Category Archives: General Teaching

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%.

Skills-Based Portfolios Meet All Three Requirements for an Assessment System for the NGSS

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?

 

NSTA 2013 Slide Deck: Assessment in the Modern Science Classroom

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.

Zero Points Were Given

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.

Student-designed physics class 2: the return of Phunsics

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!