Category Archives: General Teaching

Down from the mountaintop

Fanboy Ludwig with Neil Shubin at NSTA15

Fanboy Ludwig with Neil Shubin at NSTA15

Ever have one of those “mountaintop” experiences or events that at the time feel so important and life-changing that you wonder if you’ll be the same person on the other side of it? And then did you come down off the mountain and get back in your proverbial or literal car and return to your regular life? I think we’ve all been there a few times, perhaps at summer camp, a mission trip, or the tent revival at the local church.

For me, the latest such mountaintop experience was getting to attend and present at the national NSTA meeting in Chicago this past March. Seeing my name in the program just a few pages away from Neil Shubin and Bill Nye practically qualified me for rock-star status, at least on paper. The conference was amazing, as you’d expect, and I had a wonderful time giving my talk. The folks that came to see me (the mile walk!) were amazing and included a lot of great Twitter friends who stuck around to chat and make connections afterward.

I left NSTA15 feeling like I was on the right track. I’d presented at a national conference and didn’t make a fool of myself.  Many teachers seemed inspired by my ideas. Every talk I went to about the NGSS pointed towards needing new ways to assess student performances of science, which my portfolio-based assessment system clearly does. From all that I saw there, I was on the leading Edge of thinking about new ways to collect, analyze, and share meaningful data about what students know and can do.

I’m not sure what I expected to happen post-conference, but it basically didn’t play out as expected. I didn’t see the major leaders behind NGSS express any interest in portfolio assessments, nor did I hear any encouraging news on that front from Arne Duncan. My Twitter stream continued to be the flood of info that it used to be, but, aside from a few high quality interactions, it felt more stale and repetitive than usual. I was not really greeted as a local hero upon my return to my little town, save for a few close friends. In fact, I have yet to be invited to share my work with the district staff, most of whom know very little about what I do.

Now in all fairness, none of these things would ever realistically have happened. Much of the push for NGSS is linked to companies who want to sell us more tests, so change to new assessment types will be slow on that front. Twitter is a hot mess of the good, the bad, and the ugly even on a good day with amazing connections like I have. My local district was in the middle of incredible political turmoil with a witch hunt targeting the current (now former) superintendent, so a little side-show theater like mine would hardly draw an audience.

Bottom line, I came down off the mountain pretty hard. I did some consulting with a few folks who are trying out portfolios this coming school year (good luck y’all!) but mostly life went right back to normal. Or worse than normal, because I landed back in school during our post-Spring Break testing season, which felt even more onerous and depressing this year. It lasted forever and took instructional technologies out of the classroom for testing purposes. All the visions of classroom-based performance assessments died as I watched students suffer through lame computer-based tests for over a month of the school year. Ah, reality. Thou sucketh.

But as I turn my eyes to the new school year, I don’t plan on giving up on my ideas for replacing our current high-stakes tests, although large systems are hard to budge.  I’ve heard that being a pioneer is hard, lonely work, and there is some truth to that from what I’ve experienced. I can only hope that I’m scouting towards a future that benefits my students (and yours). Stay tuned and keep those ideas coming.

Prove it: Stifling innovation with the burden of unobtainable proof

Think of something new and innovative that you are trying out in your classroom, school, or district.

Prove to me that it works.

Yep, I want you to stop reading this and think about some fancy new way that you have of educating and/or assessing students and tell me what evidence you have to prove that your new technique works.

Twice recently I’ve been faced with this demand. In the first instance, a teacher who was very excited about using portfolios after hearing my talk at NSTA15 in Chicago contacted me for help in convincing her science department to let her pilot the use of portfolios. She sent me a list of their questions that looked something like this:

1) Have you seen an increase/decrease on standardized test scores?

2) Have you seen an increase/decrease in student motivation?

3) Have you seen an increase/decrease in student competency?

A similar question popped up in the application packet for the PAEMST:

Provide evidence of your teaching effectiveness as measured by student achievement on school, district or state assessments, or other external indicators of student learning or achievement.

Here’s the problem: portfolio-based assessments like those that I employ are meant to be a replacement for standardized test scores. Portfolios are not just some labor-intensive test prep system. That would be like spending months training for a triathlon but instead finding yourself riding a mechanical bull for ten minutes. You could probably ride the bull a little better than if you hadn’t trained, but the bulk of your training would be lost on anyone watching you ride the mechanical bull (badly).

What then do you say to the science department questionnaire about the effectiveness of portfolios? What proof could I possibly provide about external indicators of student learning that could match the depth and quality of the portfolio assessments themselves? ACT data might be the closest thing to useful testing data that I see, but correlating achievement on ACT with pre- and post-portfolio implementation would be fraught with any number of the usual data snarls that we find when trying to compare different test takers from multiple school years.

We are then at an impasse. Those educators like myself that want to use portfolios for assessment will tout all the amazing things that you can observe in portfolios that you could not otherwise. Those who want to keep using standardized tests as the measuring stick for student and educator performances will decry the lack of a link between portfolios and achievement test scores.

I think that pretty soon we are going to have two different systems pop up across the country to accommodate these two assessment camps. One wing will be led by the testing juggernaut that stands to make a lot of money by continuing the current testing regime, but the other will be led by…..Kentucky? New Hampshire? Your guess is as good as mine, but I suspect (hope?) that sooner or later we’ll see some states piloting portfolios (again) as much needed replacements for the broken assessments that we currently use.

In the meantime, I hope that teachers like the one I mention above are allowed or even encouraged to try new ways of teaching and learning and that the burden of proof of effectiveness does not grind progress to a halt. New assessment systems require new systems of measurement. To expect more comprehensive forms of assessment such as portfolios to generate the same simple, supposedly comparable data as has been generated in the past is blatantly unfair to those willing to try something new.

 

 

Portfolios as classroom-embedded assessment systems for the NGSS

This weekend at the NSTA national meeting in Chicago I’ll be hosting a discussion about the use of portfolios as the keystone of new NGSS-centered district and state science assessments. Here are the slides I’ll use to start the discussion:

Exemplar portfolios can be found here

Please join the discussion if you can make it to the conference or leave a comment here to continue the discussion online.

Are you a Master Teacher?

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This week I was asked by an administrator if I would like to go observe “some master Science teachers” in one of the big cities here in Colorado. I said yes. I’ll jump at any chance to see other science teachers in action, especially those that are in another school district.

But then I got to wondering about the phrasing of this offer, especially the bit about “master” teachers.

How does one earn the label of Master Teacher? Are these teachers self-identified experts at science teaching or is this a label granted by their administrators? Do their state science test scores blow my students’ scores away so that the state grants this title? What metric are we using here?

Of course, the obvious answer is that these may be National Board Certified folks. That seems to be the only metric that Colorado officially uses to determine if you are a master teacher. The NBCT site claims that “to date, 890 Colorado teachers have achieved National Board Certification.” I guess I find it kind of sad that out of all the teachers to ever teach in Colorado, only 890 of them are master teachers.

The subtext to the offer to visit another school is an interesting one, too. I teach in the only high school in a town of about 8000 people. The master teachers that I would be visiting work in schools in one of the big cities a few hours away. The folks at CDE who made us this offer clearly thought that teachers in the little school districts could benefit from seeing how its done in the cities. But is the teaching and learning that happens in big cities any more masterful than that happening out in the rural schools? Do we not have access to the same academic journals, blogs, and online networks of truly masterful teachers that they do? Shouldn’t they be visiting us instead?

I guess I am obsessing about titles and labels and the rural vs. urban socioeconomic dynamic here since I’ll be presenting at the National Science Teacher’s Association national meeting in Chicago in just a few weeks. I’ll attend sessions led by folks on the National Research Council and Achieve Inc. (the forces behind the NGSS) and surround myself with the high society of the nation’s science educators (and yes some functions at the conference require “evening attire”).

What sort of labels matter when science educators get together? I for one am sorely tempted to only seek out presenters with the label “current teacher” in their bio, because these are the folks who are most obviously trying to do right by their students on a daily basis. Likewise, I strongly suspect that there will be conference attendees who will look for certain credentials or affiliations after my name in the session listing and find them lacking.

In summary, I guess I would have been happier if this offer of a visitation simply asked if we wanted to meet and observe some fellow teachers in another school district. I still would have said yes, but without wondering whether someone was trying to compare my teaching skills with theirs. Who knows, maybe I will get to meet these master teachers and judge for myself. Maybe someday they’ll meet me and do likewise, but I probably still won’t be a Master Teacher, just a darn good one.

Image source: http://juliapopstar.deviantart.com/art/Martin-Freeman-s-Stamp-of-Approval-BADASS-ED-363964666

What time is it? Portfolio Time!

My wondering for the week is this: should I start grading students on their assessment portfolios from the very beginning of the year rather than wait for the 1st quarter marking period? But if assessment by portfolio starts from day one, is it fair to enter an F grade for everyone at the beginning of the year because their portfolio would be empty? Since I strongly suspect that it is not fair to grade an empty portfolio for the first few weeks of school, when is a good time to switch from purely formative assessment of blogs to the more summative assessment of the portfolio?

Currently my students start off the year with a basic technology boot camp and the establishment of their own individual blogs. We spend a good chunk of the first few weeks learning to blog (most haven’t before) and getting used to the new normal that is the blended mashup of learning that is my classroom. I give a speech or two about how we don’t use numerical points towards earning letter grades, but instead will provide evidence of our learning in other ways.

At some point, usually around four weeks into the school year, students finally create their Google Sites assessment portfolio from the template that I’ve given them. They share the portfolio address with me, but that’s usually all that happens with the portfolio for several weeks.

But as the end of the quarter approaches, there is a need to begin to fill the portfolio with artifacts of learning, as that is the assessment tool by which quarter (and semester) grades will be determined. In theory, the portfolio should not be a lot of extra work for students because it involves very little new writing and creating, simply sorting and linking assignments and evidence that have already been completed. Therefore this task should be greeted with joy and happiness.

Hmmm. What I see instead is that a small minority of students grab onto the portfolio concept early on and fill it up as they go along through the class: blog post gets published, blog post gets sorted into the portfolio. But the other 80-90% of students do not touch it. Call it avoidance of failure, call it unfamiliarity, maybe throw in some technophobia, and portfolio building does not happen spontaneously for most students until the portfolio becomes the basis for the course grade.

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Now, keep in mind that students have been getting an “eligibility” grade from me from the first weeks of school, so being given a letter grade is nothing new for my classes. At the beginning of the year I tend to grade in a pass/fail manner as I have not yet gathered enough information from just a few assignments to really tell an overall picture about a student’s performance. After a time, probably by the 3rd or 4th week of school, I do start guessing at letter grades besides P and F based on the quality and quantity of work that I am seeing published to their blog.

A more accurate letter grade doesn’t get assigned, however, until I feel that I have provided students with enough chances to be successful in each of the major course standards, and that may not occur until right before the 1st quarter grade (or if we are talking AP Biology, until AFTER the 1st quarter is over). At that point I begin to start looking at what students are putting into their portfolios.

But now we have a perfect storm of factors come together: grades are due in a week or two, many students are behind in their blogging, most students have not bothered to figure out how to operate Google Sites because there has been no need to until now, the portfolio is empty, and I feel the need to (finally) show students what their grades will be like once I apply the published guidelines for assessing the portfolio for midterm and final grades. Ready or not, its portfolio time.

So I devoted around a week of class time for students to work on very clearly specified pages of the portfolio and provided what I thought was very specific and often one-on-one instruction on how to post links to the portfolio in Google Sites. But when I went to grade the portfolios last weekend, a week before grades were due, many were still very incomplete or even empty of evidence.

To say that by grading these empty portfolios I filled up the entire eligibility list would be incorrect, but not far from it. I gave a lot of F’s to a lot of good students.

Then, and only then, with a failing grade in hand, did I have students come to me for help in upgrading their portfolio. It was a very busy, but incredibly productive week after grades based on the portfolio were published.

Now back to my original question: when during the first quarter should I make the transition to summative grading based on the portfolio? Is this the only way to do it, with a week of panic right before the end of the quarter? Should I try picking up a grade from the portfolios somewhere in the middle of the quarter even though many of the lab standards might only have a lab or two as possible proof? How about at the beginning of the quarter even though there have been no chances to publish any work? Yikes. Try explaining initial grades of F to parents and coaches. But I bet I’d see students understand the portfolio concept better if we were using it from Day 1.

I suppose I might try evaluating the portfolio (U, PP, P, A ratings per standard) from the first build onwards without grading the portfolio (A, B, C, etc). I might at least get a few more students interested in working on the portfolio as we go, since parents can see those evaluation ratings on Infinte Campus. The eligibility grade could still be pass/fail for a while at the beginning of the year and then move into a real letter grade based on the portfolio once students have had enough chances to fill it. There might be some questions towards the beginning of the year about how a kid is passing but has all U’s, but that is probably easier to deal with than failing the kid for work they haven’t even been assigned yet.

TL; DR: Kids will procrastinate until a grade is assigned. Start assessment based on portfolios earlier so that students have a better chance of being successful on the first midterm grade.

To What Extent Should a Course Be Student Designed?

This post about my Physics/Phunsics class has been rattling around in my head for more than half a year now, and its a tough one. The reason it is tough is that it involves failure, and I don’t really enjoy writing about failures. Semi-clever ideas and things that work, yes. Failure, no.

Let me come right out and say it: the Phunsics class just didn’t work well this year. Or did it?

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I’ve described this class before but it is one where students have free reign to use my class time and resources to learn and pursue whatever projects they desire. I’ve been pretty intentional in keeping a maker-space approach to this class and most likely it should be labeled an engineering class in terms of what students get to do, but I’ve kept the Physics label for various reasons. If Google has the 80-20 approach, this class is more like 10-90, where 90% of the time is unstructured creative time.

Total freedom is an amazing thing. Except when its not. I received a lot of feedback on my first experiment with this kind of class from other teachers that basically said “that would never work with my students” and “mine need more structure than that.” Well guess what, this year I was the one making these comments. The class started off fine, with our brainstorming sessions and creation of a structure for the course in terms of how we would report what we were doing, but soon I found myself much more in the role of policeman than I would have liked. Many students had a lot of trouble staying dedicated to any kind of project for very long because, and this is painfully obvious to me now, unstructured creative time is self-motivated, self-disciplined time. The nature of this class demands that multiple projects are happening at the same time, often in different locations around the school building (classroom, physics lab, shop, outside) and there is only one of me to be there looking over shoulders at what is happening. If a student doesn’t feel like doing anything on a particular day they don’t have to, but, in all honesty, the occasional day spent goofing around doesn’t bother me. However, when entire weeks, quarters, and even semesters go by with nothing to show for it, that’s when unstructured creative time is clearly not working for that student.

So did I put on the brakes and change the nature of the class? Nope, because not everyone was screwing around.

Some students built a successful duct tape boat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mUo4eWEiRk

Another group got very far into building a quadcopter drone before technical challenges got the better of them.

But even with our successes, there were many, MANY, times that I was ready to walk into class with “official” lesson plans. At one point during the second semester I had even gone so far as to dig through my folders of physics worksheets to decide where to begin again with me in total control of what happened in class. But something always held me back. There were just enough students who were thriving with the course format that I felt that I couldn’t yank the rug out from under them.

And that’s how we got the Arduino/Pi Piano project finished, the chemistry mobile built, and the epic Rube Goldberg machine fully operational.

Piano demonstration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8fbXNU01HM
Kool Aid Machine walkthrough: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUKQi7Nn5cw

So was it worth it? Does having a few successful projects mean that a student designed course was successful? Did everyone learn something, even through failures and in some cases failure to launch?

These are not just rhetorical questions, as I am teaching the Physics class again this coming school year. I have a couple months this summer to decide whether or not to scrap the student-designed class in favor of a more traditional teacher-led setup. Should my experience with a few unmotivated students be allowed to alter how I run this class? Therein lies my quandary: Physics or Phunsics?

Clearly this is a big “To Be Continued…”

Creating Google Sites for Student Portfolios: A Shared Biology Portfolio Template

I’ve received some requests recently to share the biology portfolio that I use with my students. Here’s a quick note about how to use my template to set up a Google Sites portfolio for students to use.
 
  • In experimenting with student-managed portfolios, I’ve found it best to create a Template Site that students can use to create their portfolio. If you have a set of standards for your class that you want students to reflect upon, then a template is the easiest way to make sure that those standards are part of their portfolio.
  • You’ll want to try this yourself first, especially if you want to modify my template site for your own set of standards. I’ll break this up into teacher and student instructions, which might be the same if you don’t use Google Apps for Education (GAFE).

Teacher instructions for creating your own template Site from my biology portfolio template:

The location where you publish your portfolio template depends upon whether you are using GAFE or regular Google Apps. GAFE users: I would make the template within your domain for students to find. Regular Google users need to post the template to Google’s Public templates like I did. You could even just point students to my public template if you don’t want to create your own.

  1. Log in to Google Apps (either a personal account or GAFE) and find Google Sites from the App chooser.
  2. Once in Sites, click on Create.
  3. At the top of the Create New Site page should be the option to “Browse the Gallery for More” templates. Click on this.
  4. If you are in GAFE, your district-wide templates appear first (this is usually the easiest place for you to put a template for students to use).
  5. For now though, you are looking for a public template, so click on Public>Schools and Education in the “Select Site Template” window.
  6. You are looking for a site template called “Skills-Based Biology Portfolio.”  Searching for “Biology” in “Schools and Education” templates will usually find it.
  7. Select the Skills-Based Biology Portfolio template to use for your Site. This will give you an exact copy of the site that I give to my biology students.
  8. Give it a name (which also determines the address URL) and you are ready to start editing it.
  9. Once you’ve edited the Site to your liking and you are ready to share it with students, go to More Site Options (the gear icon)>Manage Site.
  10. Under Manage Site>General there should be the option to “Publish this site as a template.” Click that.
  11. Give your Template a name and description then click “Submit.”
  12. Done! Now you have a template that students can find either within your GAFE domain or in the Public templates.

Student instructions for creating a portfolio Site from a teacher-created template:

  1. Log in to Google Apps and find Google Sites from the App chooser.
  2. Once in Sites, click on Create.
  3. At the top of the Create New Site page should be the option to “Browse the Gallery for More” templates. Click on this.
  4. If you are in GAFE, your district-wide templates appear first. Find your course’s portfolio template.
  5. Select the portfolio template that you want to use for your Site.
  6. Give it a name (which also determines the address URL) and you are ready to start editing it.
  7. Share the URL of your site with everyone who will be reviewing your portfolio.

Here’s a little screencast that I whipped up for the portfolio setup from the student’s perspective:

Setting up a student portfolio from a template

Let me know if you want me to post any of my other portfolio templates (Anatomy, Chemistry, AP Biology) to the Public templates.

A Refugee From Science Packet Land

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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.

Assessment of learning with blogs and portfolios: proof of learning beyond the test

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?

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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?

C is Not for Compliance: Another Grading Reform Story

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%.