Good afternoon, and thank you for welcoming me here to your staff meeting to share my own experiences with grading. I wear a lot of hats at Durant, but I am primarily a seventh grade Science teacher. I’ll share my contact information with you in just a few minutes, at the end of the presentation in case you have any questions or complaints.
Beginning about 2 years ago, I found myself questioning the way that I assess students. I had been chosen as Teacher of the Year for my school, which ended up being a very humbly experience. Meeting Teachers of the Year from all over the district and hearing their stories only convinced me that I had a lot of room to improve my practice. I also felt overwhelmed by the scope of my Standard Course of Study, with its vague Goals and plentiful Objectives. I also had to admit to myself that I wasn’t really keeping track of what my students knew about Science. For the first 7 years of my career, I gave tests and quizzes, offered extra credit, and penalized late work. I wrote assessments that checked to see if they remembered what I had taught them. I fooled myself into thinking that my 98% passing rate really meant that 98% of my students had mastered the state-mandated science content. Now, with my eyes opened I realized that I didn’t really know where my students stood at the start of the year, the end of the year, or at any point in between.
I was feeling lost and overwhelmed. Then, about a year ago, I learned of the ongoing grading conversation that was taking place through the middle school Data Teams. I picked up a older Ken O’Connor book on the recommendation of a colleague online. As I read about his simple philosophy, it rang true for me. I made a decision to try something new for the second semester of 08-09. In fact, I decided to start from scratch and re-examine every aspect of the way that I assess student progress and mastery.
I started with a central statement that would communicate to students, parents, colleagues, and myself what my core beliefs are. As it turned out, this idea became the nucleus onto which everything else was built.
I begin each unit by showing the students the Standard Course of Study Goals and Objectives that relate to the unit. We break down the language and compose our own “student friendly” versions. I realized when I really read the Objectives that if I stuck to what they stated, and followed the guidance of my school-level and district-level, it wasn’t as overwhelming as I had feared. Moreover, if the students and I defined the goals together they became a common target for all of us. I saw them relax a bit when I explained that if they could answer the Essential Questions clearly and completely, they would rock the test. It took away the mystery surrounding where we were going and why. Throughout each unit, we check back to see how well we can answer the questions. It’s one easy way to reinforce the goals and check our collective progress. Plus, at the end of the unit, the test is derived directly from the Essential Questions.
This led to a fundamental dichotomy in my assessments and activities. On one hand are the numerous hands-on activities, worksheets, mindmaps, puzzles, and every other assignment that was designed to be practice and skill-building. Also included in this category are formative assessments, both formal and informal, that I use to evaluate my teaching and my students’ learning. I GIVE THESE MUCH MORE OFTEN THAN BEFORE. On the other hand, are summative assessments. By definition, these are given at the end of a unit or section, and are used to report student progress to students, parents, and me. I had been using a Total Points grading system in which assignments were weighted by the amount of total points that each was worth. I immediately switched to a 2-category system. In NCWISE Gradebook, I gave a weight of 0 to the formative work, and a weight of 1 to the summative work (called Tests/Quizzes/Lab Reports, for clarification).
Since formative assignments are critical to developing the skills and knowledge necessary to eventually pass the summative assessments, and removing them from the grade would seem to remove the motivation to complete them, I knew that I had to find a way to make them important. Based on O’Connor’s writing, I knew I needed to give extensive feedback on these assignments, and from experience I knew that if I reported the results of these assignments to parents and students, shame and parental pressure might be enough to get them done. So, I made sure to write descriptive comments in NCWISE for each assignment. I used simple “copy and paste” to use the same comments for multiple students/assignments. Above all, I made sure that these comments were visible in SPAN. The consequence for not completing formative work is lunch detention during which they complete the assignments.
This grading system gets its name from the grading scale used on Summative Assessments, like Quizzes, Unit Tests, and some Lab Evaluations. Using the Essential Questions, I determine what minimal level of understanding is acceptable, and that gets assigned a C. This is attainable by all of my students, although it will require a LOT of work for some. I base the “B” level on what I fully expect my students to emerge from 7th grade with, and then I give anything higher an A. I use numerical grades, but they match up with these levels. If a student does not meet the “C” level, they are given an Incomplete. This is an important difference from an F or D, because it is not a final grade.
While any student can retake any summative assignment without penalty, Incompletes MUST be redone as soon as possible. I fully expect that my students will study and review and come to me (or peer tutors) for help before retaking. They always keep their highest score as it represents what they have assimilated from the instruction. I allow unlimited retakes within a certain window of time. I make them wait 24 hours (or more) to receive their new grade before they may retake again. And, yes, this requires a large number of test variations or open-ended questions. I use both. I treat an active or passive refusal to retake an Incomplete as a inappropriate behavior with the usual consequences. Typically, this is a lunch detention during which... you guessed it, they can study for and retake any summative assignment. Students have responded well to the “safety net” of knowing that they can’t fail a test, even though it may require more time and effort on their own part.
This is the question (in all of its forms) that I am asked most often about focusing so much on student mastery. The answer comes from Ken O’Connor and others, and it’s pretty simple. First, you must have a way to communicate performance and growth in these areas to students and parents. My school stole a table from “15 Fixes for Broken Grades” and modified it for our own use. We call it the Student Behavior & Effort Report.
Initially, we handled this by distributing a paper copy of the SBER for each student to each teacher who taught him/her. As you can imagine, this was INCREDIBLY tedious. Teacher would misplace them, or students would lose them before they got home and were seen by parents. We needed a better way. We tried to create a shared spreadsheet document that merged with the report document to create these reports en masse. But, the problem was that only one individual at a time could edit this document.
Several teachers at Durant, including Chrissy Myers, and our Data Manager, Kim O’Hara, discovered that they could change the default comment codes in NCWise, the ones that are used by teachers and printed on report cards. We chose to condense down the SBER to four areas and each area had four levels of performance. Teachers now put in these four comments per child (we were already doing three before) when they enter grades at the end of the quarter. And, the comments are printed on the report card right next to their grades. For clarification, we attach a paper copy of the matrix that explains what the comments represent.
Chrissy put together a great handout for teachers with screenshots.
Once parents and students are made aware of where they stand in terms of meeting behavior expectations, many of them will make positive changes right away. Others, as we all know, will need more motivation. It’s important that there be consequences for inappropriate behavior and lack of adequate effort in class. These consequences must not be academic (grade-based), but it often helps to think “what would I do if this student were chewing gum or cursing in my class?” and use the same punishment/motivators to correct work behaviors. I make all of my students with missing formative assignments come back at lunch to complete them. Sometimes they must have the formative work completed before they can retake the summative assessments.
Since the only difference that really matters is my workload, er... I mean, student learning, this experiment has been a success. I have been using this system since January, and I have been able to collect some data and compare some elements of the ABCi system to what I used before.
From the results of the quizzes that I have administered during the past nine months, I have seen some interesting trends. My high achieving students are not showing any change. This is not surprising, since they were earning C and higher before anyway. Some of the more conscientious among them have returned at lunch to retake B’s and A’s and raise them a bit. Others have been content with their “first attempt”. These are also the students who routinely do their formative work because they are motivated by parental/teacher/personal rewards. These kids didn’t need a change, but it hasn’t affected them negatively. The bottom group struggles to complete any work and has never been motivated by poor grades to improve. Incompletes don’t phase them and I have had to hassle them to return for the mandatory retakes. It has meant a lot of work and most of these students have not improved significantly. They seem to believe that retaking an assessment without any extra preparation will improve their grade. They are seriously mistaken. The most revealing change has been in the middle group. These students would typically do the majority of their work, some of it late and incomplete. Some of them have stopped turning in their formative work since it doesn’t affect their average. However, most of these students earned a C or lower on the quizzes, but came back for a little bit of clarification or explanation (where in the past they would have simply settled for a poor score and tried to bring up their average with consistent work ethic) and scored C’s or B’s (and several A’s) on the retakes. These are the success stories, at least for now.
Now that I have completed two 9-week quarters with this system, I can do some tentative analysis of the results. As you can see from the First Quarter to the Second Quarter, there was a very negative shift in quarter grades. For the 3rd Quarter, however, that change was reversed (and then some). It would be expected that many of the B’s and even C’s from earlier in the year would retake their way to A’s, and that is evident. Also, the number of C’s remains steady, and the number of D’s and F’s is practically zero.
My students responded very positively to the grading system change, and my teammates (while skeptical of its practicality) could see its value. My only fear was that parents who did not fully understand the merits of this system would rally and I would find myself in the Principal’s Office. So, I decided to be proactive.
Since I’m a bit of a website monkey, I built a new page on my website that used clear and simple language to explain the change to parents, along with giving them links to related resources and to my email so that they could ask questions.
I also posted a special message on the SPAN website for students and parents to read before they even viewed the grades. Within this message is a link to the webpage for further explanation.
So far, so good. It’s early, and the first set of report cards won’t go out for a couple more weeks, but the response so far from parents has been very positive. They appreciate the underlying philosophy and the reward that comes from review and retake.
Some issues still remain unanswered: -Now that you know who is not “getting it”, how to find time to reteach/remediate? Dolphin Day @ DRMS is not enough, nor is lunchtime. -How hard do I work to force retakes of those who so desperately need them, yet show NO interest in doing them? Those accustomed to failure don’t fear it. -How do build sense of responsibility in students for improving their own grades, while not allowing unmotivated to students to escape responsibility? -What behavioral techniques can be used to encourage these students?
In practice, some elements of this ABCi grading system have proven to be untenable and impractical. For example, some of my students get to the end of the quarter and (despite my best efforts) they have not raised their summative scores to a C or better. In these cases, I have gone back to my underlying philosophy: the grade must represent ONLY what the child has mastered. For some, I have used the parts of the final cumulative assessment (think Unit Test) to extrapolate what their final level of mastery was on a subset of skills, and then used that as the Quiz grade. For others, I have simply had to let them keep their failing grade at the end of the quarter. It hasn’t left me feeling satisfied professionally, but I have to allow those intent on failing (or completely disinterested in succeeding) to achieve their goal.
Adventures inAdventures in
Durant Road Middle School
How Did I Get Here?
Photo courtesy of Andres Rueda
Photo courtesy of Flickr user “That was my foot”
A student's grade mustA student's grade must
representrepresent onlyonly their leveltheir level
of mastery with the state-of mastery with the state-
mandated Sciencemandated Science
Photo courtesy of Flickr user perpetualplum
Formative vs.Formative vs.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mel McC
Image from istockphoto.com
Image from istockphoto.com
A = Above grade level
B = At grade level
C = Minimum standard
Incomplete = Below
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IncompletesIncompletes MUSTMUST bebe
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How do we addressHow do we address
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