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.

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.

Use Essential Questions To Drive Professional Learning

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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Essential questions aren’t just for classroom and student learning; they can also be used for adult learning. Open-ended, provocative, and intriguing, essential questions can provide an excellent framework for exploring teacher and schoolwide learning. Many schools, districts, and teachers use essential questions to drive student learning. For example, for a larger district initiative on assessment, the essential question might be “How will all stakeholders know we are a standards-based district?” Or, the essential question might be more specific to a teacher, such as “How can I use assessment to work smarter for my students?” Or, there might be questions around ideal learning and engagement, such as “How do I know my students are truly engaged?” and “What does engagement mean to my students?” The possibilities are endless, and these essential questions can provide excellent touchstones for professional learning.

Keep the Focus
One great part about essential questions is that they can give us a focus. All too often, there are too many initiatives occurring and no sense of cohesion. Through essential questions, we can focus our work, whether that be on assessment, personalized learning, parent engagement, or school culture. Instead of choosing many essential questions that can distract our focus, we should select a limited amount of essential questions to focus professional learning and create a sense of purpose, excitement, and cohesion.

Be Open or Apply Open-Ended Thinking
If we truly want essential questions to drive our professional learning, then we need to be open and use open-ended thinking. What does that mean? That means that teachers may be doing different things to investigate essential questions. Teachers might participate in workshops, attend webinars, visit classrooms, and complete book studies. Not all of these activities will be mandatory for all teachers, as we all have different learning needs to address in our essential questions. Essential questions can help us personalize professional learning, but only if we are willing to be flexible in their implementation.

PLCs and Choice
One way to ensure personalization and choice is to have different PLC groups investigate different questions. PLCs are a great way to accomplish open-ended thinking in a structured environment. These groups have clear deliverables and protocols to support structure while giving teachers space to explore in personally meaningful and professional ways.

Remember, it is important to revise and revisit these questions often. As we learn, we refocus and create new questions that move us toward deeper learning. The same should be true of professional learning. With essential questions, we are not only modeling great learning but also empowering all stakeholders in education to take action and nurture the whole child. By using essential questions, we can push all educators to teach for understanding in the classroom. How do you use essential questions to drive your professional learning?

Back To The Future To Improve The Present: Whole Child Reflections

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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Although a new year of school brings new beginnings, it also allows us the opportunity to reflect on the past year and think about what we did to make it such a great year. The same can be said for the five tenets of the ASCD Whole Child approach (http://www.ascd.org/whole-child.aspx). By the end of the year, our classrooms are usually “well-oiled machines” where students are engaged and challenged in their learning, feel safe and supported, and are healthy in every sense of the word. I’ve had the privilege of visiting so many classrooms where this is happening. We can learn from our past experiences to better prepare ourselves for the upcoming school year and find ways to create a learning environment now that truly fosters the whole child. Why wait until the middle or end of the year to make sure students are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged? Let’s go back to the future to improve the present (i.e., reflect on how we ended last year in order to change and improve our current actions). Here are just a few of my reflections on how we can do this.

Engaged With Technology
By the end of the year, I see some of the most purposeful uses of technology to support instruction and assessment. When we use technology carefully and intentionally to help our students learn, we can sustain engagement. Haphazard technology integration can create a short “buzz” in the classroom, but purposeful use of technology—to flip the classroom, allow students voice and choice in their assessments, and more—can create better, more sustainable engagement for our students. We can start this journey toward strategic technology integration now.

A Safe Growth Mindset
When students feel safe, they can grow. I’ve visited classrooms where students are always asking questions and trying new ideas without fear. They feel safe in not knowing the answer, and they feel safe in receiving feedback from their peers and teachers. How can we create a culture of critique and revision, where students continually seek feedback and ask deeper questions to grow in their learning? We can start by modeling a growth mindset as teachers and encouraging the process of peer critique and feedback. We can scaffold students to ask great questions. Let’s start creating a safe space now for our students.

Supported Through Relationships
By the end of the year, we’ve built strong relationships with our students. But we can start to build these relationships now by using formative assessment tools to get to know all parts of the child. We can use these assessments to look at data and academic achievement, but we can also use them to know how our students learn, their passions, and their family life. This balanced data can allow us to know our students better at the beginning of the year and establish relationships with them to ensure we target the right kind of support.

Challenged through Project-Based Learning (PBL)
Sometimes I hear people say, “I don’t think my students can handle PBL at the beginning of the year.” Although it’s true that we need to build a culture for PBL, I think, if appropriately designed, it can be successfully implemented at the beginning of the year to give students the right amount of challenge and rigor. PBL can create a place where students learn content with an authentic challenge. Our students deserve to be challenged all year round, so let’s start now.

Healthy Without Anxiety
Health is a big category in terms of supporting the whole child. While we may initially think of physical health, we can also think of mental health. When students enter our classrooms at the beginning of the year, they often have high anxiety levels, which is not healthy at all. By the end of the year, this anxiety in the classroom is usually gone. We can mitigate anxiety as soon as the year starts by standing at the door to welcome students, creating norms with them, and openly committing to supporting them in their times of stress. We can also tell students that failing is not the end but rather the beginning of learning. By acknowledging that anxiety exists and working actively to remove it from the classroom, we can create healthy students now.

The reflection process can also be replicated as a means of professional learning. This “Back to the Future” protocol (http://www.nsrfharmony.org/system/files/protocols/future.pdf) can be done in the early stages of a process (whether designing a unit of instruction or setting the classroom culture). It allows you to reflect on the past and think about specific steps you can take to make your vision for the future happen. How will you go back to the future to improve the present this school year?

Grades Should Reward Students At Their Best

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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Grading is hotly contested issue. Should we grade students? When should we grade students? How do we work through the culture of grading? What about students who only care about grades? There are no easy answers, even though there are many opinions, players, and deeply held beliefs. Personally, I would like to see education move completely away from grading, but I know this will take time and require deep reflection on our educational experiences and the educational experiences we want for our students.

So how can we move forward on this journey to a place where grading is a thing of the past? I think it really comes down to this tenet of learning: reward students at their best, and don’t punish them in the learning process.

Whether you call this standards-based grading, mastery-based grading, or even competency-based grading, it really doesn’t matter. It all comes down to a honoring the belief that our students can and will learn. The pacing may be different, the path may be different, and the role of the teacher may be different for each student. Through clear and transparent frameworks for grading (mastery-based, standards-based, etc.), our students know what excellence looks, sounds, and feels like. Our role as educators is to move our students to a place of educational achievement. Shouldn’t a grade reflect that? A grade is an indication of what a student learned, not how he/she tried and failed. We need to ensure that our grading systems reflect this. If we grade students when they try and fail, rather than when they succeed, our grading practices do not match our mission as educators to help our students succeed. The same is true for averaging grades. These send mixed messages to students. On the one hand, we say we believe in student achievement, but in practice the grade does not reward that.

When we started moving more toward this model at a school I was teaching, we had to have critical conversations about this, where all stakeholders were involved. Our continued message to all was this: “We will only reward students are their best, and not punish them at their worst.” Many found that hard to argue with. Who doesn’t want to be rewarded at their best? Who doesn’t want a chance to try again? Who doesn’t want to be rewarded for learning rather than punished for mistakes and failure in the learning process? We continued to document and monitor our students in all assessments, but grades were rewarded when students showed mastery. Here failure and mistakes were honored as steps in the learning process, not used as punishments to force students to do work through antiquated grading practices.

The journey of learning is full of failures. In my ASCD Arias publication Freedom to Fail, I write about how grading systems prevent failure from being a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow. Our students deserve the chance to solve problems, take risks, and, yes, sometimes fail—but always in safe ways. If we grade everything, we are not honoring this. In fact, we are doing the opposite. We are punishing students. We are not meeting the needs of the whole child. Grading can determine whether or not a student feels safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. We can also reduce students’ anxiety and make them healthier if we don’t grade everything. A grade should reflect what a student learned, so it should never be set in stone. Grades must be flexible to allow students to have the opportunity to learn again. Grading policies that reward students at their best create students who are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged!

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