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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.

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sharing ideas

A strange hobby…

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

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

NGSS HS Biology overview

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

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

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

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

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

Who are the NGSS for?

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

A crowdsourced NGSS biology curriculum

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

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

Biology units aligned to NGSS and Colorado Standards

These docs include:

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

Next steps

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

 

Image credit: CoolTownStudios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Student Portfolios are Classroom Assessments of the NGSS

From Developing Assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards:

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

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

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

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

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

2. Student Portfolios are Monitoring Assessments for the NGSS

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

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

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

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

Portfolio of Work Samples and Projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

 

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

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

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

Why do teachers use points to quantify student learning?

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

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

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

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

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

Earning and withholding points is a game we play at school

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

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

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

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

Changing the game

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

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

Student ownership of learning

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

Weekly Progress in BlueHarvestFeedback

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

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

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

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A colleague of mine recently described what it was like growing up as the youngest kid in the family. His main point was that the youngest child sometimes learns a lot from watching the older kids fail horribly. Hopefully this post gives you a chance to benefit from being the little brother/sister learning from us older kids so you don’t have to make the same mistakes. Administrators, this one’s for you.

Fad: A practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal – Merriam-Webster 

As someone who has been experimenting with standards-based assessment and grading for a while now, I’ve noticed a few things that don’t seem to work when implementing SBG. The following is my list of ways to make sure that no one in your school district ever wants to use standards-based grading again.

1. Don’t get teacher input about the process of implementing standards-based grades.

One way that I’ve seen SBG get implemented occurs when administrators or superintendents attend a conference or read a neat blog post about how wonderful SBG is and how it rocked the world etc. etc. They proceed to get their school board on their side with arguments about how a standards-based education guarantees that all students will succeed and that the best way to guarantee this is to make teachers report their students’ progress not as points and percentages but as discrete standards.

Great! But how? Who will develop the standards? Who will decide the format of the standards-based report card? Will you turn the standards-based report into a letter grade? If so, how? So many choices to make, but who will make them?

If administrators go this alone, you’ll run the risk of making this just another educational fad. Fads seem to make teachers mad and reactionary. The more experienced among us shrug and smile at professional development sessions about the next new best thing and most of the time we take the resulting packet or binder back to our rooms and nothing comes of it but another surface for collecting dust. But when you mess with the fundamental structure of their classroom flow and their gradebook? Wow, do people freak out, especially if that directive comes purely from a top-down direction without teacher input. The fad then becomes something truly evil, more than a binder to be shelved, but an actual invader into the sacred space between a teacher and their students, a fundamental warping of the fabric of classroom space-time. Well, maybe not quite like that, but it does piss people off.

Exhibit A: Hundreds of Teachers Rally Against Standards-Based Grading

Don’t do this. If teachers beg you to allow them to implement SBG, let them. When they are ready they’ll make it work. Otherwise its a fad.

2. Require teachers to use state or national standards for their course/classroom standards.

There are a bajillion things out there masquerading as “standards.” Any group of people with sufficient money and political capital can put together a list of things that they think “everyone” should know. My state, your state, and some so-called national groups have certainly done this, recruiting committees of experts to sit in conference rooms for hours on end, word-smithing and getting these beauties just right for public consumption.

So there you are, in your quest to provide a standards-based education, staring at these lists of what kids should know and be able to do. Should you go with national (CommonCore, NGSS), state, AP, IB, college concurrent, or heck, even someone’s grandma’s chemistry syllabus from 1922?

Nope. Allow teachers to create their own standards.

Teachers can certainly borrow bits and pieces from all of these lovely committees who have spent hours consulting one another on the best bits of knowledge for a particular grade level or discipline, but to limit them to one interpretation of what kids ought to know is sort of the opposite of enabling good educators. Furthermore, most of these standards being published recently are written so poorly and so esoterically that teachers need to be trained for hours just to make sense of them. Is this the sort of language that you want to put on a standards-based report card that parents and students will see? They’ll just crumple up/delete it if we don’t write our standards in language that they’ll understand.

And that’s the real reason that teachers should create their own standards for their classes: only they know who their students are, the community context within which they work, and the kind of language (word-smithing) that needs to be used with their particular group(s) of students.

Take all those fancy-pants standards and make them your own. Otherwise, parents won’t understand them, kids will ignore them, and we’ll all hope that they’ll go away like all fads do.

Justin in overalls with the prime minister of Canada

 

3. Don’t train your teachers before you roll out SBG.

It might happen like this: You’ve done your research and have decided to use standards-based assessment and reporting in your school. You have at least a few teachers interested in using it. As for those other not-so-interested teachers, well, they’ll recognize the benefits, too, once they start using it. You go for it! At your first staff meeting in August you greet your returning staff with your vision of how they will run their classes this new school year. You have them start the new school year by writing their standards and assessments for the new grading system. Aren’t they excited?

Well, no, they’re not. If you haven’t done a lot of groundwork over two, three, or even four years, teachers are going to have a lot of reservations about your new initiative and a steep hill to climb to meet your sudden shift in paradigm.

Think about what you are asking teachers to do:

    • Wade through pages of local, state, and national standards to figure out what other people say they are supposed to be teaching
    • Select from that bloated body of standards the ones that students really need to know
    • Rewrite the clunky language of these standards into words that students will understand
    • Organize the new set of standards into an instructional plan in a way that makes sense thematically and chronologically
    • Learn to work with new or modified electronic gradebooks to collect and display grades using standards instead of points/percentages
    • Write and/or modify activities and assessments that align to the new standards
    • Write rubrics and/or set performance criteria for A/P/PP/U performance levels
    • Determine if and how students’ standards-based grades will be converted to a letter grade

If you want teachers to do all of these things on the fly during their first year of implementation of standards-based grading, be my guest, but don’t expect really stellar results and you should expect to lose the support of much of your overworked staff.

Instead, try implementing some of the steps that this district took before they went whole hog. Solon Community School District, you’re doing it right. Otherwise its a fad and its gonna die for lack of support.

4. Use SBG to provide even less information to parents than your traditional grading system.

One of the big benefits of standards-based grading is its potential to replace the nonsense of numerical points and averaging and zeros with a system that pinpoints a student’s academic strengths and weaknesses in order to help them get better in those areas. This works if students and parents can see which areas are deficient and if they can use the teacher’s observations of student performance to help plan ways to improve.

What often happens, though, is that poorly-implemented standards-based reporting kills any meaningful data that a teacher might have gained from their new system of assessing by standards. If all a parent sees is something like this, the system is in trouble. I can picture a kid getting this report card and the parent asking “Larry, why do you have a PP in Math Content 2? What is Math Content 2? And why is your ORC knowledge a U?” I doubt the kid could answer.

Unless there is an easily accessible, DETAILED collection of student assessments and performance data available for parents to see, the switch to a standards-based report card tells parents even less about their kid than your current rack-up-the-points system. At least in that sort of points system most parents can go to an online grade book and see that their kid didn’t turn in Math Content Sheet 91.1d or that they got a 78% on their last science quiz. Telling parents that their kid is partially proficient in Numeracy doesn’t really mean squat, especially if the parent only sees this judgement of their child at the end of the quarter or semester.

Try out ActiveGrade, BlueHarvest, Three-Ring, JumpRope, or have teachers make their own Google Spreadsheets to record feedback to students and parents. Get your current implementations of Infinite Campus or Powerschool to play nice with reporting standards-based data online. Make the evidence that your teachers collect visible to both parents and students. Otherwise its just a fad and nobody figures out how to improve.

 

So what does work? How do I start using SBG in a really meaningful way?

Teachers, this one’s for you: start with this article by Frank Noschese. All the fancy stuff will come later. You’ll figure out a system that works for you.

Best of luck to you all!

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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.

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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.

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I’ve been asked a few questions lately about what my classes look like: Are your classes “flipped?” What kind of assignments do you give? How much lecturing do you do?

I thought about writing a post answering these, but then today I was evaluating this portfolio and thought that I would just post a link to it instead.

If you spend some time with this portfolio you’ll see:

  • Assessment by skill and content-area standards
  • Extensive use of various web-based tools
  • Reflection on one’s own learning
  • Cooperative group projects
  • Content-area writing
  • Student-designed experiments
  • Use of multiple devices and apps

This is what my classes look like.

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Scott McLeod recently asked this question in his post Reconciling Convergence and Divergence:

How do you reconcile…

principles of standards-based grading; “begin with the end in mind and work backwards;” understanding by design; and other more convergent learning ideas

with…

project-, problem-, challenge-, and/or inquiry-based learning; creativity; innovation; collaboration; and our need for more divergent thinkers?

My answer: I don’t reconcile the two, nor am I sure that I should. I do both. Separately.

As frequent readers of this blog will know, I’ve been experimenting with standards-based assessment and grading for a couple of years now and am to the point that I feel reasonably expert in structuring my classroom around standards. I typically start off each course in the fall by discussing the specific standards that students will meet during the year and explaining how they might go about proving that they’ve met those standards. We then proceed to work together as a class to do a variety of activities and labs designed to help students meet the standards that I have laid out. This works well in my biology, anatomy, and chemistry classes, all of which are concurrent college credit and so are matched to my state’s community college system guidelines for each particular course. Very, very convergent stuff. All students focus their learning on mostly the same set of ideas, even going so far as to complete electronic portfolios based on a common template that I provide for them. This system works nicely and the portfolios that students are producing are excellent, with lots of evidence that they’ve learned particular skill and content standards.

But what about physics? This year I had the opportunity to take over the job of physics teacher because: a) no one else wanted to teach it, and b) I had a lot of proto-engineers begging me to teach anything besides biology or anatomy.  This class turned out to be radically different from anything else that I’ve ever taught. It was radically different because I didn’t go into the class with a defined set of standards. The class was not concurrent college credit so I didn’t have to concern myself with matching a college syllabus. The state of Colorado does have physical science standards for students, but they had mostly fulfilled those in their freshman and sophomore level courses, and the kids taking physics were Juniors and Seniors.

With nothing to prove to anyone about whether I had correctly learnified my students, I was free to structure the class as I saw fit. I decided to let the students run it. On the first day of school I explained that they would be designing the class, not me. We spent the next few days brainstorming what sorts of things normally go on in a physics class, which topics they ought to leave physics knowing about, and how to do assessments of said goals. In other words, the students and I were still in a very standards-based frame of mind.

But then we diverged. Big time. Our brainstorming sessions had revealed a lot of different student interests: What about building that hovercraft you were telling us about and just how much power does a shop vac produce? Can we build some sort of catapult?  How about a potato gun? By the third week of school, we had all carried out a couple of the standard labs on measuring motion using video analysis and motion sensors but that was the last time we did anything as a whole group. The rest of the year was project based. Completely student designed and initiated to the point they started calling the class “phunsics.” My lesson plan book for the class was a mess. Usually it just said “Projects” until after class when I could actually fill in what students worked on that day, and when I did fill it in, I often had to summarize four or five different projects for the same class period. And so it went all year, sometimes in great bursts of activity, sometimes in lulls of senioritis and apathy, but always there were one or two major projects underway and several on the back burners.

To try to explain the course to future generations of phunsics students (and anyone else curious about what the class looked like), students created several videos about their experience.  A playlist of some of their videos is worth watching for some different perspectives on the class. Also, here’s my tribute video for the Phunsics team.

 

How then do we decide which type of course is better for learning, the convergent “let’s meet the standards” kind of class or the divergent “follow your interests” kind of class?  That all depends on how you measure learning, I suppose. On the one hand, students in anatomy, biology, and chemistry have portfolios of the work they accomplished during the year and anyone curious enough could see exactly what sorts of standards they had met. On the other hand, the phunsics students exhibited self-direction, organizational skills, coping with failure, teamwork, and creativity. Our current set of standardized assessments would completely overlook the achievements of these students, should we choose to assess them that way.

Would I teach the anatomy, biology, and chemistry courses the same way that I did physics this year? I’m not so sure I would. Some subjects lend themselves to true inquiry and self-direction better than others. Disciplines like physics and engineering will always have an advantage over subjects like biology and anatomy where real inquiry involves very specialized equipment and a ton of background knowledge that students may not yet possess. Likewise inquiry in chemistry has to be bounded both by safety considerations and the background knowledge of students. Don’t get me wrong, I work in as many open-ended and inquiry labs as possible in these disciplines but these labs or “problems” are still often defined by the teacher and not the learner. Probably I still suck at PBL and just need to get better at it, but for now any sort of PBL short of giving full control to students seems kind of artificial to me.

In conclusion, I’m going to try to offer the physics course as often as I can, which at this point is every other year in rotation with AP Biology. I think a student-designed course like that is vital to help students understand what real scientific inquiry is like, with teams working together to solve problems and meet design challenges they meet along the way. And, at least for now, I’ll keep the anatomy, biology, and chemistry courses as standards-based courses, but attempt to move them in a direction of more student control about how and when they meet the particular standards.

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