the work was difficult and challenging, I always believed that it was the best for our students. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be sharing more of the story, including a post entitled “Revolt and Regroup” and information on how grades will be determined by teachers this coming year without using an average.

Jumping Right into Design Thinking – Part 1

Jumping in Pool

I have always been someone who likes using defined processes groups. Probably the most useful workshop that I ever attended was David Langford’s Quality Learning seminar. I have used his tools for problem solving as an individually and with groups for years. For several years now I have been wanting to learn more about design thinking because the concept seems sensible and interesting. Instead of solving problems this focuses on finding solutions by learning about the  stakeholders. So, instead of taking the time to attend a workshop I decided to jump right in and learn by doing. Thankfully, IDEO has a free online toolkit to guide me through the process and my colleagues are game for trying something new.

For several years we have struggled with our annual week long trips in the high school. For one week in September the entire high school travels to four different locations in Brazil. The groups are organized by grade level and there have been two objectives.

To gain a deeper appreciation and knowledge of Brazil – The trips provide students with real life experiences within Brazil. Trips may focus on…

  • exploring various cultural aspects of the respective community.
  • environmental issues in the community.
  • sustainable development and the economic environment in the community.
  • fun activities that are representative of the community.

To develop relationships within our community – The trips are an excellent opportunity for students and teachers to start the year off by learning about each other in a non-classroom setting. In doing so, students and teachers can build an appreciation for others and a respect for differences. Relationship building may occur in the following ways: 

  • team building activities
  • discussion groups focused on objective #1
  • group projects
  • informal dialogue throughout the trip

We have also been working, with mixed success, to link the trips to course curricula. Each year we get mixed reviews from students and teachers and we feel like we just haven’t gotten them right yet. The factor that tipped the scale is that for two years in a row we had a large number of seniors decide to not travel with their classmates. So, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to give the design thinking process a chance.

After reviewing the trips from this year and that past we have defined our challenge, set a timeline and gathered the information that we have on hand.

“Redesign the experiences to make them indispensable and unforgettable so that the mission and core values come to to life.”

We’re now in the research phase where we define exactly what we need to learn from our students and teachers and look for inspiration from various sources. With that information we’ll work in teams to develop prototypes of trips for review. There is still much work to do but we all seem to feel that there are plenty of possibilities for making the trips “indispensable and unforgettable”

I’d love to hear ideas and suggestions from design thinking experts that are out there. We’re definitely going to need support throughout the process.

This photo, “8579 S jumps into pool” By WoofBC under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, modified slightly from original

1:1 in the Classroom: Learning to become mindful

From The Church of Facebook by Jesse Rice.

While our middle school has been 1:1 for 3 1/2 years last year was our first in the high school. The roll-out went smoothly and students and teachers settled into the new environment with very few issues. I will admit that I would occasionally hear teachers complain about students being distracted and off task while on the computer.  Often I hear 1:1 advocates respond to this issue with, “If the learning activities in a 1:1 environment don’t change, the students will lose interest and become distracted.  Students can’t just use the laptops for note taking in lectures.” This was certainly not the case with many of our classrooms. I took the grumbling seriously since it was coming from educators who I respected. I’d seen other classrooms where the laptops were only being used for taking notes during lectures and these settings were ripe for off task behavior, but this was not the case.

At this same time I noticed a change in my habits and behaviors online. I was having trouble focusing and I was spending way too much time sorting through e-mail. One example is that I’d open and e-mail, click on a link, return to my e-mail waiting for the link to load and keep moving on. Before long I had 20 tabs open and I hadn’t really focused on any of the resources. As I work on this post I frequently find myself yearning to check my e-mail. Sure, I’ve read Nicholas Carr’s, The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains (which Rheingold  so I was aware of how technology was changing the way my brain works, but I my mind was slowly changing. This is the exact issue that our students face when it comes to the internet and distractions.

Pamela Livingston’s in her post 1:1 in the Classroom – Digital Distraction gives teachers practical tips for dealing with this issue in the classroom.  I’d like to also suggest the ideas that Howard Rheingold offers in NetSmart: How to thrive online. While Rheingold is an avid user of the net and a staunch supporter of technology, he promotes the skills and habits of “mindfulness” which is one area of his concept of  “Infotention”.  In the book, Rheingold quotes Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming of Dark Age.  Jackson states, “If focus skills can be groomed, as research has begun to hint, the important next question is whether, and how, attention should be integrated into education. Will attention become a 21st-century ‘discipline’, a skill taught by parents, educators, even employers?” I believe that we do have to teach these skills in our classrooms. Rheingold offers the following strategies for becoming mindful, and paying attention.

  1. Meditation
  2. Plan blocks of uninterrupted time to focus on a task.
  3. Creating short-term goals and focus on meeting those within defined periods.
  4. Practice working on a single task for 15 – 20 minutes at a time.
  5. Create a diary of your online behaviors to be used to reflect on habits.

These ideas can certainly be incorporated in the classroom and Rheingold also has examples of what he does in his classes. For those of you who would like to learn more about these I ideas I encourage you to read Net Smart. I believe that we owe it to ourselves and our students to become more cognizant of how the internet is changing our lives and habits.

I’m alive and well professionally but my blog has been dormant

Graded High School Blog

The 2012 – 13 school year has been a fantastic one for me professionally. You wouldn’t know if from looking at my blog. The main reason that Creative Tension has been dormant is that I have been focused on curating the Graded High School Blog this entire year. I’m pleased to announce that we had 103 posts and over 11,500 hits. While our primary audience is the Graded community, the Graded stories reached a worldwide audience. The concept is that the HS Blog is “where the Graded high school community shares information and ideas on education.” This has been an excellent first step to creating a venue for members of the community to share stories about learning at Graded. With the school year over it’s an excellent archive for school community members to look back on the year.

While we also have the traditional weekly newsletter that is sent out to parents each week this blog has received more viewers, given community members the chance to comment and develop a dialogue, provided the community with timely information, and opened up our school to a more global community. We have tried to limit the number of posts that are just informational in terms of upcoming events and instead tried to focus on student and teacher learning. I look forward to building on what has been done this year and improving in the following ways.

  1. Increase the number of authors. Aside from my posts, there were a handful of others who contributed during the year. I hope that we can create a culture where teachers, students and parents will contribute whenever something happens. By reminding community members that the posts don’t have to be lengthy and that they can include photos, text, audio and videos I hope that we can increase authorship. While I’ve spent a considerable amount of time curating this blog, I look forward to it becoming a place where the community shares stories.
  2. Increase the number of comments that readers contribute. Aside from a somewhat controversial post on the changes to our grade weighting policy (6) and a post asking students to comment on a draft of our self-study Executive Summary (14), there were very few comments submitted. Hopefully we’ll continue encouraging people to comment and it may require more provocative topics.
  3. Increase viewership – I’ve been promoting the blog through e-mails to the community, links in our weekly newsletter, announcements at meetings, and Facebook and Twitter announcements. Hopefully it will help to increase the number of subscribers so that they get announcements whenever new posts are made. We have a ways to go to catch our the Talonline Blog that is student focused. They have had over 78,000 views.

Image from Flickr by martin.canchola

It’s now time for me to get back to blogging and sharing the learning that I’ve been doing throughout the year. It’s certainly been a productive one for me.

2012 in review – Creative Tension Report

Just recently I posted my thoughts on blogging and how it has helped me with my learning.  I then received the 2012 annual report on Creative Tension from WordPress. It’s amazing how easy it is for them to track data on each blog. I have been celebrating that I’ve generated 80 total posts, last year there were only 16. This gives me a good benchmark to strive to improve on for 2013. I’m confident that I can go beyond that. Of those 16 posts there were over 9,900 views, which equates to an average of 618 views per post. Not too shabby if I do say so myself.

My big question – What does it take to generate comments which lead to discussions on the individual posts?

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 9,900 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 17 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

As educators, we can learn from the Jeremy Lin story

Jeremy Lin on the cover of GQ Magazine

I have been wanting to write this post since I read this New York Times article, entitled, “The Evolution of a Point Guard” in February. Now that I have some time over the holidays I’m able to finish this post up. The article describes the 18 month transformation of Jeremy Lin. Since then Lin signed a 3-year, $25 million contract with the Houston Rockets. This makes his story even more legendary. As an educator, I find the story to be inspirational.   The article by Howard Beck explains how Jeremy Lin went from being undrafted and cut twice in two weeks to an NBA superstar. Over 18 months and hundreds of hours working with assistant coaches, Jeremy Lin, reworked his jump shot, bulked up his body, strengthened his legs and developed a “sharper view” of the court. He did this through deliberative practice and hard work.

Howard states, “What scouts saw in the spring of 2010 was a smart passer with a flawed jump shot and a thin frame, who might not have the strength and athleticism to defend, create his own shot or finish at the rim in the N.B.A.”  While the article highlights his “perseverance, hard work and self-belief”, I was inspired by the entire story because it was a team approach. Lin was certainly dedicated but without the help and support of coaches and trainers, his success would not have been possible. For me there were three important takeaways.

1. Recognizing the potential in each student – Coaches along the way recognized that Jeremy had the potential to be a talented player in the NBA. Lin was known for getting into the paint off the drive and being able to see the floor well. These were two key skills that are essential for point guards and the coaches felt that he could build upon these areas of strength.

2. Clearly identifying the skills, knowledge and attributes that students need to improve on – For Lin, he and his coaches determined that his real issues came from not being strong enough to maintain balance and direction and he lacked the strength to explode and raise up into the air when getting into the lane; his ability to shoot the outside jump shot; and his ability to read different situations and then deliver the correct pass. It was in these areas that Lin spent hours on the court, and in the weight and film rooms working on. He was deliberate in his approach to improving and the coaches helped him monitor his performance along the way.

3. Finding the right people and/or resources to support individual students –  Lin worked with several NBA coaches and each one had their specialty areas. He found a Bay area high school coach to help him with his shooting and he sought out strength coaches to help him develop the right types of muscle mass. There wasn’t one individual who helped him develop in all of these areas. He relied on specialists who had access to the appropriate knowledge, expertise, and resources.

When these three things happen the results can certainly be powerful and transformational for all parties involved.