Category Archives: Portfolios

A student-designed AP Biology course?

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I’ve waited to post this set of thoughts until I was back at school, mostly because I was up in the mountains for the last bit of the summer. Yes, I had wifi, but, well, there were other things to do that were better than blogging.

But I’m back to writing, and in terms of changes for this school year that you might be interested in, there are two big ones:

1. I’m replacing my GoogleApp spreadsheets for tracking student progress with Shawn and Vic’s BlueHarvest. By the end of last year I was using the spreadsheets almost exclusively for comments back and forth with students so having to create and manage one for each student this year seemed silly when BH is built to do that. I’m through the setup phase with BH and have managed to get login info to nearly all of my 110 students. There were times that I wished that I knew how to pull all my student info (names with emails) off of Infinite Campus into a nice, importable spreadsheet, but in reality there have been so many schedule changes that I would have had to add/delete a bunch of kids anyway. The big downside of not adding emails for each kid was that I ended up having to get them their passwords via Edmodo, which took a bit of typing today to accomplish (harrywookiewookie is still my favorite).

2. SBG for AP Biology! Remember the experiment last year with my student-led Phunsics class? I’m going to apply some of the philosophy of that class to my teaching (or co-teaching, maybe mentoring?) of AP Biology this year. What’s that you say? There’s an audit process for approval of my curriculum documents? Oh dang. Guess we had better start writing them together.

Naw, it’ll be fun. The College Board was nice enough to follow my model of emphasizing skill standards for AP Biology students as well as providing a short list of content standards. Ok, maybe the list is a bit longer than I think is necessary, but I’ve grouped them into 13 content standards, not too far from my usual 10-or-so content area standards per course. With 7 skill standards and the 13 content areas (see the course description or the prezi linked on my AP Biology page), we’ve got a basic framework from which to set up the course. Once the students get over the rush of holding their newly-acquired iPads, we’ll get down to work on prioritizing our goals for the course and agree on a basic plan for the year.

The big difference between this AP Biology course and the phunsics course, besides the obvious content-area shift, will be in assessment. AP Biology will follow the pattern I’ve established for my other classes, namely activities->blogging->portfolio building. I think the new structure of the AP Biology course in the College Board’s documents lends itself pretty well to a standards-based portfolio that students can fill with evidence of each standard. I’ll post links to some apbio student portfolios once they are sufficiently underway.

Standards-Based Grading in the land of portfolios, blogs, and other time-sucking grumkins: a how-to guide

This post is an update to my older year end wrap up that seems to get a lot of traffic from people searching for “standards-based grades” and similar terms. I can only assume that there are lots of folks out there trying to get their heads around what SBG is about and how to do it. What follows will be a (hopefully) concise discussion of my spin on SBG and how I assess students using blogs and portfolios.

If you’ve drunk even a little bit of the SBG kool-aid you’ll know that the lofty goals of grading and assessment reform can be stated something like this:

  • have students show what they really know and can do
  • make learning rather than grades the focus
  • if you have to produce a “grade,” reform your grade book to reflect learning, not compliance/completion
  • ditch points-based, averaging nonsense and banish “zeros” since neither concept helps describe what a student knows and can do
  • since grades reflect learning, allow reassessments to show new understanding of concepts

If these sound like ideas you can get behind, read on. If you like your current, points-based system, read on too, because you’ll feel justified in a little bit.

How do you meet the lofty goals listed above? Here is roughly the sequence of steps that I would recommend:

Step 1: Define your standards

Notice I didn’t say to parrot back your state standards or (goodness gracious) our new national standards. These have to be yours. As in “these are the things that I really believe to be important” standards. There should be some overlap, of course, if your state department of education has done its job reasonably well. Different people will approach this very differently, from having lots and lots of standards to having only a few. Marzano suggests that we should “limit measurement topics to 20 or fewer per subject area and grade level.” I read this after I had done my standards-crunching, but I agree with it, since I identified just 9 major areas that I wanted to assess. These are Content Knowledge, Research, Lab Skills, Experimental Design, Data Analysis, Tech Savvy, Communication, Self-Analysis, and Contribution to Community.

The most unique thing about this set of standards compared to others I’ve seen is the smashing of all the content for each course into one standard. I teach science and so have lots and lots of content to discuss in each of my courses (anatomy, biology, chemistry, physics, and AP Biology and yes, I’m at a rural school with only 4 science teachers in grades 7-12 for 600 kids). I don’t think that content is the most important thing, though, not anymore, with the interwebz and such just a Google away. I don’t ignore content ideas, I just don’t overemphasize them in the final grade determination. Instead, I’m more interested in building a skill set for students that they are going to take with them regardless of which little factoids that they remember from my classes. But that’s my take on standards. Yours will be yours.

Step 2: Develop an Assessment Philosophy

Yes, I know this sounds like something that you did for an assignment once upon a time in teacher-school, but really, it will help you out greatly if you put it down in words, especially if you make it available to parents and students. Mine’s here, if you want an example. I’m sure it would fail all of the guidelines for an official teacher-school document, but there it is. This doc is where you need to think about what you believe about assessment of student learning: Do you give quizzes and tests to see what kids know? Does every student do the same set of assignments in the same way? Will you assess using your favorite worksheets but score them by standard? Can students make up for failing or missed assignments or is assessment a one-shot deal so they learn the value of deadlines?

Basically, what you want to do in this Assessment Philosophy is lay out how you plan on determining what students know and what they can do. Again, my way of doing it may be very different from yours. I have students do a ton of writing and creating in blogs and portfolios but do almost no formal testing. Other teachers that I adore do lots of tests and quizzes that show how much their students have learned. Good arguments exist for both kinds of assessments.

Step 3: Determine how you will assign final grades

Ah, the stickiest issue of all, particularly for high school teachers who get to deal with parents and students worried about class rank, scholarships, and acceptance to their favorite college. Woo hoo!? If you have to assign grades, and most of us do, this is the part where your idealistic standards hit the wall of whatever online gradebook your school happens to suscribe to. Some play nicer with standards than others, but in any case you are going to have to figure out how to mesh what you do with standards with what students and parents see in the gradebook. I happen to have been fortunate enough to be good friends with my tech director who set up some lovely manually entered standards within Infinite Campus so I can determine the grade however I want and just report it out online. Other teachers I’ve read about have not been so lucky, having to prove that x% of their grade comes from labs and y% from tests or whatever, which will take a bit more massaging in a standards-based system.
You will want to carefully consider how you convert what students do on lots of separate standards into a single letter grade. This task sucks and essentially reverse-engineers everything you’ve been trying to do, but until more teachers and school districts get behind just reporting learning standards, we’ll have to deal with it. Many options exist: Will you figure out an average score using scores from all the standards? Will you have basic and advanced standards and use achievement of the advanced ones to assign higher letter grades? Will you look at performance on all the standards at once and apply a set of rules to determine a final grade? I lean towards the latter and have a system in place that counts the number of advanced, proficient, partially-proficient, and unsatisfactory standards to determine the final grade.

Step 4: Try it out!

Implementation time! After a summer of planning and writing about your new standards-based grading system, the first days of school are going to be great! Except don’t expect students to want to hear every detail all at once. Spend some time getting to know your students and building up your classroom community before digging into the nitty gritty of how their grades will be determined. Oh sure, make your pretty documents and web pages available, but don’t expect students to read them right away, if ever. Instead, coach students on the philosophy of your class, about what they can do to show you that they are learning something in your class. Give them the tools to be successful on your assessments, even if they don’t quite see the big picture of how standards-based grading in your class works. And constantly remind them that they can improve on past failures and mistakes, if you allow that sort of thing, because chances are your students have been trained to fire and forget on most assessments. Its the mental shift that you need to work on, not just in yourself, but in your students as well for this sort of assessment scheme to succeed.

Be warned, though. These changes will come at a serious price: your time.

There are some school days that I look enviously at the student aides for one of my neighbor teachers, slogging away with an answer key and a red marker at piles of that teacher’s turned-in assignments. Oh, says I upon seeing such sights, why didn’t I stay with the worksheet and my lovely 10 (or 1) point grading system? I could have aides do my grading for me. It was so easy to check off whether someone had done some learning or not. But I know that system didn’t really do much besides speed up the process of assigning a grade, and wasn’t really about assessment at all.

It takes time to really get to know what kids are learning in your classroom. Anyone, including student aides, can grade a worksheet, tally a point total, and enter it into a grade book without knowing a darn thing about the student that turned it in. It will take more time to grade by standards, particularly if you are going to go the route I did and develop student blogs and online portfolios. Those sorts of things take time to make and take time to assess so be prepared to spend more class time on assessments and be ready to spend more of your own time on reviewing them.

I love this note that a reader left in a conversation on my Assessment Philosophy:

I’ve been reading this document and now have a clearer idea of what you were talking about. My principal question, which I’m sure is answered somewhere, is how does one manage it? Reading and commenting on scores of portfolios that vary greatly in quality would seem to be an extremely time-consuming endeavor. I have been in a 17 year struggle to have a normal life outside of teaching, one I have largely lost. I want the students to do most of the thinking and the work while I do relatively little, but for general classes anyway, the reverse seems to be most true. Do you know where in Chris’ webpage or blog he reveals the secrets to evaluating the portfolios without committing evenings and weekends to the task? Thanks,

Larry

Larry is absolutely in the right in thinking that reading and commenting on blogs and portfolios is extremely time consuming. But the tradeoff is that no two student blogs are the same and reading a student’s writing is so much more interesting than scoring worksheets. The digital artifacts they create will be very unique and entertaining if they are done well, as most are in my experience. Is it overwhelming at times? Sure! But strategies like using Google Reader to keep track of when students post and which ones I’ve read and using Google Doc spreadsheets (or Blue Harvest) for keeping track of comments helps a lot. I also keep links to all student portfolios in one place using Pearltrees, which makes access to the otherwise clunky Google Sites in our district much more useable.

I found, too, that as the school year progressed, I spent much less time “grading” the blogs and was able to just read them to keep tabs on what the students were writing about and making sure they weren’t straying too far afield in putting their portfolio together. This happened somewhere around the end of the first semester when there was an “aha” moment of sorts for a lot of students when they finally understood what the portfolio was about and how it was being used to determine their overall grade. From that point on, it was obvious to students that the blank portfolio pages that I provided for them represented what I wanted them to know before they left the class. From then on, they became much more aware of what had to be done and they just did it, regardless of whether I “graded” their posts every time or not. In fact, for most of 2nd semester I only graded the portfolio (since that’s what I said I would grade anyway) and just read the blog posts for fun as part of the portfolio.

I think there will always be some sort of “training period” each school year in which I have to do a lot of “grading” and actually give blog posts scores on the 4 point scale just to give students an idea of what I’m looking for, but from then on, they seem pretty capable of producing artifacts for the portfolio without me having to grade each and every one of them. Grading the portfolios was an awesome way to end the year and a real triumph for standards-based grading since the portfolio made it so easy to assess what a student had learned in specific areas.

Still, I won’t claim to be sad to hit summer so I can spend some more time with my own little grumkins:

Ludwig kids

Thanks for hanging on through this not-so-concise romp through how I implement standards-based grades in my classes. I encourage you to try even small steps to reform your grading system, if you haven’t already. As for all the details, I’m sure there’s tons of stuff I left out so drop me a comment and we’ll fill in the gaps together.

3rd Q recap: why I’ll keep using ePortfolios

I’ve had three chances now to assess my students’ eportfolios for letter grades, and I love ’em. Portfolios and students, that is, not grades. Yes, my school still requires letter grades each quarter, but I hope that someday these sorts of learning portfolios that we are building can be shared without having to be cheapened by labeling them with a simple letter rating. A good portfolio can stand on its own and doesn’t need somebody like me to point out whether it is awesome or not. In fact, in my perfect future world each kid who applies for college or a job fills in their application (most are online by now) and pastes in a link to their portfolio. Colleges and employers can click to see what sort of person they are getting, complete with writing samples, content-area knowledge, evidence of skills gained and so on. No more silly essay questions and no more inflated resum├ęs full of made up extracurricular activities, just a real record of what the student actually accomplished in school. Yes, I know they will take time to read, believe me, but you are about to create your future student body or workforce. Don’t you want to know what they’re capable of?

Vision of a grade-less future aside, here are some reasons why I’ll keep using online portfolios at least into next year:

1. The portfolio fills the gap in evidence for Standard 8: Self-reflection

Ever since I started using standards-based assessment, I’ve used 9 major standards as the backbone of all my classes. One of the nine (insert Lord of the Rings reference here) is content-specific knowledge, four are science process skills, two are communication/tech/21stC skills, and two are the touchy-feely standards of self-reflection and contribution to the learning community.

Before the portfolios were implemented, students managed to produce a wide variety of evidence for the community standard (successful group projects, blog comments from within and beyond the school, stats on page views for certain blog posts) but had a rough time performing self-reflection. Sure, a few people got it and wrote long, involved blog posts about what they did best and what they would change about their work habits, but most students were flummoxed by the idea of writing what seemed to them a fake-sounding, possibly brown-nosing post full of what the teacher wanted in a “reflection.”

With the eportfolio, though, self-reflection and analysis of one’s work are built into the system. Students are given a blank Google Sites template for the portfolio at the beginning of the year and are asked to select the evidence of learning that goes on each page. They not only have to include links to relevant blogposts or other artifacts that they have created, but they also need to justify to the portfolio reviewers why they feel that a particular artifact meets the goal of that particular section of the portfolio. So on each portfolio page, if done well, there exist links to student products and the students’ rationale for why they believe that those artifacts demonstrate that they have mastered a particular standard. Win! There’s even an entire page of the portfolio devoted to the self-reflection standard so that students can’t miss the fact that it’s a major skill that I want them to practice. That page gets used differently from student to student, but some of the most impressive ones I’ve seen have a running dialog with themselves from quarter to quarter about how the portfolio is shaping up.
For example:

sample student Standard 8 portfolio page

another sample student Standard 8 portfolio page

2. The portfolio streamlines the demonstration of evidence of learning in a standards-based course

Instead of poking through blog posts on a student blog, which are organized by whenever the student decided to sit down and create them, the portfolio allows the reviewer(s) to see at a glance which major topic and skill standards have been addressed by each student. Don’t misunderstand me, the blogs are a vital piece of communication between the student and I as they are learning, but when the quarter or semester grade rolls around and I need to switch to judge mode, it’s a lot easier for me to do SBG with the portfolio than it was with a student blog by itself.

3. The portfolio can be an amazing record of progress towards specific goals.

As mentioned above, I use only 9 major standards for the whole year for each class. You can bet we have repeat attempts to demonstrate each one, that’s kinda the point of choosing only the 9 really important things that I want kids to be able to do. In the example Standard 8 pages above, you can see that this plays out in the portfolio on individual portfolio pages where students have retained their discussion of that standard from previous quarters and so can refer back to what they previously said or thought.

So, yes, I will keep using the portfolios. They aren’t all perfect and there are, of course, varying levels of student commitment to the idea. But, for not a lot of extra work, students leave each of my courses with a record of what they really did to earn that lovely letter on their transcript. I can only hope that someday someone important in their life will find their portfolio more useful than that lovely letter.

Student ePortfolios in the High School Science Classroom: Q & A

Q: What’s an ePortfolio?
A: Let me start by saying that, like most of what I use in my teaching, I didn’t invent ePortfolios and I can’t answer for everyone since ePortfolios mean different things to different people. But I will define an ePortfolio as an online space that gets used to collect and showcase evidence of individual student learning.

Q: You mean its like a blog?
A: Sorta. Blogs certainly can be used to show what a student has learned. In fact, thats how my classes operated last year, with student work nearly exclusively being posted to personal blogs. But an ePortfolio is different from a student’s blog. A blog is organized chronologically by date of publication, but an ePortfolio is organized by skill and content area standards and represents an attempt to prove that those standards have been met.

Q: Why add another site for students to manage? Isn’t a blog enough work?
A: What I found with the blogs was that students worked incredibly hard and produced amazing pieces of work but often couldn’t tell me which standards their posts met. As long as I was the only one evaluating their work, the standards for the class mattered only to me. Self-reflection of learning was really missing.

Q: So how does creating an ePortfolio lead to more self-reflection?
A: For starters, students have to look through all the blog posts that they have written so far and select which ones will go into their portfolio and on which pages to include them. This leads naturally to a discovery of which standards have a lot of evidence of mastery and which have less. Furthermore, there is a page within the portfolio that is for evidence of self-reflection, either in blog posts or as demonstrated while completing the portfolio. Many students used this page to assess the current status of their learning as shown by the portfolio.

Q: You mention pages in the ePortfolio and have many references to “standards.” How are the two related?
A: Each skill and content area standard gets its own page in the portfolio, which will vary with the content of each course.

Q: How did you decide which skill and content area standards to use for the pages in the portfolios?
A: The short answer is that those are the standards that I piloted last year as I implemented standards-based grading in each of my anatomy, biology, and chemistry courses. All of my science courses share the same set of 9 major skill standards, the first of which is broken down into specific content areas for each course. The common skill standards are those things that usually get called science process skills: graph interpretation, experimental design, lab and research skills, to name a few. The content-specific standards were derived from the Colorado Community College standard competencies for each individual course.

Q: These portfolio pages you keep referring to, where are they, exactly?
A: In a student-owned Google Site.

Q: ?
A: Early in the school year, I built a template site for each subject area course in Google Sites and then shared those templates to our district’s GoogleApps domain. Students could then go into Google Sites and create their own portfolio site from the template that I had created. Since the template had pages set up for each skill and content area standard, each student portfolio site also had these pages set up automatically as well. All students have to do is edit each page of the portfolio to include their blog posts, reflections, and other artifacts such as test scores that demonstrate mastery of that particular standard.

Q: So when do I get to see one of these ePortfolios?
A: The ePortfolios live within our schools’ GoogleApps domain and are mostly set to be visible only within our district at the moment. However, a few seniors have hit on the idea that colleges and scholarship providers might be interested in their work, and so have made their portfolios publicly visible. Here are a few links that I think will work:
Steven’s A&P ePortfolio
Audie’s A&P ePortfolio
Katrina’s A&P ePortfolio
Steven’s Chemistry ePortfolio
I hope to convince more students to make their portfolios public and will add links as they do so.

Q: Ok, I’m interested enough to want to know more. Got any references for me?
A: Here are a couple links to get you started:
Levels of eportfolio development in k-12 schools
Creating student portfolios with Google Sites