Category: Assessment

Where Do I Start?: Assessment for Learning vs. Grading Practices

“If students don’t know where they are going, it is unlikely they will arrive.” – Shirley Clark

Often teachers ask me, “Where do I start?”  Five years ago I would have said you have to start by ending the use of a zero for work not seen and stop the practice of reducing marks for work that is turned in late.  It is still my opinion that these practices are in need of being revisited by those who haven’t already done so.  However, because these practices are still prevalent in schools today I now hesitate to start the conversation here because it is often where the conversation will also end.  Without a viable alternative to these practices, many teachers who use zeroes and late marks for whatever reason will balk at the suggestion they reconsider their use.

In my current role as a teacher of new teachers I have opportunities to revisit the debate about assessment.  I help my students (new teachers) grapple with assessing the work their students produce and their School Associates’ expectations of what assessment data is being collected and how a final percent is arrived at.  Some student teachers are given more license to explore and experiment with formative assessment and descriptive feedback.  Others are expected to generate a certain number of marks in a set amount of time.  Assessment practices still vary significantly from classroom to classroom, as does the ways teachers “calculate” percentages.

Bottom line, I don’t believe assessment, or assessment for learning (AFL) = marks and percentages.

Assessment for Learning, as far as I understand and have read, has nothing to do with how a teacher generates a number to “represent” a learning activity or a body of learning activities.  Eventually a teacher needs to report a mark, level or percentage for distribution to the public.  I have written about an alternative path to generating a percentage here.  If you can agree with the notion that there isn’t a direct link between “assessment” practices and the “calculation” of a percentage, then consider this:

Preventing teachers from using zeros and late marks isn’t going to change the “assessment” practices of the teacher.  It’s the old, tell me not to do something and I’ll do it…”  But, change the “assessment” practices of the teacher and I believe you’ll end that teacher’s use of zeroes and late marks.

Assessment is about learning; assessment for learning.  It is about being clear with one’s learning intentions, clear about what it looks like when the learning has been achieved and clear in the use of descriptive feedback (words, not numbers) to help students grow.   I believe that if we start the conversation by asking teachers to focus on the learning by being clear with learning intentions and the success criteria there is much more of a chance that teachers will have to revisit zeros and late marks.  By understanding that the letter grade’s only purpose is to represent what a student has learned, then erroneous use of zeros and late marks has to be questioned by teachers.

Ultimately, if teachers require students to complete the work (which negates the need for a zero) and the completed work shows they have met the success criteria, then I bet a teacher would be hard pressed to take late marks off of a student who needed a bit more time.  We want students to be successful.  We want them to not only meet, but exceed their potential.  Assessment; assessment for learning will support us in helping all students achieve their own success.

I’m interested in where you think we start the conversation.

10 Steps: Students Taking Responsibility for their Report Card Marks.

“We must constantly remind ourselves that the ultimate purpose of evaluation is to have students become self evaluating. If students graduate from our schools still dependent upon others to tell them when they are adequate, good, or excellent, then we’ve missed the whole point of what education is about.”

   – Costa and Kallick (1992)

What do you think would happen if teachers allowed students to decide their report card marks?  A common response is that they’d all give themselves As and therefore the mark would be meaningless.  I wasn’t so sure and wanted to inquire into this further.  A number of years ago I decided I was going to give the responsibility of deciding a students’ mark, not to myself, nor to the tiny mathematical calculating circuits in my computer, but rather to my students.  And you know what?  I’m never going back.

Now, before anyone scoffs and claims that I am shirking my responsibilities as a teacher, letting the inmates run the asylum so to speak, please let me explain the process.

Here it goes…

1)   BELIEVE in the ability of your students to SELF ASSESS accurately.  Let go of the idea that students will be dishonest when choosing their percentage.  In order to ensure honesty you need to be transparent in how you arrive at a mark, and TEACH them the PROCESS.  In my experience students will accurately and honestly arrive at the appropriate mark if taught the process.

2)   Rely on your PROFESSIONAL JUDGEMENT and turn the computer off.  Stop thinking that the mathematical precision of spreadsheets and grade programs will lead to a more accurate or precise reflection of student learning.  We all know TRUE STUDENT LEARNING can’t be summed up in a number.  This means online programs like need to be abandoned at all costs.

3)   Make the LEARNING OUTCOMES of the course CLEAR to students and, as an extension, to parents.  Change the PLOs to “I can” statements.  Let students know what it is they are meant to be learning.  Don’t keep the learning outcomes secret.  Put them on the board, even on your assignments.  I love Shirley Clark’s quote, “If students have not been told where they are going, it is unlikely they will arrive.”  Be sure your students know it’s not about what we are DOING it is about what we are LEARNING.  Students need to believe that the purpose of being in class is to learn, not “for marks.” This will help students understand that what they are doing in class has a larger PURPOSE.

4)   STOP talking about marks on a day-to-day, sometimes minute-by-minute basis.  Stop posting marks on the wall.  If you stop talking about them and refocus the conversation to the intended LEARNING, they will eventually stop talking about marks too.  Remind them that the purpose of school is not to COLLECT MARKS; rather school’s purpose is to help students the GROW IN THEIR LEARNING.  Eventually students will see how “marks” really are just made up.

5)   For each LEARNING OUTCOME or series of outcomes (traditionally called a UNIT), develop the SUCCESS CRITERIA with the class.  Students must know what GOOD LOOKS LIKE when meeting a learning outcome.   Use these criteria to give FEEDBACK to students to help them GROW in their LEARNING.

6)   TEACH YOUR PASSION.  This part of your job is no different than now.  Give students opportunities to grow in their learning in your class.  Give them assignments that allow them to think, to evaluate and synthesize.  Challenge them and let them know that your goal is to help them become a better readers, writers, and thinkers within your subject area.   Students need to believe that you are ON THEIR SIDE in their learning.  You can’t be seen to be on the tasks’ and tests’ side.  Remember, an engaged teacher leads to engaged students.

7)   Allow students opportunities to PRACTICE WITHOUT PENALTY.  Too often everything a student does in class counts.  This is not how humans learn and can lead to anxiety in some and complacency and demoralization in others.  Let them predict, question and MAKE MISTAKES and learn from them.

8)   When you believe students are READY, allow them to SHOW YOU WHAT THEY KNOW.  These are summative assessments.   They summarize learning.  When designed effectively they will allow students to show you their ability to meet the learning outcomes.  Use the success criteria to develop RUBRICS.  Use the RUBRICS to identify where students are at in their learning.

9)   Have students REFLECT on their learning.  They must know where they are at in their learning, where they are going and be able to identify the NEXT STEPS.  Have students keep a PORTFOLIO (online or not), where they have EVIDENCE of their LEARNING.  It is this evidence of learning (clearly connected to learning outcomes) that will be used to decide on level of performance in the class.

10)                  At reporting time (twice a semester in BC) hold a GRADE CONFERENCE with EACH of your students. TALK with them about their learning.  Have st
udents decide what their most CONSISTENT LEVEL of performance is and where they are presently at in their learning.  Do not average marks across a term because it doesn’t account for growth.  Once the student has decided his / her current level of performance (excellent, very good, good, satisfactory…) have them tell you what percentage they believe they should receive and have them justify it using evidence in their portfolio.  (In BC, at this point percentages are only necessary in grades 10-12.) Agree on a percentage and report this percentage to the office.

I find that by letting students in on the “secret” of assessment and grading that they are more engaged in class.  They can clearly see how what we do in class (the stuff they used ask for marks for doing) is purposeful because it connects to the overall learning in class.  When asked, students can see the benefit of using evidence to support a grade as opposed to a computer “calculating” a series of numbers, especially when the numbers are for merely “doing” the work or are “completion marks.”   Having grade conferences has changed the way I interact with my students.  These conversations with students about their learning are often one of the highlights of my year.

Here are some student samples of their “justification” of marks and / or percentages.  They are from grade 12 students and grade 9 students.

I think I should get a C in this class because I have worked constant on projects and have contributed a little with group projects. Although my writing skills are not as good as others, I still think I can do better in the future with help from this class. In my opinion, I think I should get a 65 percent in this class.

I believe that over the semester I have shown a variety of quality of work throughout the semester. I have shown A’s all the way to c-‘s. As the semester went on I was able to get better marks. I think that as a student I have grown and got progressively better. Therefore I believe I deserve a mid ranged B.

I feel like I’ve done satisfactory, not a high B but a low B. I’ve tried to grow throughout the course and try out new things. I don’t feel like I’ve done the best I can do, but I feel like I have actually learned something that I will take along with me.

I asked for 80 because I showed improvement in my writing. I first giving projects with c/c+ this project was the civilizations project.  Then after a while my mark improved to B/B+ these projects where rise of Christianity, Greek philosophers and other assessments.

I think that I deserve an A, because there is definitely a stability in marks when you look at all my summative assessments. I have received an A grade for all of them except for 2, which are A pluses. One assessment that I would like to burn is the Russian Revolution diagram. I am not very good with visual assignments and I had a hard time completing that one. I think my learning wasn’t shown as effectively as it could have been.

I chose 81.5 % because although 80 % is what I deserve I don’t like getting a percentage with a 0 at the end.  It annoys me and makes me think its just another mark that anyone can get.  With the extra 1.5 I believe that it has personalized to me by rewarding me for the dedication to the class and the work that I have put into the class.  You may not think that counts for anything as we should only be marked on the project and the improvement and nothing else but you may have a project that has many grammar errors but the time and effort that was put into the project should count for something.  That is why that extra 1.5% is there because that is the work that was put into the final summative projects.

I think I deserve a c+ because in the beginning of the course my mark was pretty bad, with the first inquiry project I did got c-/i. However, as the course went on my mark steadily increased, getting c’s. c+’s, and b-‘s. However, the majority of my marks were c+ and thats why i think i deserve a c+ in this class.

How do you let students in on the process of deciding their marks?  Will you consider letting students decide their own mark in your class?  I’m interested in your thoughts.

Reflections on AERA 2012

I was fortunate enough to attend the AERA Conference in Vancouver this year and now it’s over and I have had time to digest all the sessions, I can say I feel even more fortunate to work in BC, than I did previously.


I have read about No Child Left Behind.  I understand that states use standardized tests to assess the effectiveness of their school system.  But only now, after being in multiple sessions with American educators, do I begin to get a feeling of how pervasive testing is.  In a session on benchmark assessments I asked, “Does the state exam take precedent over all aspects of teaching?”  The short answer was yes. 

What is clear though is that researchers understand the importance of putting students at the centre of their own learning.  Susan Brookhart suggested that student self regulation might just be formative assessment.  If students are engaged in assessing their own learning, then naturally they will be more self regulated.  Unfortunately, because state standardized tests often focus on factual recall, teachers spend lots of time preparing students for the test and often that means formative assessment gets put one side.

Sol Joye and Glenda Moss presented a session called “Doing Social Studies Through Project-Based Learning.”  I left this session affirmed in my practice.  They showed that by using PBL and open-ended questions techniques that students scored higher in all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, including the basic recall level, the level at which most state assessments were focussed on.  Their message to American teachers is that using PBL can help with test scores and motivate and engage students.  Here in Canada, this is clearly more the norm.

Collaboration, PLCs, and Professional Development

It seems to me that under the weight of standardized testing American educators have to turn to one another and collaborate to help achieve desired results.  Whether those results are educationally sound is open to debate, but what they have done is forced teachers to have conversations about their practice.  “Data” can, and is, more than numbers.  One researcher encouraged us to decouple data from accountability.  Data needs to be seen as evidence, student samples, useable by the classroom teacher to inform instructions.  Data is a place to start a conversation about what is important in student learning and how to shift practice to have the greatest effect on the success of our students.

Further to collaboration at the classroom level, Fullan and Hargreaves expressed the importance of collaboration at all levels.  District and University partnerships are important in educating new teachers.  Anne Lieberman urged us to continue to see Professional Development as research supported, networked, school based and in collaboration with others rather than being complied with.  Teachers learn best from other teachers.  The theme of shared solutions between ministry officials and teachers’ unions was not lost on those of us from BC, who are in the midst of a labour dispute between with the BC government. Ultimately, the message I left with is the creation of a collaborative culture is important in maintaining a strong public education system.

Thinking Down the Road

I left AERA with a renewed feeling of optimism in BC education.  The future of BC education is bright.  When comparing our system with that of our US counterparts we have so much that we can reflect on positively.  There are still issues that need to continue to be discussed but I left the conference surer of the direction we are heading in as teachers in BC. 

Literature Circles: Our Journey to "Grand Conversations"

This past year teachers in the Jr. Program continued to inquire into how to better engage students in literature circles in more strategic ways.  For me, in the past, I had students reading a set amount of pages per day so that everyone was at the same point in the book.  I wanted to be sure that all students could contribute to the discussion and that no one would be left behind.  The more I learned about differentiation, the more I began to question the way I was setting up literature circles in my classroom.  After reading Faye Brownlie’s Grand Conversations, Thoughtful Responses I had an “ah ha!” moment.  How could I as an English teacher, who believes in the good of reading, actually tell kids that at a certain point in a book, regardless of whether or not they are enjoying the book, to STOP READING?  Certainly not the right message.

My teaching partner, Cori Penner (@CoriPenner), and I are fortunate enough to work in classrooms that have a collapsable wall that is easily opened to allow us to combine our two classes.  We decided to go for it and let students pick their own books, select their reading groups and read at their own pace.  We started with a common class novel that we used to model how to pick key quotes and show our thinking and responses.  Then we started the literature circles.  For us we have used the literature circles to support us in three ways:

1) We are encouraging students to read as many books as possible.  The department has just recieved 400 new novels (20 copies of 20 titles) so that every student in grade 8 can have a novel to read.  Since Christmas some students are through two novels others have read over ten.  Students who told me they “weren’t readers” have started to enjoy books.  Having the Hunger Games as an option hasn’t hurt!  They use these organizers to “hold their thinking.”

2) We know that when students talk about what they read it helps develop understanding.  Two times a week our students would meet and use Sharon Jeroski’s “Super Seven” to engage in discussions about what they are reading.  After two months of meeting and discussing, students are able to engage in prolonged and deep dicussions about what they are reading.

Sharon’s Super 7 – Developing Oral Language in the Classroom

3) Literature circles help us to support the Jr. Program’s Social Responsibility initiative I blogged about previously.  Students are given opportunities to participate in and reflect upon the discussions through the lens of being committed to group activities and supporting and encouraging others.

I would encourage you, if you haven’t done so already, to explore literature circles in your classes.  They can be used as “information circles” in other disciplines where articles and other texts take the place of novels.  Ultimately its about getting students reading strategically and talking purposefully about what they are reading.  This way we are helping them think deeply about the themes and content of our course.

North Surrey’s Junior Program: Foundations

At North Surrey Secondary we have developed what is dubbed the Junior Program.  Its aim is to provide students a smooth social and academic transition from grade 7 into grade 8 and on into grade 9.  In an earlier post I wrote about the social goals of the program. For the academic goals of the program we borrow heavily from the B.C.’s English Language Arts Curriculum???.  The “Considerations for Program Delivery is worthy of a read by every teacher in every subject area.  It gets at the real reasons we educate students to begin with and provides a clear perspective of what really matters in teaching.

Ultimately we see this as being the foundation for the work we are doing in our program.  We want to help students become strategic thinkers and problem solvers.  We do this through the explicit instruction of reading, writing and oral language strategies (the basis of the ELA curriculum).  We believe that by teaching students to be metacognitive and strategic they will be better able to handle the expectations of any subject in high school

Here is a copy of a presentation we recentley gave to some of our staff that outlines the foundations of the program for the students and teachers.

If you are interested in knowing more about the program please don’t hesitate to get in contact with us.  We are happy to share our journey with others.

Together we are better!