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Last semester I had to say goodbye to a student who had to move out of town with his family. It happens, but its never fun when a student has to pick up and leave in the middle of a school year. This kid, we’ll call him Beathan, was pretty upset about the whole move and not terribly happy about going to a new school in another state. He’d been moved around already before he came to me.

Beathan really liked science. We’re talking about a kid who spent three hours of his school day in my science classroom, so if ever there was a student who liked science, it would be this guy. He was really thriving in my science classes, too, the kind of student who was earning B’s not because he wasn’t super smart, but because he was too busy exploring different aspects of programming or whatnot and couldn’t always be bothered with the more mundane aspects of turning in every assignment. So, a good kid. The kind of student that drives you crazy because they want to know more than you know and push your limits. The kind of student you want to clone because you know they are going to rule the world someday.

Fortunately for everyone concerned, a group of his friends kept in very close touch with Beathan over the past few months and orchestrated a way to get him back to us during his Spring Break. They pooled their money and bought him a plane ticket to Denver, picked him up, and brought him to school with them for the greater part of a week. He mostly followed his old daily schedule, which meant that he spent most of the day bumming around in my classroom.

One day between classes I asked Beathan how his science classes were going at the new school. Here’s a rough transcript of our conversation:

  • Mr. L: So what are your science classes like?
  • B: Packets. Lots of packets.
  • Mr. L: Packets?
  • B: Packets, as in a reading, then 40 chemistry problems to solve. Then another packet the next day. And the next.
  • Mr L: What about labs?
  • B: Those have packets too.
  • Mr. L: And how about Biology?
  • B: More packets. Except these are about photosynthesis.

-Sigh-

Kids need to learn science concepts. Packets are used to teach science concepts. But when I do a completely unscientific Google Search for “science school work” I don’t see a lot of packet completion going on:

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If I posted my photo library from my classes it would look something like this random collage as well. Is that just because no one wants to photograph kids working on science packets? Are packets just not sexy enough? Of course they aren’t, but, simply put, pictures of kids staring intently at packets is just not what we want to use to represent our science education programs. I can see the advertising campaign slogans now: “Come learn with us at West Terrence Field High School: our packets are the best way to learn science!” Hopefully this Packet Land scenario is not going to happen, except it apparently is, and Beathan is one of its victims.

I wish I could say that packets are a generational thing, and that its only old science teachers like me that use them, and that they’ll eventually go away as the next generation of younger, more flexible teachers arrives on the scene with fresh new ideas. But, then again, judging by the number of hits for the word “packet” on Teachers-Pay-Teachers, the packet is alive and well amongst the digital generation as well.

My hope for students like Beathan is that we science teachers realize that when we only allow students to learn science practices and concepts from us through a narrow window of packets and simulations, we deny them the real nature of science which, as everyone knows, is to take chances, make mistakes, and get messy (via Mrs. Frizzle, as if I need to remind you).

P.S.— Beathan, although I cannot offer you asylum from your Packet Land, I do fervently hope your teachers let you make as much of a mess at your new school as you’ve made here. BTW, we’ve “repurposed” your claymation kit.

On a previous post here at SEE, Aaron Bieniek posted a great series of questions:

“How do you know if the work you are seeing on the blogs actually reflects what that student knows? How do you know the ideas expressed there are not borrowed from someone else? The implication is that unless a student works alone in a controlled “testing” environment – we can’t be sure what that student knows on his/her own. How would you answer that? How much of a role do typical tests play under your system?”

Here are a few thoughts on these questions:

 

How does any teacher know that a student completed their assessments on their own?

passingnotes

I got interested in having students blog, in part, because I wanted to get away from the piles of worksheets and study guides that I used to assign. I found that with many students, the worksheets (when scored for points in the gradebook) became things to do, and not tools for learning. Many students would copy from their friends and neighbors and the determination of individual learning was difficult without other assessments like tests and quizzes. Nevertheless, I still hear of many teachers who collect homework or other daily assignments and enter those “grades” into the point total for students’ final grade as if they were measurements of individual learning. Maybe they are, maybe not. This issue of “ownership” of learning is not unique to blogs or other online forms of assessment.

 

Aren’t the ideas in a student’s blog post borrowed from someone else?

Yep. Everything is a remix. We should encourage students to take what is known about a topic and remix it in a way that is their own. However, we do want to make sure that students are doing their own work. I try to assign assessments that can be completed using multiple creative tools that allow students to show what they know in a unique way. If everyone is filling in the same GoogleDoc worksheet (which I still do, for some entry level activities) then its less clear who was doing the work. Make those assignments worth less, if you score them at all. If, on the other hand, a student creates a video or other quality online artifact explaining a topic or tackling a problem, then usually you’ve got a pretty good idea of their understanding of that topic. And, more importantly, your discussions with the student as they are producing that complex learning artifact will clue you in as to their level of understanding. Surely we don’t expect novice learners to synthesize brand new complex ideas that no one has ever thought of before? Its a remix of reasonably correct ideas and a demonstration of engagement with a topic that we’re aiming for in our blogs.

 

Since student blogs and portfolios are online, isn’t it easier to copy from another student or other sources?

Maybe, but its also easier to detect plagiarism online. In the same way that a kid can copy/paste from someone else’s work, a teacher can copy/paste a student’s work right back into Google or another plagiarism checker and see if it is their own work. Also, as mentioned above, as an active participant in creating these learning artifacts, the teacher knows which students are engaging the material on their own and who is waiting until the last minute to borrow work from someone else. When in doubt check the blog post dates. Since they have a date and time stamp, blogs have an advantage over paper copies in that the student who posts an assignment to their blog first wins the originality argument in cases of student to student copying. My (thankfully few) students who insist on copying often have several blog posts appear on the same day, usually right before a major deadline or marking period. Painfully obvious. I simply send them a note to remove the offending blog posts and have them redo the assignment(s) on their own.

 

What about traditional forms of testing? Aren’t tests the best way to measure individual students?

It depends on what you are trying to measure. Tests and quizzes are fine for assessing specific content knowledge facts. I still use them to some extent in all of my classes. I found, however, that I often want to make tests that consist of mostly essay questions because I am increasingly convinced that my multiple choice tests were missing a large part of the story of what my students had actually learned. If a student gets a question wrong on a MC test, it doesn’t tell me anything about why they got it wrong or what they did actually know about the topic. I can’t give partial credit for understanding on a MC question. Therefore, logically, if you find yourself giving lots of essay tests, blogs are an obvious outgrowth of that philosophy because you are having students continually write about what they are learning. This is especially true in the more narrative science courses like biology and anatomy. The more math-intensive subjects like chemistry and physics should have more tests since a student has to show their work (and therefore their thought processes) for full credit. Plus, problem solving (math) is way easier to work out on paper compared to a blog post.

 

Why do we want to be sure what a student knows on their own?

I’ll argue that its the second half of that question that matters: on their own. Students do need to understand some basic concepts in order to be able to operate in the more complex and creative areas of my class, I get that. What I want to see, though, is a rich classroom and assessment environment in which students are not on their own but are instead supported in their learning and creating by their peers and by the teacher. I worked in academic science labs long enough to know that real science is done in groups where the experts in an area or a technique will teach others their specialty because of a love of teaching and learning. I would far rather try to figure out what students have learned in a group because that models real life and real scientific exploration.

I do use tests and quizzes, but only rarely, and often as practice or quick check-in quizzes. However, in my best moments, assessment of student learning comes from seeing what they can do in a lab situation or what they can create to show mastery of a topic. Will I be able to be 100% sure of what each student knows? Of course not. I bet no one else can get inside a student’s head either. But by using student blogs and student-curated portfolios of learning, I can see what kind of tasks they attempted as part of my class, what they believe they have learned, and I can attempt to judge their level of performance on those tasks by looking at both the artifact they produced and their reflection on their performance.

Moving away from tests is a conscious choice. I don’t use tests very often, not because they are useless, but because they can’t recreate the kind of performance tasks that I want students to be able to do.

 

-for another take on the role of tests see Joe Bower’s post “How will I know what my students know if I don’t test them?

Like a straight-laced teetotaler at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I am a horrible ambassador for grading reform.  I am possibly the worst person to try to explain how to change someone else’s classroom into a standards-based learning environment because it was never much of a struggle for me. I saw a need to reform my grading practices and I did it. Most of what I read leading up to the changes I’ve made said that it would be a tough and nasty fight, mistakes would be made, and that I should expect resistance from all the different stakeholders in the system. Mistakes have been made, for sure, but I’d call that “learning what works.” The fights and nastiness have never really materialized, save for a few parents of “A students” who were less than thrilled to suddenly have “B students.”

With that said, I now find myself advocating for SBL/SBG and am being mentioned/linked occasionally here and there, including at my own little high school. My principal has asked me, along with 3 other teachers trying various implementations of SBL, to present the topic at an upcoming faculty meeting.

Here’s my problem: how do I go back and put myself in the mindset of someone who is just now hearing about this “new” standards-based learning/grading stuff and make the case that teachers should make sweeping changes to how they assess and grade students? How do I show how awesome standards-based learning can be for them and their students without seeming to preach that everyone needs to drop what they’re doing and adopt it now, now, now!?

Its probably going to sound preachy no matter what I do, that’s in the eye of the beholder and can’t really be changed on my end, but I think the message will be better received if I focus on describing my journey rather than telling people how to do SBL in their classroom. After all, a science teacher like me sure isn’t going to know much about what standards an English teacher wants to use in their classroom. Best to stick to the why, and not so much the how.

To my mind there are three “why” questions that keep popping up about SBL that teachers will want to hear about. They are interrelated “whys,” but are indeed separate aspects of the reasons lots of people, myself included, are trying out standards-based learning systems.

Q #1: Why use standards-based learning instead of a points-based system?

A1: Because assessment of learning and Assignment of Grades Should be completely separate.

Assessment of learning lets both you and the student know whether they understand the content knowledge and skills that are needed to master a particular course. Grading, however, is a teacher’s judgement call about the relative location of a student’s performance on some scale of “gradations” that has been established for the purposes of comparison.

If we start from a mindset of assessment of learning, then we have to start from an exploration of the standards and performance indicators for students: What is it that I need to assess? What content and performance standards do students need to demonstrate? How will everyone know that they’ve been successful at meeting these learning targets? The observation of performances of specific learning targets helps focus such a system on assessment of student learning and does not necessarily have to lead to a letter grade.

However, if I start from a mindset of assigning points for each assignment, and those points always go into the gradebook to help me determine a student’s grade, then I am not assessing learning, I am grading, right from the start. There is only one measurement that happens when everything students do is worth points, and it is not measurement of learning. Accumulated points measure assignment completion; they measure compliance. Which is fine, if you believe that teaching compliance is the goal your classroom. However, if you are one of the thousands of teachers struggling to write lesson plans that claim to assess the CCSS and NGSS or CAS or whoever’s “S”, just so you know, “S” is for Standards, and “C” is never for compliance. It should be about the learning.

I tackled this issue a while back by reducing point values to almost nothing, a simple binary grading system of 1′s and 0′s for most assignments. It worked to some extent, in that it minimized the point values given to formative assessments that really had no business being included in a final evaluation of a student’s learning. Most points came from tests and quizzes, which were more appropriate assessments of student learning, but still, the signal to noise ratio was pretty terrible for everyone concerned. If you were getting a 78% in my class back then, you only knew that you had to work “harder” or turn in more stuff to move up to a B. That 78% rating didn’t tell students what they were good at, only that they had turned in or “earned” 78% of the points possible. They might not even have to change a thing about their performance in the class if I curved the grades to make them more “realistic.”

Even with points minimized, my students were still at the mercy of the numbers game, portrayed so well in this pic taken from this awesome resource by Thomas Guskey (via Scott McLeod):

GradingNumbersGame

Short answer to the question: None of these mathematical tweaks is best. No single one is any more fair than the others. They are all horrible at showing exactly what a student did or did not do to earn those numbers. Does your gradebook look like this? Mine did. It annoyed me, so I ditched it completely (and no, you don’t have to–see the first paragraph of this post).

Q #2: Why allow for multiple chances to prove mastery of a standard?

A2: You don’t have to.

Admit it. You hate the idea of retests, reassessments, and grading the same assignment over and over forever and ever until the end of the semester.

But there is no set rule in the (non-existent) SBL playbook that says that you have to give students every chance in the world to pass a test about one of your standards. Nor is there a rule that says you have to give different assessments for the same standard. In fact, there are no rules about the “right” or “wrong” way to do reassessments in SBL.

A rational person will, however, recognize that the goal of a teacher-student relationship should be to demonstrate learning, and if we are talking about a standards-based classroom, then the learning should correlate to particular learning targets. If a student happens to miss the target or fail to provide evidence for learning that standard, wouldn’t the kind thing to do be to give them another shot at it?

Normal (i.e. non-SBL) teachers have a word for this: its called differentiation. Differentiation happens easily in an SBL system, but too often I hear people bashing SBL for its mushy deadlines and hippy-dippy approach to letting students have one more chance to prove themselves. Honestly, if you are really into training students to be compliant with your one-shot tests and strict deadlines, then maybe this whole differentiation thing isn’t exactly for you anyway. (I’d start working on your grading curve now)

Q #3: Why use standards-based portfolios of student learning?

A3: Because communicating standards-based learning in a report card is awful.

One of the noted failings of SBL is how ironically terrible the communication of student achievement can get. Standards-based report cards are notoriously cryptic if short enough for human consumption (STD3.1.1a = P) and horrendously long if written so that anyone other than a curriculum specialist can understand it (Learn and Understand Biology-Related Terminology, Concepts, Representations, and Models: Biomolecules: Understand the structure and function of important biomolecules such as carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins). Furthermore, SBL-based grade reporting usually requires tweaks of existing online gradebook programs and parent info portals, often with confusing and inconsistent results. I’ve seen those kinds of report cards. They are not helpful.

Instead, why not give parents something to see that demonstrates their kids’ achievements in your class. Show them the actual work that demonstrates that their child can analyze data, communicate well, or work in collaborative groups for the betterment of all. Show off your student’s work, sorted by standard. This communicates both your standards and the efforts that students have put in to meet those standards.

Also, portfolios give students a guide to what they need to accomplish while in your classroom. A blank portfolio delivered to them at the beginning of the year is the gauntlet that you throw down to challenge them: “I dare you to fill this in with proof that you can learn how to do all these things.” Its one more tool that helps hand off the burden of learning to the student.

Alt A3: You don’t have to.

Standards-based learning is just that: a system of activities and assessments centered around defined learning goals rather than accumulation of points for a grade. Each and every way that teachers use to keep track of learning by standards will work, even without portfolios. Make a spreadsheet. Use your existing grade book, just change the headers on your columns. Even if you use (gasp) numerical representations of learning, a.k.a points, to keep track of achievement in individual standards, you’re still ahead of where you and your students were back when they were counting up how many points they needed for an A and you were wondering how far to curve the latest exam to make the class average a 75%.

sharing ideas

A strange hobby…

I’ve been tinkering around with the Next Generation Science Standards a lot lately, mostly out of a sense of curiosity about how they line up with my current practice. 15 years of teaching biology has made me rather opinionated about what’s important for students to learn, so its always a good reality check to see where my practice lands in comparison to the “latest research,” which in this case is the NGSS. This post will discuss what I’ve found so far (at least in HS biology), and what we as science teachers can do to make the NGSS useful to ourselves and our students.

First, a warning of sorts. I teach in Colorado, which doesn’t subscribe to the NGSS, at least not yet. The science gurus at the Colorado Department of Education are seemingly content to stick with their latest revision of their science standards, which is relatively new. They are currently busy snuggling up with Pearson to develop online science tests for next year’s senior class, so I doubt there’s much pressure to switch to the NGSS at this point in time. Unfortunately, this means I’ve got two masters to serve, assuming I pay any attention to the NGSS. Keep that in mind as you read the rest of this proposal.

NGSS HS Biology overview

Regardless of my state’s stance on the NGSS, I’ve bought into them just enough to give them a good look-through to see what’s new, what’s the same, and what’s missing compared to what I do at the moment.

-New: The NGSS nicely integrates the Science and Engineering Practices into the teaching and learning of biology. If you’ve worked on upgrading your AP Biology curriculum to the latest version, you’re already pretty familiar with what the NGSS is aiming for in terms of science performances by your students. Also “new”: there are several places where “computer simulations” are mentioned along with the emphasis on modeling (the Colorado standards love computer simulations too). What these simulations are and who will sell them to me remains to be seen.

-Same: Most of the key content area knowledge domains are still there in the NGSS (with a few notable exceptions).

-Missing: Enzymes, cell structure, and membrane transport. I know that the writers of NGSS wanted to pare down the amount of stuff we have to teach in order to allow for deeper experiences, but wow, those are topics that have amazing labs that I think are perfect for the kind of science performances that the Practices are aiming at.

In short, the NGSS are a great step forward, but have some gaps that I think we can fill.

Who are the NGSS for?

Here’s the key question going forward with adopting any new set of standards like the NGSS: Who are the standards for? There’s been a lot of discussion of who wrote the NGSS and for what purpose, which are pretty darn good questions. Unlike the Colorado standards, the NGSS don’t appear to be written with specific test items in mind. That doesn’t mean that they won’t be used to develop tests, but the greater potential of the NGSS lies in how teachers will use them to focus more on the practice of science and less on the lame “testable” stuff. As in all thing education-related, its going to be how the NGSS change actual classroom practice that matters. So how will we make use of the NGSS in a valuable way as science educators? First, we need to know what they recommend that we should be teaching and how we should approach that material.

A crowdsourced NGSS biology curriculum

In the spirit of thumbing my nose at those companies that want to make money by selling us “NGSS-ready” materials, I propose that we crowdsource a freely-available collection of documents that are aligned to the NGSS and link to resources that we can use in our classrooms. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the niceties of curriculum design and generally hate being pigeonholed into someone else’s formatting, so the stuff I’m proposing as a starting point isn’t going to win any awards with your administrators. Adapt it as you see fit. Its just a beginning.

I had recently developed curriculum docs for the Colorado standards so I did some cross-walking to see where the NGSS matched up to my existing unit structure. This was the result (in public GoogleDocs):

Biology units aligned to NGSS and Colorado Standards

These docs include:

    • A checklist for the 8 Science and Engineering Practices for each unit. This could be improved and made more detailed, but for now the simple checklist is a survey of which practices will be demonstrated (often its all 8, but not always).
    • A list of NGSS and Colorado standards for each unit.
    • Essential Questions and Big Ideas for each unit, primarily based on the NAP Frameworks for disciplinary core ideas, but also drawing on my teaching experiences.
    • Activities for each unit, based on what I do now with students, which could certainly be expanded and improved upon.
    • A Correlation Matrix that shows roughly in which units the different standards are encountered, both for NGSS and Colorado standards.
    • A guide for adapting the NGSS practices and topic areas for standards-based learning in biology.

Next steps

Right now the whole folder of goodies is shared publicly so you can at least view what’s there. Feel free to copy anything into your Drive and adapt it as needed. It’d be more fun, of course, if you are willing to share activities and help edit the documents to make them more useful “NGSS-ready” tools for teachers. If you want to help edit the docs, leave a comment here or drop me a note on Twitter and I’ll set your google account as an editor. Or, if you prefer, you can send me links to good activities and labs and I’ll add them to the appropriate units. Thanks in advance for joining me in the strange hobby of curriculum writing!

 

Image credit: CoolTownStudios

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Introduction (or Why Should I Care About the NGSS?)

As you could guess, one of the major themes at the recent Denver Regional NSTA meeting was how to begin to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in our science teaching. I started off the conference by attending a talk by Brett Moulding, who is described as being the “writing team leader” for the NGSS, so he probably knows what the NGSS are about.

Mr. Moulding’s talk focused on the following ideas:

    1. No, not everyone has officially adopted the NGSS (Colorado has not, for example) but it does represent the latest research and teachers should always be aware of the latest research into how students learn science.
    2. There are three dimensions to the NGSS: Ideas, Practices, and Crosscutting Concepts.
    3. The past of science education was the “what,” the facts that could be easily assessed.
    4. The future of science education is getting kids to show that they understand the “how and why,” the mechanisms behind phenomena.
    5. “They are going to perform the science.” “Performance is HUGE.” The focus is on student science performances.
    6. This performance should be their assessment. Instruction and assessments should be similar.

It was really amazing to hear one of my favorite messages about science eduction being supported by someone so influential, namely that we should be moving away from focusing on only teaching science facts and instead focus on the doing of science. This was a great morale booster for my talk at the conference later that day about facts vs. skills and the ways that our assessments need to change to measure those skills.

At the end of his talk Mr. Moulding did field several questions about new assessments for NGSS and he pointed out the that National Academy of Sciences National Research Council (NRC) would soon be releasing their proposed guidelines for what the new assessments for NGSS would look like.

The NRC did indeed release new guidelines the week after the NSTA conference and they are summarized here if you are interested in reading them for yourself. All the quotes I’m going to use come from the prepublication download of the National Academies Press book Developing Assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards.

At first, the document reads as I expected, like a manual for those testing companies that are itching to get going on selling us the NGTT (Next Generation of Terrible Tests) with comments like

Designing specific assessment tasks and assembling them into tests will require a careful approach to assessment design. (pg Sum-3)

Nothing earth-shattering here. But then there are some glimmers of daylight that there might be something in this report for us non-test-developers:

…it will not be feasible to cover the full breadth and depth of the NGSS performance expectations for a given grade level with a single external assessment comprised solely or mostly of performance-based questions… (pg Sum-5)

which is pretty obvious if you think about the amazingly large array of tasks that students would have to complete if we are really assessing all the content and performance standards of the NGSS.

To get around this issue of tests not being able to truly measure all that NGSS demands of students, we find the real gold nugget of the document so far:

States or districts might require that students in certain grade levels assemble portfolios of work products that demonstrate their levels of proficiency. (pg Sum-5)

This is the first of several references to the use of portfolios in this report, some of which I’ll mention in a bit.

Without going line by line through the rest of the document, I’ll summarize it by saying that the NRC recommends that educators create an integrated “assessment system” that consists of three parts:

    1. Assessments for classroom instruction (mostly for teachers to see how well students are performing).
    2. Monitoring assessments (external assessments that can be used with large numbers of students).
    3. Indicators of opportunity to learn (measures of the quality and content of science instruction).

What follows is a discussion of why I think that using student digital portfolios can help teachers meet these three requirements listed in the NRC’s report. If you haven’t seen the kind of portfolios we use in my classes, you may want to have a look. The rest of this will make a lot more sense if you can picture the kinds of portfolios that I am talking about.

1. Student Portfolios are Classroom Assessments of the NGSS

From Developing Assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards:

Classroom instruction is the focus of the framework and the NGSS, and it is classroom assessment–which by definition is integral to instruction–that will be the most straightforward to align with NGSS goals (once classroom instruction is itself aligned with the NGSS). (pg 4-2)

By “aligned with the NGSS” they are referring to science courses that can demonstrate that classroom-based assessments measure the different content and skill requirements of the NGSS:

…students need to experience instruction in which they (1) use multiple practices in developing a particular core idea and (2) apply each practice in the context of multiple core ideas. (pg Sum-3)

which ties in nicely to Brett Moulding’s vision for the NGSS as moving away from isolated facts and towards student performances of science.

Can portfolios of student work be used by teachers to assess the core knowledge and skills addressed in the NGSS? Absolutely. I’ve taken some initial steps to do just that with my student portfolios this year. All that is required is that the portfolio be explicitly designed to collect evidence about a particular set of skill and content standards that matches the performance standards laid out in the NGSS. Students and teachers can use such a portfolio to examine and discuss how well students are able to provide evidence that they have met each standard. Of special note given the NRC recommendations, the kinds of portfolios that we use include both content knowledge and skill standards and can allow students to display evidence of applying core ideas and science practices.

2. Student Portfolios are Monitoring Assessments for the NGSS

The NRC report highlights some of the problems with current standardized tests in terms of measuring performance on the NGSS:

The science tests that are currently used for monitoring purposes are not suitable to evaluate progress in meeting the performance expectations in the NGSS, for two reasons. First, the NGSS have only recently been published, so the current tests are not aligned with them in terms of content and the focus on practices. Second, the current monitoring tests do not use the types of tasks that will be needed to assess three-dimensional science learning. (pg 5-3)

In most cases, the items assess factual knowledge rather than application of core ideas or aspects of inquiry that are largely decoupled from core ideas. They do not use the types of multicomponent tasks that examine students’ performance of scientific and engineering practices in the context of disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts nor do they use tasks that reflect the connected use of different scientific practices in the context of interconnected disciplinary ideas and crosscutting concepts. (pg 5-3)

One of the proposed solutions to the issues that surround standardized tests in science is to encourage the development of classroom-embedded assessments such as a

Portfolio of Work Samples and Projects

A third option for classroom-embedded assessments would be for a state or district to provide criteria and specifications for a set of performance tasks to be completed and assembled as work samples at set times during the year. The tasks might include assignments completed during a school day or homework assignments or both. The state or local school system would determine the scoring rubric and criteria for the work samples. Classroom teachers could be trained to score the samples, or the portfolios could be submitted to the district or state and scored centrally. (pg 5-18)

The report goes on to state that portfolios can and have been used for standardizing or auditing across classrooms:

One example is Kentucky’s portfolio program for writing, in which the portfolios are used to provide documentation for the state’s program review. In Wyoming, starting officially in 2003, a “body of evidence system” was used in place of a more typical end-of-school exit exam. (pg 5-19)

Since I developed my portfolio system based on standards not only from the NGSS, but also from a variety of sources such as AP Biology and Colorado Community College Common Course guidelines, the NRC’s discussion of “teacher moderation methods” struck a particular chord and also speaks to the utility of student portfolios to allow for comparison of students from multiple locations:

Moderation is a set of processes designed to ensure that assessment results (for the courses that are required for graduation or any other high-stakes decision) match the requirements of the syllabus. The aim of moderation is to ensure comparability; that is, that students who take the same subject in different schools or with different teachers and who attain the same standards through assessment programs on a common syllabus will be recognized at the same level of achievement. This approach does not imply that two students who are recognized as at the same level of achievement have had the exactly same collection of experiences or have achieved equally in any one aspect of the course: rather, it means that they have on balance reached the same broad standards. (pg 5-19)

Furthermore, the NRC report goes on to explore examples of successful “school-based assessments” such as that found in Queensland where:

Assessment is determined in the classroom. School assessment programs include opportunities to determine the nature of students’ learning and then provide appropriate feedback or intervention. This is referred to as “authentic pedagogy.” In this practice, teachers do not teach and then hand over the assessment that “counts” to external experts to judge what the students have learned: rather, authentic pedagogy occurs when the act of teaching involves placing high-stakes judgments in the hands of the teachers.
Samples of student work (are) annotated to explain how they represent different standards (pg 5-20)

I love this section because it describes perfectly how my students and I use portfolios. I provide the framework of standards for the portfolio and students fill the portfolio with evidence of learning and they have to explain how their artifacts meet each standard.

And finally, the fact that our portfolios are online meets one of the major recommendations of the report:

New technology and platforms that support further upgrades make it much easier than in the past to accumulate, share, store, and transmit information. Such possibilities will make it easier to work with evidence collected in systems of assessment that are composed of multiple elements. (pg 5-22)

3. Student Portfolios are Indicators of the Opportunity to Learn Using the NGSS

“Indicators of Opportunity” is mostly a fancy way of saying “accountability.” Are teachers using the NGSS to the greatest possible extent to support student learning of science? There are many possible measures for such a system, listed here by the NRC:

The report includes a number of indicators that we think are key elements of a science accountability system: program inspections, student and teacher surveys, monitoring of teachers’ professional development, and documentation of classroom assignments of students’ work. (pg 6-9)

Therefore, a portfolio-based assessment system can serve the additional purpose of holding a classroom teacher like myself accountable for which types of activities I provide for my students to carry out:

Documentation of curriculum assignments or students’ work might include portfolios of assignments and student work that could also provide information about the opportunity to learn (and might also be scored to provide direct information about student science achievement). (pg 6-10)

See what they did there? The NRC itself mentions the possibility that portfolios will be used for multiple aspects of this new assessment system. Not only will this portfolio my students produce hold them accountable for learning the different standards for a given course, it will also hold me accountable for providing them plenty of opportunities to meet each content and skill standard.

Conclusions

Like it or not, the NGSS are probably not going away any time soon and at the very least represent the latest and greatest thing to come along in science education. Educators can either sit back and let the big testing companies have their say about how to assess for the NGSS or we can dig in and create our own ways of showing that we are helping our students perform to the level that the NGSS demands. Its pretty clear that everyone knows that technology will be involved. What remains to be decided is whether we as teachers will be content with our students doing “science simulations” in online assessments or whether we’ll have them do the real thing in class and create ways for students to document their learning for all to see. I’m going with door number 2 on that one. How about you?

 

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I’ll be giving a short presentation later this week at the Denver Regional NSTA meeting about how (and why) to use portfolios for assessment and evaluation in science classrooms. For those of you who like to mark up slides during a talk, here’s the set of slides (pdf link) that I plan to use. They’ll make a little more sense with some dialogue to accompany them, but even if you aren’t attending, you can get most of the main points that I’ll try to make. Be sure to come find me there, or drop me a note in the comments if you have questions.

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. All photos and screenshots (except the textbook figure on chemical bonding) are from my physical and digital classroom.

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This post is about the “points” game that schools play and how to avoid it. By points I mean those numbers we award to students for performances of learning in our classes. Such numbers must have something to do with measuring student learning, but how points-based grading is being used and abused is worth a deeper look.

Why do teachers use points to quantify student learning?

I suspect this answer varies from person to person, but probably for most of us it comes down to tradition. Its “always” been done this way: the teacher sets a maximum number of points possible on an assignment or test, kids do the task and turn it in, then the teacher rates the work as some percentage of the maximum value possible.

These numbers are collected, processed, massaged, and ultimately used to determine an “objective” numerical score that measures learning. Its easy. Any of the popular gradebook software programs will take whatever numbers you throw at them and crunch them into something seemingly meaningful. For example, one student is an 87%. Another is a 57%. Parents, students, and teachers “know” what this number tells us about the student. We use this type of grading system because it provides us the illusion of scientific observation of a student’s achievement.

We train students to want more points (or give up entirely when they fail to get them)

Another use of points is as a reward system. “Oh, you completed that worksheet? Here’s 10 points. You did well on my test? Here’s 89 points. You didn’t annoy me in class today? Here’s 5 points. Didn’t turn that in on time? Oops, that’s 5 points off for late work. Gotcha! That will teach you some responsibility.”

Students love points. They are like coins in Temple Run, gold in WoW, and experience points in Fallout/Skyrim/etc. Gotta rack ‘em up if you want to succeed. Our message with points-based grading systems is that students are in our rooms to collect points towards a grade, to get that great level-up rush (to extend the gaming metaphor). Sadly, students don’t automatically get new skills and abilities in real life just because they’ve racked up points.

Earning and withholding points is a game we play at school

Since we’re talking about games, I think that we can game a points-based system in so many ways that the entire enterprise has to be questioned. Do you give extra credit points for extra effort or bringing in a box of tissues? Gaming. Do you give points when lab safety agreements are turned in? Gaming. Do you give a student who is at 89.4% an A even though 90% is the cutoff? Gaming.

Do you slap a kid with zero points for missed assignments? Most thinking people agree that zeros devastate a student’s overall grade if you are summing all points earned as a fraction of the total possible. At least give the kid 50/100, but again you’re gaming the system to get closer to a number that you know the kid “deserves.”

Did your students not do as well on a test as you hoped? Guess what? We’ve got a game for you too. Its called curving the results. Just tack on 15 points for everybody! We all win when we play that game.

Do you average all assignments together into one score? This is everyone’s favorite game to play while trying to observe and document student learning. Unfortunately, averaging all points into a final grade loses any information that the original scores may have had about exactly what a student did and did not know. By the end of a grading period we’ve reduced our information about learning down to our One Number to Rule Them All and no one can tell which topics and skills a student is good at, just whether or not they’ve been playing your points-collecting game.

Changing the game

If you want to abandon a points-gaming system, you’ll need to find a replacement, perhaps something with a bit more narrative component to it. The requirements of such a system are these:

      1. Provide content area and skill goals for students and use these in your grade book instead of columns of point totals for individual assignments.  Some people call this kind of system standards-based grading. Others just ask “what do you want students to know and be able to do?” and “what will you be looking for in their performances of learning?”
      2. Provide actionable feedback to students so that they can understand what they know and don’t know and can and can’t do. This replaces points. Instead of telling a student that their project is worth 67 points out of 100, tell them what was wrong and what to do about it. Don’t even give them a number, just feedback on how to make it better.
      3. Let them make it better. If you give feedback, you really should let students respond to your feedback by fixing what needs fixed or digging deeper into whatever it is you are trying to get them to learn or demonstrate.
      4. Keep records of student learning without resorting to using number scores. If you are giving students narrative feedback in a system like BlueHarvestFeedback or using your own spreadsheets that students can access, you’ve already done this step.  As soon as you post student feedback it is recorded somewhere where you and your students can get at it again to check for improvement and plan next steps and future learning activities.
      5. Connect your grading system to whatever system you are working within or convince your school to change its grading system along with you. Out of necessity, most of us find ourselves, especially at the high school level, bowing to the demons of class rank GPA battles and scholarship applications and need to produce letter grades “because colleges need them.” Just do it honestly and consistently and stick to a set of published guidelines for how you are going to arrive at the letter grade. It will be subjective. But so is everything about teaching if you are doing it right and responding to different student needs and abilities.

Student ownership of learning

I always had the sense that when I was giving a numerical score (1-4 scale) along with feedback that I was doing all the work of judging the quality of their work and that students would ignore the feedback as long as the number was something they found pleasing. If narrative feedback is the only thing happening (and I’m still learning how to do it well) then students are more likely to read it and respond by improving their work.

Weekly Progress in BlueHarvestFeedback

This year I’ve started using student-generated weekly progress updates in BlueHarvest Feedback. Every Friday students log in to BlueHarvest and post a comment on the Weekly Progress standard that I created for their course. Students suggest what letter grade I should put in to our Eligibility grade in Infinite Campus and they have to justify why they think they deserve that grade for the week. This does two things: 1. it forces most students to actually log in to BlueHarvest where they have an opportunity to see the feedback that I’ve left them on their work and 2. it lets students practice self-analysis and argument from evidence.

Thus far in the school year I’ve found that most students are quite good at determining and defending their own weekly progress grade and usually land pretty close to what I would have assigned from a teacher’s perspective. There are many who still need some practice with arguing from evidence for their grade (“I think I deserve an A because I got all my work done”) but that’s not a bad thing in a system that aims to show student improvement.

Its a new game, to be sure, but hopefully its one in which each student is more active in determining their overall grade rather than letting the teacher or an algorithm in a software program calculate how much they’ve learned.

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I’m happy to announce the return of my student-designed Phunsics class for the 2013-2014 school year. If you’ve followed our previous work, you might want to skip ahead to phunsics2013.wordpress.com or the pics below to see what we’re doing at the moment. For some discussion of how I set up the class this year, read on.

As in my experiment a couple years ago, I’m running my physics class as a student-organized maker-space where the teacher’s main role is to check for safety and procure supplies as needed. The projects and course topics are mostly up to what students are interested in building, making, and learning about in the field of physics and engineering.

I added a bit more structure this year compared to the last time I ran this class. We once again started off with the marshmallow challenge on the first day. This was awesome for having students experience failure and the need for prototypes in their projects. We then spent a day or two brainstorming three areas:

    1. What content knowledge and skills should we expect to learn/want to learn as part of this physics class?
    2. What tools will we use to communicate what we are doing with our families, friends, school, and world?
    3. How will our work be assessed and graded for the school’s online gradebook?

The class of 26 students broke themselves up into teams to tackle these three areas. One group dove into our physics textbooks and the AP Physics guidelines to begin to search for big ideas for the class. A second group started brainstorming what sort of online sites they wanted to use for sharing their work. The third and surprisingly large group (I was sure no one would want to talk about grading policies) had some great conversations about how they wanted the course grade to be determined.

Initial tasks for setting up the course: content, communication, and grading policies

The results from our initial discussions about how to run this year’s course

After a few days of research and discussion, students came up with these guidelines for the course:

    • We will use a class blog at phunsics2013.wordpress.com and a shared YouTube channel to display our work
    • Each project group will have at least one author with a WordPress account who can publish to the class blog
    • Groups may create their own separate blogs/sites but will post links to these on the class blog
    • A reference list of major course topics will be published to the class blog by the team investigating our list of content knowledge and skill standards
    • Each project group will publish a weekly update to the class blog for the purposes of communicating and documenting their progress
    • At the end of each week, each group will either email or have a conversation with Mr. Ludwig about what progress grade they have earned for the week as supported by the evidence in their blog posts
    • All projects will be shared with the community both in online spaces and in at least one public event similar to our Phunsics Day 2012

What’s really fun is that their policy about weekly progress checks to determine their grade is very close to what I’d already implemented in my other classes using a weekly student entry in BlueHarvestFeedback. Either my students have caught on to how I like to grade or I’ve stumbled upon how they like to be graded, but either way we’re on the same page with our progress grades. I think we’ll need to have some more conversations later about how to derive their semester grade, but for now the progress checks are working nicely.

And now for the best part->

Here are the projects that my students are currently working on:

  • designing and building a quadrotor flying machine
  • a raspberry pi-powered robot of some sort (battle bot would be ideal, but we’re just learning how to program the pi)
  • the physics of weightlifting using Vernier Video Physics motion analysis
  • designing and building a spinning magnet and ferrofluid apparatus
  • building a flame tube for visualizing different wavelengths/frequencies of sounds
  • designing and building a two-seater powered go cart
  • designing and building a two-person cardboard boat destined to row across the swimming pool
  • restoring and improving the class hovercraft

Its early in the year, but many groups have already had some important successes. It’ll be interesting to watch as the year unfolds. Stay tuned and follow their blog for updates!

 

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I’ve been reasonably(?) skeptical of the Next Generation Science Standards: how they were developed, the kind of people writing them, the kind of students they are targeted to, and how they will be used in the future. I decided to get over (around?) all my NGSS angst and just dive in to see if they are useful for how I structure my Standards for my science classes.

keep-calm-and-get-over-it

Like most lists of standards, the NGSS are too bloated with content knowledge factoids for my taste, so I focused instead on the list of Science and Engineering Practices, which turns out to be a list of practices that I think a lot of science educators can get behind. In fact, they already have. There are a lot of parallels between the NGSS Practices and the AP Biology Process Skills from the recent course revision. There is even a lot of overlap with the list of 9 major Skill Standards (based on Colorado Community College Course Student Learning Outcomes) that my students have been working on for the last few years.

Long story short, since there was so much overlap between NGSS, AP Biology, and my standards, I thought that a mashup of all three (or four, if you count ISTE NETS, or five with ACT thrown in) was in order. This ended up generating the Standards that we’ll use this year for my students’ portfolios in Anatomy, Biology, and Chemistry:

 

1. Learn and Understand Content-Related Terminology, Concepts, Representations, and Models. (Varies by Content Area)

2. Plan and Carry Out Scientific Investigations: Ask scientific questions and define problems, implement data collection strategies, and demonstrate laboratory skills appropriate to a particular scientific question.

3. Analyze and Interpret Experimental Data: Manipulate and interpret data in a variety of formats, such as tables, charts, and graphs, to analyze results, construct explanations, and defend conclusions.

4. Use Technology to Explore, Learn, Analyze, and Communicate Information: Demonstrate the ability to select and apply contemporary forms of technology to compile information, solve problems, and communicate with a global audience.

5. Engage in Argument from Evidence: Justify claims with evidence and evaluate alternative scientific explanations.

6. Demonstrate Self-Analysis/Metacognition: Demonstrate the ability to evaluate your own learning, recognizing areas of strength and weakness, and be able to describe the next steps for improvement.

7. Contribute to the Learning Community: Demonstrate the ability to contribute to the learning environment of the community through effective participation in group work, modeling of good work habits, putting forth your best effort, and helping others learn.

 

In the process of this mashup, my list of Skill Standards dropped down from 9 to 7, which suits my increasingly minimalist approach to standards pretty well. I think the standards are tighter now, having combined several and mashed others. Only one brand new one makes an appearance (#5), and it really needed to be there since every reputable set of standards (NGSS, AP/College Board, and ACT) recognizes the need to intentionally train kids to argue from evidence. In other words, critical thinking, or scientific thinking, if you prefer, now gets its rightful place in my list of standards.

There you have it, the 7 standards that become the 7 entries per student in my gradebook: no more, no less. BlueHarvest will still do the heavy lifting of formative assessment for me and I’ll still be using assessment portfolios with students, but they might just have an easier time of it with fewer portfolio pages to update.

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I’ll get to the point of this post in a bit, but first, if you’re wondering what I’ve been doing this summer, here are some pics from my deck construction project in my backyard:

Deck construction site

Before

Back Deck

After

Back Deck 2

After

Aside from bragging about my deck, there’s a point about learning to be made here. How did I “know” how to build this deck? Was I born a carpenter? Certainly not. It was something I wanted to know how to do so I learned how to do it.

Let’s think about how we learn, for a second. And by we, I mean everyone, including educators. Do you read about what you are trying to learn? Do you watch videos? Do you look for pictures of what you are trying to understand? I would argue that we do all these, but often the most powerful modes of learning involve visuals. Even textbooks are not just text. They’ve got lots of helpful pictures and diagrams to help explain the concepts in the text.

When I wanted to learn how to build a bench on my deck, I did an image search and came up with this:

Deck Bench Plans

I didn’t really pay attention to the text of the article, at least at first. The picture pretty much does the explaining: tie in framing members to your joists, cut the back support at a certain angle, make each piece so long, etc. I could adapt this basic design to my deck by changing the dimensions of the bench and the hardware that I had on hand to attach it. The point is that I could get about 90% of the important details of how to build a bench just from this image alone.

You could certainly argue that this is a special case of learning that only applies to construction, but I’m going to suggest that our classrooms could operate along similar principles, especially as related to our use of lecture software tools such as Powerpoint.

Powerpoint lectures are often the whipping boy of the #edchat crowd, and rightfully so. On the teacher side, canned Powerpoint lectures, often partially or entirely prepared by textbook companies, seem to deliver content, but really don’t teach content to students. On the student side, we are often happy to have students create Powerpoint presentations to show what they’ve “learned” even when we know that often the vast majority of what shows up in those slide shows is mostly copy/paste from their sources.

From a more #edtech perspective, I read all the time about “alternatives to Powerpoint” like Prezi, Keynote, or Google Presentations (all of which my students and I use and love, by the way). There’s also a lot of tips out there about how to make your Powerpoint slide shows better, if you must use them. Most of those hints seem to be along the lines of getting rid of text and bullet points and simplifying your slides down to just a few important images that you can talk about as you “deliver” the slide show.

If we are talking about removing the text from our Powerpoints and just including images for discussion, why do we need Powerpoint? I’ll argue here that you can run an entire lecture (ahem, discussion) just using image search results projected for the class. Sure its a little fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, but we have another phrase for that these days: its called just-in-time learning and its fun.

To see how this works, try out this scenario taken directly from my AP Bio class: you are discussing the topic of photosynthesis with the class, maybe some specific aspect of it like the light reactions. Do an image search and see what pops up:

Photosynthesis image search

Project the search results to the class. Discuss with students which images they like the best and use those to get the discussion rolling. You’ll notice that lots of related ideas pop up so be prepared for conversations to travel in directions that you didn’t plan. That’s kind of the point though, isn’t it?

If you think about it, putting a slideshow presentation together automatically assumes that you have a flow that you want the conversation with your students to follow: we’ll talk about this, then this, then this. If you’ve made a “path” in prezi, you know what I’m talking about. There are times that paths work well, to be sure, but if you want to allow for student interests while still exploring your topic, then a canned, preplanned set of lecture slides is a hindrance to exploration. An image search, on the other hand, has a lot of potential to replace your lecture slides but still creates a focal point from which to start a whole class or small group discussion. Not only can teachers use this simple technique (no more building slide shows for hours) but so can students. When students want to explore an idea with you or other students, they can pull up image search results and project them to the class to start or support discussions as well.

I’ve done several of these image search discussions now and have found the conversations to be much richer than anything that I’ve managed to stimulate using lecture slides. Many students reported really enjoying the format and documented our modified lectures using cell phone or iPad cameras (see here). Sometimes students used the images that we discussed in class as the focal points for later blog posts about the topic (see here). Either way, the images that we found quite adequately replaced both expensive prepared Powerpoints and the tediously hand-made slide shows that I used to spend time creating.

I’ll definitely try to work in more of these image search discussions this coming school year, but I know they aren’t for everyone. It takes a fair bit of confidence in your subject matter in order to feel comfortable with discussing the unknown results that come up with any given set of search terms. You can get around this by narrowing your search down to a more specific topic so that there are fewer surprises. But I happen to like surprises, particularly if they get students interested in what I’m trying to teach.

Surprises. Free scientific illustrations. Conversations with students about science. No more slaving away formatting lecture slides to get them “just right.” Yep, I’ll be doing more of these kinds of discussions.

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