Category Archives: Assessment and Grades

The Numbers

There are two words that chap my hide this time of year: Master Schedule. At least around my neighborhood, this is the time of year that we teachers wait with bated breath to see what sort of teaching assignments we will pull for next year. In a big school I imagine that this is a pretty boring process when teachers teach roughly the same preps from year to year. But in my little science department it can get quite interesting. We happy few are called upon to cater to the shifting demands of students, parents, and administrators as to which courses we should offer from year to year.

<rant>Unfortunately, hardly anyone else in the building outside my 3-person department has any clue what good science education looks like. To me good science education in a rural school like ours means spiraling curriculum that teaches basic science literacy in Earth, Physical, and Biological sciences. On top of this bare minimum graduation requirement we should add pathways into deep study of Chemistry and Biology for students whose interests will take them into science- and health-related careers.

Sadly, we are currently being attacked with “the numbers.” The numbers of student requests for courses are being used to say that we can’t offer College Chemistry, our capstone of Chemistry education. 7 students wont be able to take it now. The numbers say we can’t offer AP Biology, our capstone of Biology education. 8 students won’t be able to take it now.

The numbers say that one of our high school teachers has to teach a made-up junior high class with no title, no curriculum, and no supplies. A teacher with a Masters degree will be babysitting instead. </rant>

I meet with admin today to try to fix this mess.

Wish me luck friends.

Back to Basics

 

It’s not easy to admit, but I’ve made things too complicated.

I hit this difficult realization over the summer and I have been trying to deal with it during this school year. First I pared down the number of websites that students needed to manage by ditching the separate student portfolio site and blog and combined those by using Seesaw. That made our workflow a lot more streamlined and students and I are benefiting from having fewer sites to manage.

I also turned my attention to streamlining my grading and reporting system. What aspects of my standards-based system was I using well?  What was useful for parents and students?

I came to this depressing startling conclusion: no one in my school really cared about standards-based grades except me. One of the only other teachers in my building to use standards-based grading had the same exact realization: standards-based grading was way more work for us and no one expected us to do the level of work we were doing, so why were we? Both of us are currently in the process of ditching standards-based grades.

In part, I blame my use of Seesaw for bringing attention to the fact that no one was using my standards-based grades in any meaningful way. Seesaw has a great skills-based grading module for keeping track of whatever you want to keep track of, but students do not see teachers’ ratings. Therefore the SBG in Seesaw does not function as student feedback. At best the color-coded standards-based scores are something to share at parent conferences or for teacher-only use in determining student progress and final grades. After a few months of using Seesaw and no one asking me about their standards-based grade, I stopped using the standards module.

Through this and other channels, I got a clear message that students and parents didn’t want to see standards-based grades, at least as I was presenting them. Parents (including me) are happy with simply knowing if their kid is doing what they need to be doing, and right now in my District that expectation is met by letter grades and assignment completion tallies in an online gradebook. A separate, novel grading system sorted by learning targets was definitely outside of District norms and therefore was confusing, no matter how well thought-out or documented it was.

l was also under some serious pressure to be “normal” in my concurrent credit courses. I teach college-level biology and anatomy courses for college credit and I need to have my syllabus reviewed by the local junior college to see that I’m teaching the same topics as the college professors teaching the same course. This syllabus vetting also includes the section on grading procedures and there we were at a serious disconnect as long as I was using SBG. I think that for the past few years the science department chair at the college humored my system, perhaps in part because the portfolios we were using showed exactly what we were doing and he could judge their quality. In the last two years, though, the college has been under review by the Higher Learning Commission and their concurrent credit courses have been under a lot of scrutiny. Recently, I was more or less told by the college folks that my grading system had a lot of padding from standards like Experimental Design and Arguing from Evidence and that I should have far more weight on tests and quizzes to match the college courses. It’s certainly true that most college classes bounce from chapter test to chapter test, including my own Pathophysiology class that I’ve taught there in the past.

Almost every major group of people to which I am answerable as a teacher was displeased with or at least indifferent to my use of standards-based grades.  Admin didn’t really care as long as I could explain my system to parents and as long as I posted a weekly letter grade for sports eligibility. Parents were largely ambivalent about SBG but I did hear rumors of and participated in a few nasty conversations. I think students experienced my SBG as an overly-complicated system that made them do more work than other classes. Some staff of the college that certifies my classes as concurrent-credit were not fans of SBG. Probably the only constituency that was supporting me in using SBG was the far more distant Edu-Twitter and Edu-blogger intellectual community that had inspired me in the first place.

In some ways it is very liberating to go back to a simple grading system that involves accumulating points towards a letter grade. These days I tend to grade formative learning activities for completion and let summative assessments like tests and essays carry the weight of the points towards the final grade. But yeah, I’m back to using points to calculate a grade like most everyone else.

I haven’t abandoned all my ideals. I still leave comments on student work and allow for corrections to be made based on those comments. I still have very flexible due dates and believe that students learn at different rates. I still try to allow student choice in their work products and I still hate rubrics for grading those products.

To those fans of SBG who stop by this blog for hints and inspiration: sorry y’all, but I’m going to be a lot more traditional for a while at least.

To those of you in teacher-prep programs or new to teaching I’ll say this: you should use a standards-based mindset in all that you do. Learn about (or write) the standards that your students are expected to be able to know and to do. Design activities and assessments to teach and measure those standards. Just because you work like I do in a system of points and oh-so-important letter grades doesn’t mean there isn’t some way to sneak assessment of your standards into how that final grade is determined.

 

 

Seeing Seesaw Journals in Action

As I mentioned in my last post, I’d grown dissatisfied with my Google Sites portfolio system for documenting student learning and was looking to try out something new. That new thing is Seesaw and so far I’m pretty happy with the switch. This post will try to set out some of my current thinking around why I switched and what is working better (or worse) with the new system.

In past years, my high school science students would create personal blogs at free sites like WordPress and Google Blogger, publish the results of their learning activities in blog posts, then collect links to their work into a standards-based assessment portfolio in Google Sites. Everything students did was visible online and families could subscribe to their blog feed to follow what students were producing for class. On the teacher side of things, I would subscribe to every student blog using an RSS feed reader, read and evaluate blog posts, and respond to students with (hopefully constructive) comments using a grading spreadsheet that I developed.

At some point in time last school year, I decided that maintaining the portfolio Sites felt like an extra chore on top of the work that students were already doing by posting to their blogs. In fact, many students said exactly that, sometimes even to my face. Also, the self-reflection that I thought the portfolios would bring was not really happening, at least not for most students. My intention was for students to review their blog posts to see which work met certain standards, but far too often I found myself merely commanding students as to which blog posts needed to be on certain portfolio pages.

The grading spreadsheets I built and maintained for every student certainly felt like an extra chore for myself as well. I would give reasonably detailed feedback on most every piece of work, yet sometimes even in our 3rd or 4th quarter of school I would have students be surprised that they had a grading document. In other words, many students never saw (or paid attention to) the shared grading doc with comments for improvement.

These minor and not-so-minor annoyances led me to look for some other system that could:

  • publish student work online for a wide audience, including the teacher (me) and parents/families
  • facilitate standards-based assessment and reporting
  • be compatible or native to mobile devices (have a suitable web version or app)
  • allow for improvement/editing of published work
  • minimize the number of different services and sites that each student has to manage

With these criteria in mind, I was essentially looking for a blog-like service with standards-based portfolio properties to it. I remembered reading about Seesaw portfolios a while back and thought that that service might match up pretty well.

Why hadn’t I tried Seesaw before now? Honestly, when I first encountered their service I was put off a bit by their strong focus on marketing to the elementary school level. My first impression was that the teacher was in charge of documenting stuff that students made and that wasn’t where I wanted to be with my very independent high school learners with their fancy personalized blogs.

I have tried it out this year, though. In fact, I went all-in with every class at once switching over to using Seesaw from the start of this school year. Common wisdom would be to try it with one class, but I figured if I liked it, I would be switching everyone over midyear, which would be annoying.

Here is the current workflow for students and I using Seesaw’s Journal:

  1. Students carry out experiments and other learning activities in class and online (the majority of lab guidelines and activities are shared with students via Schoology.com).
  2. Students create published versions of Google Docs, slideshows, online concept maps, etc. to document their labs and other learning.
  3. Links to the public version of their work are posted in their Seesaw Journal using either the web-based version or the mobile app.
  4. The Journal entry sits in Seesaw awaiting my “approval” (their words, not mine). I get notifications for these “in limbo” entries.
  5. When I find time to grade, I call up Seesaw’s list of unapproved Journal entries.
  6. I click on a student’s submitted work, which pops up in a separate tab.
  7. I review their work.
  8. I add comments on the work directly into our school’s online grade book (Infinite Campus) so they are visible to students and parents. I also assign Complete-Partial-Rework ratings as published by Paul Strode in https://mrdrscienceteacher.wordpress.com/2017/08/28/my-classes-are-pointless/
  9. I click back into the Seesaw tab in my browser and use their “tag skills” function to mark the major skill standards that I see in evidence in that particular Journal entry.
  10. I approve the work and it becomes a part of their Journal.

Here we hit one of the major differences between the student blogs and Seesaw: student work is not immediately shared to the entire Internet. Only that student’s teacher, families (via a special access code or teacher permission), and fellow students can see Journal posts. There is an option to add Journal posts to an open class-wide blog, but I haven’t set up the public blogs yet.

One other clear difference from using blogs is the degree of teacher control. As their advertising indicates, in Seesaw the teacher can do nearly all the work of adding items to the Journal and as such Journal posts live inside a space controlled primarily by the teacher. One of my philosophical reasons for choosing blogs initially was that the blog could travel with the student, especially a WordPress blog that they could keep with them even after graduation. I suspect that some students might miss that functionality, and indeed I have a few older students that are keeping a blog and posting their blog links into Seesaw.

There are a few minor annoyances that I’ve picked up on, but by no means are they deal-breakers. For example, Seesaw seems to expect me to nearly instantly approve student Journal entries and will send me a reminder email if I leave an entry unapproved for more than a day or two. The app sends out notifications and emails for a weekly review of each class that I find unnecessary, but there’s probably a toggle somewhere to turn that off.

My biggest complaint of Seesaw is that the Google Drive integration can sometimes get in the way. Usually we build Google stuff then make it public or “publish to the web” which gives us docs and slideshows that look pretty sexy online and as students edit them they automatically update.  Seesaw has an annoying habit of noticing that our links come from Google and offers to convert our links into pdf files, which are not nearly as friendly. I have to train students to click “continue” rather than the tempting blue button on the left.

I totally understand why this pdf publication setup works for younger kids who don’t know how to mess with sharing or publication settings in Google Drive, but it does get in the way. If a student uploads a Doc as a pdf then makes changes, they have to upload a new version to the Journal and then there could be at least two versions of the same assignment posted to their Journal, which complicates things if the teacher is trying to use the Skills standards-based grading module.

The Skills module is an optional service that also happens to be a paid add-on. I’m using the trial version so far, but I’m betting that I’ll want to keep it around, even at the price of $120 per year. I set up my 7 major performance skills across all my classes and can tag each Journal entry when I see each skill on display. I can rate a Journal entry from 1 to 4 stars per standard and Seesaw will give me a color-coded display of each student’s most current performance and how many times I’ve observed a certain skill.

The downside to this lovely system of color-coded standards-based feedback is that students do not see it. I might be able to share an individual student’s chart of standards for face-to-face conferences about final grades, but otherwise this is just a tool for teachers and not a means of feedback to students. It would also be nice to be able to change how the color-coding is determined, i.e. set it based on the last measurement or as an average of scores for the standard.

Overall, I’ve been very impressed with Seesaw and it certainly has streamlined my courses to some extent. We use just three major online services for instruction and feedback, namely Schoology, Google Apps, and Seesaw, all of which have mobile apps for those students without computers and/or wifi at home. Seesaw also features a Seesaw Family app so that parents and others can observe and comment on student work. We are in the very early days of implementation, but I’ve had several parents sign on and several more indicated interest at our parent conferences last week. I’m interested to see what happens going forward once more parents get involved.

The harsh reality of portfolio-based assessment

My use of portfolios for assessment and grading is not going well. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I’ve implemented portfolios quite well, from a technological standpoint. Google Sites may not be pretty but I’ve managed to tweak them into an assessment portfolio system over the last several years and I’ve accumulated many examples of portfolios filled with excellent student work. But a separate Google Site portfolio in addition to a personal blog for each student is starting to feel like just another website to manage and the self-analysis that I thought portfolios would bring has not materialized, at least not for most students. I even went so far this past school year to discontinue using the portfolios in my “regular” biology sections although I continued to use them in my college-level courses like anatomy and college biology.

Before I deconstruct the failings of my current system, let me review what I hoped to achieve with building a standards-based system that uses blogs and portfolios to share, assess, and measure student learning:

Goals of my standards-based portfolio system:

  1. Students produce artifacts of learning that are seen by more than just the teacher (me) and add to the body of learning resources available online to other students.
  2. Students have the chance to use multiple technological (and non-tech) tools to demonstrate mastery of a topic or skill.
  3. Students know what kinds of topics and skills are required to master the course content and achieve a high grade for their particular course.
  4. Student blogs such as Google Blogger and WordPress serve as a chronological storage/timeline of student learning artifacts and travel with the student even after they finish a particular class.
  5. Google Site portfolios serve a major self-assessment function in that students review their blog posts and select their best work by topic and skill standard for inclusion in the portfolio.
  6. A portfolio site provides an easy way to assess the entire body of a student’s work and makes allowances for the different lengths of time it takes individual students to demonstrate mastery of a particular topic or skill.
  7. Student portfolios serve an accountability function for both student and teacher, since the portfolio is easily shared with other stakeholders such as parents, the local community college that issues our concurrent college credit, and perhaps even the state’s Department of Education.

Let’s see how these goals have panned out:


Students produce artifacts of learning that are seen by more than just the teacher (me) and add to the body of learning resources available online to other students.

This is happening, or at least the possibility of it happening exists because everything is posted online. Certainly parent conferences are strengthened greatly by being able to easily get student work into parents hands. As for a wider audience, however, most students do just enough to get by and truly exceptional learning artifacts that explain a topic well enough to get lots of views are rare. We’ve had a few notable exceptions and a blog exchange or two, but largely the audience for student work seems to mostly just be me.


Students have the chance to use multiple technological (and non-tech) tools to demonstrate mastery of a topic or skill.

This is also happening, given the online nature of blogs. However, students don’t use very many tools. Google Docs/Slides are all over the place and we take a lot of pictures and video of labs and such, but I don’t see a lot of creative photo editing or captioning and video post-production is minimal. We’ve gotten Snapchat involved in some instances, but that’s about it. The non-tech side of things usually just involves taking pics of a study guide or drawing or perhaps the occasional model of a cell or muscle fiber. Its fair to say that students don’t generally seek out new creative tools that they are not already familiar with.


Students know what kinds of topics and skills are required to master the course content and achieve a high grade for their particular course.

 

I like to think that this is true, since the portfolio comes to students pre-populated with a list of content and skill standards with a description of each. There are only 7 major standards, and the portfolio more or less puts them right in students’ faces, including the major subject area topics. As for figuring out how to achieve a high grade in the class, that’s far less obvious and much more experiential as each student and I have a dialogue about the quality of their work in the portfolio. There is a ton a flexibility in using portfolios, which is awesome from a philosophical standpoint, but explaining that flexibility to students in terms of concrete requirements for certain grade levels (A, B, C, etc.) is difficult. It is especially fun at the beginning of the school year when the body of work in the portfolio is tiny and grades usually are simply pass-fail or rarely go higher than a B. Students that consider themselves “A” students often freak out and ask what they can do to improve, when in reality they only have an artifact or two per standard to show off and I’m not ready to make a measurement based on so little data.


Student blogs such as Google Blogger and WordPress serve as a chronological storage/timeline of student learning artifacts and travel with the student even after they finish a particular class.

This is working well. Blogs are the meat and potatoes of the system and students around the school have come to expect to “do blogs in Ludwig’s class” even if they are not initially sure what that means. Blogs are relatively easy to set up and maintain, although I’ve seen some students struggle with remembering their logins. The time stamps are useful in parent conferences, especially where allegations of cheating have arisen. Its very easy to see who published content first if someone later borrows bits and pieces for themselves.


Google Site portfolios serve a major self-assessment function in that students review their blog posts and select their best work by topic and skill standard for inclusion in the portfolio.

This is not working well in most cases. Although some students have rocked the portfolio as a tool for self-analysis of their work, many students struggle with how to characterize and sort their work based on the standards that I’ve posted. After a semester or sometimes even after 3rd Quarter I’ll still have some students who need to be told exactly where to put links to their different work samples. A large majority of students take a link to a piece of work and put it on lots of portfolio pages even if the work doesn’t demonstrate the standards on those pages. Blog posts without graphs will end up under Data Visualization and simple content-area worksheets will find their way to Plan and Carry Out Scientific Investigations. The Self-Analysis page of the portfolio invariably generates comments like “I need to not procrastinate” which is definitely true but is also a lower bar than describing exactly which content you don’t understand. I have the sense that the portfolio is an afterthought for most students who don’t work on it until final grades are due and so the reflection that goes into it suffers from the speed at which it is thrown together.


A portfolio site provides an easy way to assess the entire body of a student’s work and makes allowances for the different lengths of time it takes individual students to demonstrate mastery of a particular topic or skill.

This is working well. It is very easy to look at a student’s portfolio page such as Data Collection and see every graph and data table that they’ve ever done for the class rather than combing through the chronological record of blog posts trying to identify which posts have graphs in them. From a purely quantitative standpoint, its obvious on a given portfolio page how many times the student has addressed a particular standard, assuming their self-assessment of each post isn’t too far off. Portfolios have made it easier to assess and to grade by standard. In the biology courses this past year that I did not use portfolios, I found it much harder to quantify some of the performance standards based solely on the blog posts.


Student portfolios serve an accountability function for both student and teacher, since the portfolio is easily shared with other stakeholders such as parents, the local community college that issues our concurrent college credit, and perhaps even the state’s Department of Education.

 

Yes, portfolios can deliver a lot of information about how I run my classes, but who is looking at them? Probably only the student and I are viewing any given portfolio, and sometimes not even they are interested in what the portfolio can show. In many cases the portfolio is simply “one more thing” for a student to do that “duplicates” what goes on with the blog. Its this kind of feedback from students that the portfolio was just “one more site to manage” that led me to scale back which courses use portfolios. If no one is looking, why bust our butts to create and maintain a nearly duplicate site of student work samples?


Future directions:

The “harsh reality” of the state of assessment portfolios isn’t too dreadful, but I have a sense that portfolio-based assessment could be going a lot better than it is in my hands. The goal of assessment of individual skill and content standards still remains, but the medium in which the information is collected needs some tweaking.

Google Sites are relatively clunky but do the job of collecting work samples as long as you have a laptop in front of you. But as students go increasingly more mobile I’m thinking of trying out SeeSaw as a replacement for the portfolio, and perhaps the blogs as well. It looks like SeeSaw will let students collect a variety of work samples into their SeeSaw portfolio using mobile and laptop devices and, for a fee, it will let me tag and evaluate student work by standard.

Simplifying down to two major platforms (Schoology and SeeSaw) from three (Schoology, Blog, and Portfolio Site) is a step in the right direction, although I’m concerned about students losing access to their work at the end of a school year if they don’t control their own personal blog. SeeSaw looks to be primarily aimed at a younger generation of kids than my high school bunch and is appropriately more teacher-centered, but a lot of the fundamentals are there: collection of learning artifacts, assessment by topic and performance standard, and publication to parents and others for accountability purposes and sharing of created resources. I’ll be curious to see whether the lack of student control of their own individual sites is a real problem in SeeSaw or if it actually creates better structure and accountability for my students and myself.

Building a Badging Framework for Biology and Anatomy

I had the privilege of attending the recent Badge Summit in Aurora, Colorado which managed to pull in a bunch of badge geeks right before ISTE 2016. Why was I there? Curiosity about badges, I suppose, but also a sense that I need to change things up in my instructional design.

I’ve been doing the eportfolio thing for several years now and have come to realize that no one but me is seeing my students’ work, even though it is in an online space and can be made public. I’m looking for ways to have my students be recognized for their work in a way that transcends my silly grading scheme and the simple letter that can be seen on a report card or transcript.

Open Badges seem to be a way to accomplish that. As I understand badges at the moment, there are organizations out there that will help me to create and issue badges that are linked to evidence that the student provides. Most importantly, organizations such as the Common Application have recently begun collecting badges from students who want to show off particular skill sets to colleges and universities.

Adding badges on top of our existing portfolios could essentially create a new, more public layer of visibility for student learning. This means that I need to examine the language and standards that live in our portfolios and figure out how to issue badges that will be meaningful to students and to their audience, whoever that might be.

There is a great set of guidelines for badge creation to be found at Aurora Public Schools, who have run a pilot badge program in a large, urban public school system for a couple years now. As I got my thinking cap on about what my badges would look like, I went back to their guidelines:

  • Does this Badge provide rigor for our students?
  • Can the student demonstrate this skill independently?
  • Has the student had multiple opportunities to show this skill?
  • Is the Badge evidence based?
  • Is the Badge transferable?
  • Is the Badge based on a small/granular skill?

For me the sticking point was the requirement for badges to honor a small/granular skill. I’m generally a big picture guy and despise trivial details, but I realize that badges need to have some granularity to them in order to be meaningful. I set about digging into what students might earn badges for in my courses and came up with the following two lists, one for Biology and one for Anatomy:

Biology portfolio to badge map

Anatomy portfolio to badge map

The darker blue bubbles represent more granular topics or skills that might be more amenable to badging than the big 7 portfolio standards under which students currently collect their work. The challenge now will be to see if these lists of potential badges will be a workable framework from which to start designing and eventually issuing badges.

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.

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.

wpid-Imaystartmyassignments-2014-10-25-21-21.png

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.

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.

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?

passingnotes

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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