South Africa 2014: Students don’t give up and Teachers assess properly!

Preparing to roll back into the pool

We are zipping through our Open Dive Course and it is feeling good.  We finish off with the theory and prepare for our final confined water dive.  The impending swim without my mask is terrifying me but I proceed forth.  We roll backwards off the bench, a task the others were fearing, into the cold pool water.

Thankfully, the first task is, indeed, the maskless swim and my turn is first.  I am encouraged by the example of our teacher as he makes it seem so simple.  It is so much easier than the first exercise.  I actually feel relaxed about it and experience zero panic.  As soon as I'm finished I let the other people in my group know that it was easy by giving them the double OK signal.  Fortunately, everyone else ends with a double "OK" as well.   The rest of the confined water dive is a piece of cake.

We take our final exam and mark it.  One person in our group must retake but we'll do it later tonight.  So, most of us head to the beach to see that for the first time.  One student is remaining on site to finish up some skills that she couldn't complete in our earlier confined dives so I stay with her.

One student , Samantha (I have permission to use her name and photos) had been so overwhelmed with the mask task that she had exited the water the day before.  The experience had panicked and scared her to a point of tears.  Today she finished all the theory and testing with us and has only the confined water dives to complete, including both mask tasks. 

Samantha waits patiently for all the other groups to finish their confined water dives and then enters the frigid waters with the other students who were struggling with the mask.    They are a group of five.  The sun is beginning to set and the water is probably at its coldest.  Already, admiration builds within me as my own courage would wane if I were expected to enter the water this late in the day and face three confined water dives without my peers.  However, Samantha jumps in without hesitation, however, within minutes there are signs of her feeling cold.

I'm sitting in the sun.  It's warm and peaceful.  I watch carefully when it's Samantha’s turn to go, and am relieved that she easily completes the mask-removal skill that so befuddled her the day before.  Before a half hour has passed, all the other students have dropped out because they can’t work the mask or they are too cold.  Samantha, however, carries on, determined to catch up with the others in her group.  I watch the on goings around the pool and chat with the instructors.  It is relaxing and I am hoping the rest of our group is enjoying the beach and that Samantha will finish the confined water dives.  The temperatures drop with the setting sun and I seriously wonder if she can survive in the water to finish all the requirements. Task after task she completes with a steady eye on her goal.  She doesn’t deviate.  She’s asked if she wants to exit the pool before continuing but she declines.  Finally, diving instructor and successful student, both blue-lipped, exit the pool.  Samantha becomes the hero of the day as she has endured the frigid waters for longer than anyone else during this entire certification process, persevering to complete the tasks.  Everyone around the pool cheers her success.

That evening our student that required reassessment of the written exam, studies diligently in the mess hall.  Her peers surround her writing practice problems, quizzing her, and encouraging her.  Here is another student that won’t give up.  Surrounding her at other tables student groups socialize, play cards, and celebrate the end of the day.  However, this student pours over the dive manual and asks questions and seeks to master the content.  Later, the dive instructor takes her to a secluded place and gives her another opportunity to pass the exam.  She emerges triumphant and once again we have cause to celebrate.

These two students have set a great example today of determination.  Everyone in our group expresses admiration and is genuinely congratulatory.  We all feel good. 

Students studying from their dive manuals in the mess hall, even though there will be no grade assigned to the HW.

On another note, we have not earned grades in dive certification.  Though we all have homework, no one received a grade for it.  The homework was utilized to determine what else we needed to learn.  There was a set of skills and a specific amount of knowledge to be mastered.  SIMPLE.  No one was ranked.  Everyone simply had to master the skills to move on.  This is the climate we should achieve in the “regular” classroom in schools.  Create environment wherein no one gives up.  Foster an atmosphere in which everyone is motivated to continue until skills and content are mastered.  Build in time for all to complete the tasks.  Provide extra support so all will succeed.  Praise perseverance and hard work.  Of course, in the end, this leads me back to one of my favorite subjects.  We need to assess students on what they know and can do.  Period.  In diving, you need to know the skills so that you do not die underwater.  Thus, it would have been ridiculous to “pass” someone simply because he/she completed all the homework, worked hard, had a good attitude, and was focused in every lesson.  While those skills are important, they don’t necessarily add up to being a good diver and it would be ethically irresponsible to pass someone based on those criteria.  Needless to say, I advocate a similar approach to education in schools! 

Cheers to determined students and proper assessments!  

What happens if everyone gets an "A"?

Well, I graded a set of final exams today and the lowest score was an 86%.   My first thought, “The test was way too easy”.  Then I actually searched through the student answers to see if there was any response with which I had been too generous.  I was looking for reasons to dock students points!  What was wrong with me?  It’s as though I couldn’t accept the fact that the entire class had done so well.

It felt so flawed because this is what I had been shooting for the entire year: to have all students attain the standards.  The standards were clear.  The test had been built upon the standards and understanding expected from this unit.  Critical thinking was required to complete all problems. I re-read the test with a demanding and discriminating eye searching for weakness.  However, I was satisfied with the assessment.

So why was I so bothered by the high scores?  Is this idea of a bell curve so engrained within me that I can’t let it go?  Are the years of old fashioned grade scales such a part of me that, despite my intellectual convictions about standards based grading, I can’t actually in my heart embrace it?

I’m shocked at my own reaction to the success of my class.  I should have been rejoicing and there I was sitting at my desk thinking that something was wrong.  It seriously took some processing time before it sunk in what had actually happened.  Students had learned and were able to demonstrate their understandings in a summative assessment.  There was a 100% success rate!  That’s what it should be!  This should be our goal: all students succeed.  All students reach high, learn and thereby grow.

So, what happens if everyone gets an “A”?  If the grades are a true reflection of student achievement and are fair, consistent,  and accurate, then we celebrate!

An update on the journey towards SBG: The Report Cards

What happens when teachers see the report cards as parents see them

“I have never seen one of these” remarked a teacher.  “Me either” pipes in another.  Murmurs of agreement ripple through the room.  Our teachers are looking at sample report cards from elementary, middle, and high school that parents read regularly when similar papers arrive in their mailbox.  Since I am both a teacher and a parent I am struck with this reality: teachers are engaging in practices of reporting without realizing, through no fault of their own, what the final product looks like.  Then I realize that at my last school I never saw the report card that students were receiving!  It is strange, isn't it?

The teachers pour over the samples with great interest identifying differences, inconsistencies, and confusing information.  “This is really interesting” the theater teacher observes.  Again, murmurs of agreement.  She continues, “Imagine if you have a child in elementary, one in middle school, and one in high school.  This would be so confusing because those reporting systems differ”.  “Even if you had a first and third graders it would be confusing because even those reporting systems differ” adds a language teacher.  Everyone ponders this fact and a few people utter that probably the report cards should be rewritten to be clearer and more consistent.   A finger vote yields 100% agreement in giving our focus group the “go ahead” to rewrite the report cards.  Their intensity and genuine interest is evidence, again, for me of how much these teachers care.  They care about the students and they care about the parents.

Back in February we had actually received this very council from Ken O’Conner when we met with him during an ECIS conference on Assessment for Learning.  We were deliberating the approach we would need to take to gradually move ourselves to a standards-based reporting system.  “The first thing you need to do, “ he advised, “is to rewrite your report cards|.  So, we now have 100% support from the staff to proceed with step #1.

We met this past week as a focus group to evaluate the changes necessary for the report cards.  In addition to the overall look of the report card, we discussed the “citizenship” grade that teachers currently record at the end of each quarter.  It is one grade that encompasses the idea of effort.  Our first task was to better define this grade and break it down into the pieces that it represents. After researching and considering several report cards from other schools we came up with a list of ideas.  We think that these four areas can adequately assess a student’s “Approaches to Learning”

  1.   Works cooperatively
  2.   Works independently
  3.   Turns in completed assignments on time
  4.   Comes on time and prepared to class

Each teacher would assess each student in each of these areas, determining whether the student consistently, often, sometimes, or rarely meets the expectations.  The next step for us, as a focus group,  is to write the descriptors for each area.  Can you think of an additional area we might need to consider or a component of any descriptor that you think should be included?

What do grades mean? Separate achievement from behaviors.

Do you want a cardiac surgeon who just tried really hard in medical school and residency or one who actually mastered the skill of heart surgery? Or as I asked in a previous post, do you want to sit in an airplane with a pilot who tried really hard in flight school or one who actually mastered the skill of flying?

Does a company hire an individual because he/she put forth great effort in college,  or because the individual attained a certain skill and knowledge set that will benefit the company?

At what point did we stop expecting the mastery of skills and focus instead on behavior in the classroom?  When did “getting the grade” become  “doing everything the teacher says” instead of “learning the skills and content”?  As soon as we link a student’s grade to behavior we are unfairly skewing grades in the favor of compliant and ‘normal’ students.  Why penalize a student with Asperger’s Syndrome by lowering the overall grade because of angry (and yes, disruptive and annoying) outbursts during class despite the fact that achievement of skills and knowledge is exceptional? Is that accurate reporting?  Is that fair?

If grades include behavior, what do the grades mean?  For example, is a “B” a reflection of below average learning behaviors coupled to excellent achievement or is the “B” illustrating superior compliance paired with mediocre achievement?  When independent factors are consolidated into one grade, the meaning of the grade becomes hazed.

In addition to meeting standards with regard to content and skills, students do need to learn the value of submitting quality work by a deadline, collaborating with others, having good attitude and work ethic, and being respectful.  Personally, I would like to see a separation of grades as a report for academic progress  and grades reflecting learning behaviors.  I think a grade should be recorded to reflect skills and understanding achieved while a separate recording system is included to report on the learning the behaviors of each student in every class.  I would like to literally see an “employability skills”  section on the report card where a grade is given for punctuality, attitude, effort, attendance, work habits, and submitting work on time.  As Ken O’Conner outlined in a seminar I attended in the fall, grades should be a communication of academic achievement and not compensation for behaviors so let's separate out the grades for behaviors.

I challenge you to look at your report cards whether your children’s, nieces’/nephews’, grandchildren’s, or the school you work at.  Ask yourself, “What is the purpose of this report card?” “What do these grades mean?”  “Do these grades reflect what this child knows and can do?” You might be surprised by what you discover.

Formative assessment in Science

A couple of days ago I wrote that I was at a conference over the weekend titled “Formative Assessment” by Dylan Wiliam.  In the context of that workshop Dylan shared with us over 65 techniques for completing formative assessment in the classroom.  He then challenged us to select one to three techniques that we would implement in the classroom over the next year.  I took the challenge and integrated formative assessment into my classroom this week.  It did extend the lesson time by 30 minutes but it was worth it. Here is a summary of the experience:

I used:

-       Whiteboards for students to individually commit to answers and for me to complete formative assessment on where the class was to determine where to take the lesson.

-Questioning for diagnostic assessment AND to promote discussion

-       Finger voting for students to individually commit to answers in order for me to determine understanding.

-       Hot seat questioning to help a student correct misconceptions

-       Restatements of how a student voted.  Just like in the videos, my students responded to these restatements with an explanation of their train of thought in arriving to their conclusion.  I did not have to ask a single question.  I just had to wait for their response.  Amazingly, they continued to talk until they felt they had completely explained their thinking.   I uncovered so much information but most importantly how their brains were processing information that day.  It was electrifying.

My students:

-       At first were unsure about this new process, asking, “Is this a test?” and furtively looking their peers’ whiteboards

-       Then the fear departed and an excitement to participate and understand entered in.

-       No longer were students concerned with what others were writing.  They were focused on their engagement with the concepts.

-       They inadvertently exposed misconceptions

-       They equally were able to inadvertently clear up misconceptions

-       My students LEARNED!

-       My students developed understanding!

-       My students progressed!

-       And, as a total bonus, they enjoyed the process exclaiming, “That was fun”

Now I am confidant they all know what diffusion and osmosis are and can clearly describe the difference. Furthermore, they are truly ready for an osmosis lab during their next class.  And, I am determined to continue implementing these techniques into all my lessons until they are second nature.


First update on our journey towards SBG

Our focus group for Standard Based Assessment and Reporting had another meeting today.  We looked at five of the current report cards our school uses (apparently there are 23 on file!) between elementary and secondary schools.  It was astounding how much inconsistency there is and how meaningless the report cards appear to be when stacked up next to each other like that.  It is clear we need to rework the method of reporting at our school.

We additionally followed up on our faculty meetings in the secondary and elementary schools.  Clearly the elementary school teachers were more receptive than our divided (or should I say divisive) secondary teachers. 

I also shared with the focus group my experience in showing one of the teachers from the “include behaviors in the grade” camp how I manage reporting learning behaviors in my grade book without processing them in the final grade.  Upon seeing my reporting system this teacher responded very positively, “Oh yes, I could totally go for that.”  We concluded, in our focus group, that the secondary teachers might be more open to the SBG if they could be assured that behaviors would, indeed, be assessed and reported on, even if the behaviors did not affect the actual grade of the student.

We have decided that we will divide our focus group into two teams.  One team will create a streamlined report card that will work throughout the elementary school.  A distinct feature will be a column for achievements (based on the standards) and a column for learning behaviors.  The other team will create a reporting system for the secondary school that also separates achievements from learning behaviors (or, as I prefer to call it, “Employability Skills”).  Armed with more effective reporting systems, we will once again approach the staff in an effort to move in the direction of standard based assessment and reporting.  

What do grades mean? An argument for SBG.

A parent came to one of our math teachers a couple of years ago and asked, “My son has the highest average in the class so why doesn’t he have an ‘A’?”  Why is it that people seem to think there has to be an “A” student in the class?  Would these same parents be satisfied if every student in the class had an “A”?

What if not one student is achieving the expectations in terms of the standards? Then, no one should have an “A”.  However, what if every student has met the standards? Then everyone should have an “A”. 

What does an “A” mean anyway?  For many parents, it seems that an accumulation of “A”s increases the chances of entry into college.  I don’t know if they care about what the “A” itself means.  Does it mean their child, having earned an “A” in Science can apply the scientific method and design and conduct experiments on his own as a senior in high school?  Or does it mean he tried his best to master those skills but still can’t really meet the standard but he turned in all his HW, was attentive in class and was a generally compliant student?  If it is the latter, is he truly prepared for college and the next step in life?  Many parents just want to know what their child needs to do in order to “get an ‘A’”.  Usually parents expect that if their child works hard and turns in all the HW, that the child should “get an ‘A’”, regardless of whether the child actually has met the standards of learning.

Are those the standards these parents wish to apply to all students of any type of learning?  Do they want to sit in an airplane with a pilot who just tried really hard in pilot school but hasn’t actually mastered the standards of flying a plane?

Time for Assessment - on the student's time

The 6th graders studied the images and considered the questions and began furiously writing on their tests.  I could hear the rhythms of pencils being repeatedly lifted and pressed to the desk, resulting in a soft drumming disseminating throughout my classroom.  It was comforting.  The class was turning the page, eagerly moving ahead to analyzing and graphing data.  However, one boy, John, remained processing question one.  He was just as intent as the others but not making the same progress.

After about 40 minutes, the second to last student finished the test and pulled out her Kindle.  Upon completion students were to leave the test on their desk and quietly take out a book to read or peruse the National Geographic magazines in my room while waiting for the rest of the class to finish.  My goal is for each student to have a fair amount of time and a fair environment to finish the test.   A student should not feel rushed just because others are done with the exam.  I want each assessment to be a fair opportunity for a student to show me what he can do and what he knows, not how fast he can demonstrate these achievements. 

So, there we sat. And sat.  And sat.  John continued to plod along.  It was excruciating.  The students kept looking at the clock and then at me.  They were anxious to get on with the experiment I had planned.  As was I.  But, we waited.  And waited. And waited.  At one point, John stood up with a smile on his face, extending his test to me.  I was thrilled that he was only a about ten minutes behind the others.   Abruptly he exclaimed, “Oh wait” and plopped down to erase his entire graph!  I wanted to cry out, “No, just turn it in!” 

Finally, data graphed and all blanks filled, his test was finished.  At first I questioned my decision to make the entire class wait.  However, especially later when holding his assessed test in my hand, I realized how valuable the evidence was.  Here was a student who I’ve suspected needs some learning support.  I have other observations and signs of his need, but this was real proof.

Now, how do we get the parents to agree?

HW not complete? Clean the lab.

The task was to read another’s blog and then comment on it.  So, what to do with the students who hadn’t written or published their blog posts? My colleague and I were somewhat in a quandary over this.  It seems a reward to allow them to work on it in class. It’s futile to give them a “0” because then they miss out on the opportunity of joining the blogging community of our classrooms.  Finally, after some deliberation, we hauled in the cleaning cart loaded with mops, brooms, chemicals, gloves, paper towels, rags, and sponges.  Both of our labs need a thorough cleaning.  So, whoever hadn’t published the assignment was pulled from the class and joined me in another room.  As the consequences gradually made it to their consciousness, suddenly the small group came alive with cries, “But I’ve done the assignment”.  So, I told them if they could publish it and link their url to the Google Share document in two minutes, I’d let them return to their peers. What a flurry of activity ensued and sure enough, within two minutes every blog site in the class was up and running!  Well, our lab space still needs a good cleaning but I’ll gladly put up with that in exchange for having 100% student participation in our class blogging community! 

Division: Should behavior be included in the grade?

“Vote with your feet.  If you think behavior should be included in the grade, go to that side of the room.  If you think behavior should not be included in the grade, go to this side of the room.”

Just like that, the room was divided and a heated debate ensued.

Half of the teachers think behavior such as effort, participation, and obeying class rules should be included in the grade.  Others think a grade should be exclusively a communication of achievement. 

Teachers argue that part of our job is to teach professional behavior; otherwise we need to consider why we even have school.  Others argue that behavior should be taught and reported on, however, independently from the grade that reflects competencies attained.  One of my colleagues turned to me and said, “If you are grading on effort and participation then you are grading on personality”.  That hardly seems fair.  I want to see the rubrics and standardization for effort and participation grades.  However, they don’t exist.  I am confident that no two teachers are grading effort and participation alike and that’s a problem.  I agree that we need to set standards for how students act in class, however, I do not think we should grade on that.  I think professional behavior is taught as a value.  We don’t grade on honesty or kindness or respect so why on effort/participation or “professionalism”?  I just don’t get it.

Feedback Assessment, and Redos

This past week my 6th graders created a wall display of six different habitats with five to six animals grouped into each habitat.  They then each selected one animal that they would research and create a label with an annotation outlining the adaptations that that specific animal had allowing it to survive in its habitat.  We created a Google Docs with the sign-up sheet. Each student also entered in the planned annotation into the same document.   I wrote feedback on the document.  I gave them time to make changes.  Then I provided an assessment based on their written work and entered in the grade book.  If they made additional changes to complete the assignment according to the standard, I recorded the new grade and removed the weighting for the previous grade.  Thus, they (and parents) have a record of their progress without imperfect attempts damaging their grade.   Result: Amazingly accurate and well-done annotations from every single student.  So good, in fact, I was able to use their wall display as a reference for my 9th grade Biology class.

Though my attempts at informative and formative assessment don’t always yield these perfect results, I know what I’m aiming for and I’ll keep forever at it until the results are consistently bringing all students to the standard.

Take your Time

"It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop" - Confucius

I came across this quotation today and felt it fits so appropriately to my current journey in teaching.  For one, isn't this an encouraging thought for "struggling" students?  If we want them to truly master the content and skills then it is our duty to provide them with a fair opportunity to do so. A fair opportunity might mean additional time for assignments or on tests.

 I have a student who is the hardest working individual that I know.  I'm not exaggerating.  She tutors every day after school, of her own choice.  She positions herself in the front row and never lets a misunderstanding slip by.  She's the first to stop me, "Wait a minute Dr. Markham, I don't get it".  She carefully works through all the material and clearly requires more time than others to get to mastery.  But she will not give up because the rest of the class is finished or because everyone else appears to "get it".  She plods along.  She asks about missed questions on exams to truly understand.  I truly admire her effort and willpower.  Additionally, often she needs and extra day to complete a project or just an extra 10 or 15 minutes on an exam so I always give it to her.  After all,  a true assessment of mastery of content should be independent of the time required to demonstrate mastery, right?  These aren't state or national timed exams.  As a result, I always feel confidant that her assessments are legitimate and honestly show what she knows.

In regard to fully implementing standard based assessment and recording into my classroom (and our school?!?!) will, by nature, need to be a slow process.  Thus, we should not be discouraged with the speed of the journey but should carry on with our goals in sight.

Standard Based Grading

I wonder how many educators "buy" into standard based grading.  I recently attended a workshop by Ken O'Conner, author of How to Grade for Learning and I found the workshop absolutely confirming of ideas I had had swirling within my head for years and practices I had implemented without attaching a name to them.  It was a freeing experience.  The passion I feel for the topic is the impetus for this blog.

I attended the conference as a role I have as part of a focus group currently evaluating standard based grading and the possibility of implementing it school wide.  I am convinced it is the only way and am moving my classrooms in that direction regardless of what official policies the school adopts.  Taken from an article I recently read, I want my lessons "from the warm-up at the beginning of class to final grades...[to be] formative-minded, or about finding out 'how well do my students know this?'" (How We Got Grading Wrong and What to Do About It by Laura Varlas ASCD 55:10 Oct. 2013).  

After the conference, the four of us who attended presented to our focus group the ideas of the conference and a proposal to move forward.  Next week on Wednesday we will offer an initial presentation to the staff to simply get everyone thinking about grading practices. 

Here are the books, among others, I have on my nightstand:

  • How to Grade for Learning by Ken O'Conner
  • Standard Based Teaching: A Classroom Guide by Danell Elder
  • Developing Standards-Based Report Cards by Thomas R. Guskey and Jane M. Bailey
  • Practical Solutions for Serious Problems in Standards-Based Grading  Thomsas R. Guskey, editor

I plan to keep track of this journey of implementation (and other teaching experiences) on this blog.  Please feel free to add comments and thoughts on the topic, especially if you have any experience with standards based grading.