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.

Buzzwords, Jargon or Just What Things are Called in Education?

This past Saturday I was fortunate to present “Motivation, Engagement and Assessment” to a group of new teachers at the annual BCTF New Teachers Conference.  I always jump at opportunities to speak to, and work with, new teachers.  They bring so much enthusiasm to teaching that I can’t help but be inspired by the next generation of teachers coming into the profession.  My passion and motivation is continually rekindled by interactions with those who crave knowledge and understanding of the complexities of teaching.

During these presentations I use the words that I believe to be the terminology, or “jargon,” of teaching.   In the middle of this presentation I started to think of some of the interactions I have had with some teachers about education research and current practice, and the common response they give me; some version of the “its only buzzwords and jargon; a different lingo to describe the things we’ve been doing for years.”  Standing in front of these new teachers, who may or may not be well versed in the language of teaching, I wondered aloud, “Don’t we have to call stuff, stuff?”  Admittedly, not very concise language, but it struck me; how do we talk about teaching and student learning if we don’t share some language and an understanding of what educational “jargon” is?  And, how do we have important conversations about teaching practices without them being dismissed as “buzzwords” or “jargon?”

I wanted to dig a little deeper here to be sure I was using these terms in appropriate ways.  Wikipedia (yes I used it, and I trusted it) defines jargon as  “terminology which is especially defined in relationship to a specific activity, profession, group, or event.” Then I ask, is educational jargon something negative or just terminology specific to our profession?  Buzzwords (again from Wikipedia) are words that are used to impress, or words that are fashionable.  How do words go from the negatively connoted,“fashionable” buzzwords used to “impress,” to the words we use to describe the act of teaching?  Why do some dismiss educational terminology, and the ideas within, as jargon and buzzwords unworthy of consideration?

While I understand there is a lot of terminology or jargon (forgive me, I am using them interchangeably now) in many of the discussions around education and change in education (including, but not limited to, personalized learning, 21st century learning, assessment for learning, inquiry and project based learning, engagement, literacy, metacognition, feedback, formative, summative, learning progression, backwards design… I could go on), I am concerned that the good ideas that lie within supposed “jargon” are thrown out by some because of the fact it is called something at all.  This is especially true if the “new” idea isn’t in fact new, but a perceived recycling and repackaging of a practice that has been around for years and is given a new name.   How do we go about making this “new” terminology known and understood by all stakeholders: teachers, students and parents?  How do we begin to learn to speak the same language?

I believe there is value in many of the practices teachers have used for a long time, and there also is value in many of the more recent ideas in teaching.  A continued conversation is needed to decide what is worth keeping and what might be ready, for reconsideration given what research is telling us.  Ultimately, as a profession we need to not to dismiss any idea that is shown to have a positive impact on student learning regardless of what its called.   The conversation must be kept on the ideas themselves, not what they are called.  We owe it to our students to not let perceived “buzzwords” and “jargon” prevent us from meaningfully talking about teaching and student learning.

Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness

How ready students are to learn is as important as what they learn.  The concept of Mindfulness and its relationship to teaching is new to me.  I was recommended Deborah Schoeberlein’s book Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness as a place to start my investigation into Mindful Teaching.  Through online connections with Grant Frend, principal of Garibaldi Secondary School we decided to start an online book club to generate discussions about the book and the impact its ideas can have for ourselves and the students in our classes.

I invite you to read the book, and use this space to write about your thoughts of the ideas presented in the book and how it may be connected to your current or future classroom practice.

You can order the book online through Chapters here.

You can submit your written reflections via email to this email address to be added to this blog.

We will be hosting a twitter chat in the 1st week of February to share our thinking and connections.  We will use the hashtag #teachingmindfulness for twitter interactions.

The author, Deborah Schoeberlein, has also expressed an interest in connecting with those of us who wish to connect and have a conversation with her.

If you have any questions please contact me.

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 checkmymark.com 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.

Starting a New Chapter and Reflections on the past 4.

Today marks the end of my time at my current school.  When I started here my daughter wasn’t 3 months old.  Three weeks ago she turned 4.  Time flies.  Well as some already know, in the fall I will be working as a faculty associate at Simon Fraser University in their Professional Development Program.  I eagerly await the opportunity to get started and the many opportunities that lay ahead.  Having worked with pre-service teachers in the past I am sure this next few years will be very rewarding and will have a positive impact on my practice.  People I meet that have done the job have all said it was a highlight in their career.  For me, my path to SFU all kind of started in November of 2010.  I was facilitating an AFL workshop at an assessment conference in Whistler, BC and I was fortunate enough to meet Damien Cooper, an assessment author and presenter.  I asked him how we might change teachers’ assessment practices to better serve our students.  His response was that we have no power to change people.  We can only seek out positions of greater influence.  Since then I have taken his message and sought out different positions of influence and have landed happily at SFU.

As I reflect on the last four years I see my work at my school as fitting into one of two “categories” of sorts that leave me two key learnings that I want to share.  The first category was that I felt the need advocate for teachers new to the profession and new to the school.  Having been the new teacher in the past I knew that sometimes having your voice heard could be difficult in busy high schools.  This led me to taking on the role of the school union representative and I was able to help ensure that teachers in the school were treated fairly and equitably.  Often times my role was just to be a person to ask questions of.  Bottom line is that I believe it is so important for those of us who have been teaching and have kind of figured it out to seek out new teachers and help them adjust to their new profession.

I have also been involved in many initiatives that advocate teaching practices that I believe better support students and their learning.  Through working with others on these initiatives my professional growth in areas such as assessment, inquiry based learning, and collaboration has been career changing and has had positive impact on the students that I teach.  The message here is that working in collaboration with other teachers is key to moving our practice forward.  All teachers have much to offer each other, and it is in these collaborative relationships that we all have the opportunity to grow professionally.  Ultimately we will positively impact the students who will continue to show up to our classes each September.

So, to conclude, if we have connected or interacted in any way over these past four years I tip my hat to you.   It is these interactions that have me continually reflecting on what I do and what I believe about teaching and learning and help me grow as an educator.  These lessons I will take with me as I head up the hill to SFU.

Enjoy the summer (if it ever shows up)!