Do No Harm: Flexible and Smart Grading Practices

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


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My Edutopia post When Grading Harms Student Learning generated a lot of buzz. Grading is an emotional subject, with strong-held opinions and ideas. I was really excited to see discussion on all sides of the issue. The best feedback for me was that, while many readers agreed with parts of the premise, I hadn’t been specific on support strategies. Thank you for that feedback — it was specific, actionable, and created the need and excitement for a follow-up post. While there are many tools out there that help address concerns around redoes, zeroes, not grading homework, and more, here are some of my favorites:

Address Behavioral Issues Affecting Academic Achievement
Points off for late work may not motivate students. I know that when I took points off for late work, some students just accepted their losses. It didn’t address the behavioral issue of late work. Similarly, it didn’t address the problem of incomplete work. I needed to figure out a way to motivate students without using points as a method. I had a form, similar to Myron Dueck’s late or incomplete assignment form (click the link and scroll down to Figure 1.3), which tried to address what was getting in the way of turning in work on time. Here, students identify those issues, from heavy course load to procrastination, and then set a new goal for completion. They also identify the support structure they might need. These forms are great behavioral issues assessments that are responsive and not punitive. It’s an approach that truly helps students to be ready for a future when it’s much more detrimental to turn in work late.

Request to Retest
This is a great way to put the student in the driver’s seat of what they’ll redo and how they’ll redo it. It puts the onus on them to be self-advocates for their learning and helps them set goals for improvement. In a request to retest form (PDF), students reflect on their score and the concepts or skills that they failed. They also identify next steps on how to improve their test. While this is specific to a more traditional test, it could also be used for other major assessments that have many components or concepts.

Redo Parts of an Assessment
Some assessments that we give students have very clear categories. For example, a history exam might assess multiple concepts or ideas, or an essay might assess thesis and organization. Here the data is easily disaggregated. If this is the case, you might have a student redo only the parts that he or she needs, leaving the rest as is. That also means that you have to re-grade or reassess much less. It saves you time as an educator and helps you really target your assessments. Again, this may not be a useful strategy for assessments that synthesize concepts or skills, but rather for assessments that can be easily disaggregated.

Reflect on Assessments
One strategy that I’ve seen many educators use is ongoing reflection throughout the assessment process, whether we’re talking about a small quiz or a major exam. For example, after students complete an assessment, they reflect and discuss questions such as:

Were you prepared for this test? How did you prepare?
How long did you study the material outside of class?
Did you feel more confident about some parts or sections than others?

These questions allow students to recognize their strengths and weakness in what they need to learn, and how they can better prepare to learn the material. What I also enjoy about this strategy is how it connects to behavioral issues that get in the way of academic achievement, addressing them directly in a non-punitive way. It also helps students and teachers plan for redoes that may not be full redoes, saving teachers and students time and stress.

Pick Your Battles
You know your curriculum. You know that some assessments and assignments are crucial in showing evidence of learning. Other assessments, mostly formative, are simply check-ins and don’t affect the grade much or at all. These smaller assessments may not be worthy of redoes or late/incomplete assignment forms. On the other hand, bigger, more comprehensive assessments may present better opportunities for offering redoes and addressing behavioral issues. As a master educator, you can pick your battles and focus on what matters most in terms of assessment. Use your best judgment!

Again, It’s About Hope
I hope that you find these tools useful in your classrooms. We need to be realistic and recognize that, no matter what we try, we may not get all students to do the work that we want in class. But we do have an opportunity to rethink how we assess students and create systems that allow for hope of achievement rather than relying on antiquated systems that haven’t met the needs of all students.

Assess More, Grade Less

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >


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One of the best things we can do in our classes to not only increase student achievement but also improve school and classroom culture is to stop grading everything. We live in a world where much is driven by grades. College admission counselors want to see grades. Many district policies, in an effort to encourage formative assessment and reporting, demand a certain number of grades in a time period. Many of our students are grade driven and constantly ask, “What’s my grade?” There are several forces that drive teachers to grade. We must, however, push back on these forces and instead focus on assessment.

Do We Really Want to See Grades?
I would argue that when a parent, for example, wants to know his child’s grade, he really wants to know how his child in doing the class. A grade alone gives no clear feedback on what students know or where they are in their learning journey. Many schools realize this and no longer report grades; instead, they report on clear learning objectives. Work and assignments may be associated with these reports, but rather than grades coming first, learning comes first. Students and parents want the same thing—to know how they are doing. We should meet that need by providing assessments with clear feedback rather than simply reporting grades.

Grading Can Harm Learning
Yes, grading can harm student learning. Often, grades are used as an enforcer to make students perform; in reality, this approach doesn’t work. Grades are commonly used as the wrong consequence to address a problem. One prime example is how some teachers deal with late work. To try to prevent students from turning in late work, teachers threaten to take off points or negate a score. This is highly problematic because it muddies the true academic grade with a behavior issue, and it often doesn’t fix the root problem. We should stop using grades as punitive tools. In his book Grading Smarter, Not Harder, Myron Dueck provides some great grading strategies, such as marking incompletes instead of zeros on late work to encourage students to work to correct a behavioral problem.

Focus on Formative Assessment
When we focus on formative assessment, we are actually taking a huge workload away. We aren’t spending all our time grading everything and can instead start working smarter. We can give more timely feedback in the moment. We can look for patterns in student errors and adjust our instruction accordingly. We can assign smaller, low-stakes check-in activities that help students know where they are in their progress toward the learning goals. Eventually, we may need to assign a summative mark to a student, but even then it shouldn’t be a priority. I was talking with a colleague about formative and summative assessment, and he jokingly said, “We give summative assessments when we are done with teaching.” We both laughed, but I knew he had a point. Summative assessments are assigned arbitrarily for the purposes of reporting, scoring, and sorting students. I say we instead focus on formative assessment to show that learning is never truly complete. Maybe I’m crazy, but it’s a dream I have.

Many teachers, schools, and districts have or are moving to grading models where assessment is meaningful and focused on feedback. It will take time to transform a culture of grading into a culture of assessment. We have to work with all stakeholders to reframe the conversation around student achievement and focus on meaningful assessments rather than hollow grades.

When Grading Harms Student Learning

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


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There are so many forces at work that make educators grade, and grade frequently. For sports eligibility, coaches constantly look at grades to see if a student is at an academic level that will allow him or her to play. Colleges review transcripts to examine what type of courses students took and their corresponding grades. Teachers must follow policy that demands them to enter a certain amount of grades every week, month, or marking period. There’s no stopping it. However, we need to reflect upon policies and practices like this — and possibly consider regulating them. Is grading the focus, or is learning the focus? Yes, grades should and can reflect student learning, but often they can get in the way and actually harm student learning.

The Dreaded Zero
I used to give out zeros in the hopes that it would force students to do work and learn. This was a terrible idea! I’m so happy that I received the professional development and resources to challenge my thinking on how I was graded as a student. Myron Dueck notes that students need to care about consequences, and many students simply don’t care about zeros. In fact, some of them will say, “Fine, I’ll take the zero,” which totally defeats the intended purpose and in fact destroys any leverage that I have to help students learn. Zeros do not reflect student learning. They reflect compliance. Instead of zeros, we should enter incompletes, and use these moments to correct behavioral errors and mistakes. Often, one zero can mathematically destroy a student’s grade and pollute an overall metric that should reflect student learning. Here, grading is getting in the way of truly helping a student, as well as showing what that student really knows.

Points Off for Late Work
I’m guilty of this one as well. Similar to using zeros, when students didn’t turn in work on time, I threated them with a deduction in points. Not only didn’t this correct the behavior, but it also meant that behavioral issues were clouding the overall grade report. Instead of reflecting that students had learned, the grade served as an inaccurate reflection of the learning goal. Well, I certainly learned from this experience, and instead began using late work as a time to actually address the behavioral issue of turning in late work. It was a teachable moment. I had students reflect on what got in the way, apply their problem-solving skills to these issues, and set new goals. Students should learn the responsibility of turning in work on time, but not at the cost of a grade that doesn’t actually represent learning.

Grading “Practice”
Many of our assignments are “practice,” assigned for students to build fluency and practice a content or skill. Students are often “coming to know” rather than truly knowing. Consequently, these assignments are formative assessments, reflecting a step in the learning process and not a final outcome or goal. Formative assessment should inform instruction. It should not be graded. If we assign a grade to failed practice, the overall grade won’t reflect what they learned. It won’t be a reflection of success, and it may even deter students from trying again and learning. Practice assignments and homework can be assessed, but they shouldn’t be graded.

Grading Instead of Teaching
As mentioned earlier, many teachers are required to enter grades on a frequent basis. While this policy may be well intended, in practice it can become a nightmare and run afoul to the intent. Districts and schools often call for frequent grades so that students, parents, and other stakeholders know what a child knows, and what he or she needs to learn next. This is a great intent. In fact, we should formatively assess our students and give everyone access to the “photo album” of learning rather than a single “snapshot.” However, if we educators do nothing but grade, we rob ourselves of the time that we need to teach. We’ve all been in a situation where grading piles up, and so we put the class on a task to make time for grading. This is wrong, and it should be the other way around. Teaching and learning should take precedence over grading and entering grades into grade books. If educators are spending an inordinate amount of time grading rather than teaching and assessing students, then something needs to change.

Hope
Our work as educators is providing hope to our students. If I use zeros, points off for late work, and the like as tools for compliance, I don’t create hope. Instead, I create fear of failure and anxiety in learning. If we truly want our classrooms to be places for hope, then our grading practices must align with that mission. Luckily, standards-based grading, mastery-based grading, and competency-based learning are making strides in many schools, districts, and states. These methods more accurately align with the premise that “it’s never too late to learn.” If you want to learn more about equitable grading practices, read work by Ken O’Connor, Myron Dueck, Dylan Wiliam, and Rick Wormeli.

With that, I will leave you with an essential question to ponder: How can we grade and assess in a way that provides hope to all students?

Valuing All Kinds Of Data For The Whole Child

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >


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When thinking about data, I use the “3 U Acronym”—Useless Unless Used. We must take action from data. We have so much of it, and, frankly, it can be overwhelming. Often, we immediately associate the word data with test scores, but test scores are only one—very limited—type of data we can analyze. In fact, there are much more powerful and relevant data we can collect and examine to support the whole child and make sure each is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.

Data for Safe and Supported
How do you know if your students truly feel safe and supported at school? It’s critical that we uncover data related to students’ sense of safety and support so we can ensure that high-quality learning occurs. To do so, we can use action research tools from How to Create a Culture of Achievement in Your School and Classroom, by Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Ian Pumpian. One such tool is a student focus group, where select students from all walks of life share answers to questions such as “Are there times you don’t feel welcome?” or “What are some things teachers do to make you feel like you are an important part of the classroom?” Or, we can get similar data by administering surveys—to both students and parents—about perceptions of safety, bullying, and excitement for school.

Data for Engaged and Challenged
One of the best pieces of data educators can collect is on-the-spot formative assessments. These can be formal, like a draft of practice presentation, or they can be informal, like observations and questions. From formative assessments, we can immediately decide what kind of differentiation is needed to keep students appropriately engaged and challenged. When we know our students and what they have or have not learned, we can provide them with just-in-time instruction. Another interesting piece of data I have collected was a survey on my students’ sense of time. Student who are engaged tend to lose a sense of exactly how much time has passed. We’ve all heard students say things like “Wow, it’s been 20 minutes? I thought we were only working for about 10.” This is one indication that students are engaged and challenged.

Data for Healthy
This one may seem obvious, but how much do we know about the overall health of our students? Schools and classrooms can survey students about foods they eat and use that data to inform health curricula. We can also look at absences related to illness and look for patterns and trends. Also, mental health is equally important. We can collect data about student anxiety, for example, by giving students surveys through which they can rank their feelings using a scale. It’s important that we know about the health of our students and find ways to create structures and supports in school to make them healthier.

These three categories of data, based on ASCD’s Whole Child tenets, include a select number of examples. Even so, you might feel overwhelmed. I suggest working in teams to uncover this data. For example, one team can create essential questions related to the safe and supported tenets, while another might investigate the healthy tenet. Data-driven instruction and support is a team effort, and we should leverage each other’s passions and expertise to make data useful.

Formative Assessments To Build Student Engagement

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >


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One of the tenets of the ASCD Whole Child approach is that all children are engaged. This is a perennial issue that is always on the minds of educators everywhere. We try all kinds of strategies to engage our students. We use brain-based strategies to get students up and moving. We build PBL units to create real-world work. We build relationships with students to show we care. All of these work together to create engagement in our classrooms, and we know there is no silver bullet to keeping all students engaged. However, one area we may overlook is how formative assessments can help us keep our students engaged.

I know that some may be initially apprehensive when I use the words assessment and engagement in the same sentence. But let’s be clear: I don’t mean major exams or tests that students have to take. Those are usually summative assessments, whether course based, grade based, or even school exit exams. I also don’t mean graded assignments. I’m talking about formative assessments—that is, nongraded assessments for the purpose of informing instruction and monitoring students’ progress toward mastery. Formative assessments are check-ins throughout a unit of instruction to see how students are progressing, not an evaluation or “end” of learning. When we accept these characteristics about formative assessments, we can then see how they can help keep our students engaged.

Imagine you are giving a lesson on an important concept or skill in your classroom. You start with a model or think-aloud to demonstrate expert reasoning and thinking to students. From there, you decide to move into a collaborative learning activity where students work in teams to learn from their peers and try tasks out with some support. You work the room and provide excellent prompts and cues to support student thinking. Then, to end the lesson, you provide a short formative assessment to see what students learned. From it, you find that many students didn’t quite grasp the concept or had major gaps in their understanding. You also find that many students did in fact learn the concept and are ready to do an independent task or activity. One of the worst mistakes you can make is to return to whole group instruction and not differentiate. We’ve all made this mistake. Sometimes we do it out of fear: “Will my some of my students really be able to work on their own while I provide further instruction to other students?” We should be optimistic and say, “Yes!” Imagine that you do return to whole group instruction. What will inevitably occur? Some students will be engaged, but many will not. Why not? Because they don’t need this instruction. They are ready to move on! If we instead return the next day and differentiate based on our formative assessments, we are giving students the instruction and tasks they need. This is “just-in-time” instruction created from effective use of formative assessment. When students get the instruction they need, they will be engaged. Educators should use formative assessments to move past their fears and give students the instruction they need.

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