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Monday, January 15, 2018

Standards-based grading myths (Part 2)

Communicating about changes to our school's grading system is a difficult, never-ending process, under the best of circumstances. And the bigger the change... the more communication is necessary.

Along with clarifying the what and the why, it is also necessary to combat misinformation and challenge faulty assumptions. To that end, here's the second of a series of blog posts that directly address myths about standards-based grading.

I'm sure you've heard the whispers among those yearning for a return to the traditional grading of past years. Standards-based grading is "too different" and "why was there any reason to change, anyway?" and, to quote a student, "It wasn't broken. Why fix it?"

It's simple, really. This pining for a return to traditional grading rests on the assumption that...

Everyone used to know what a grade meant.

We were all accustomed to the inherent fairness and meritocracy of the percentage-based, quiz-and-test, industriousness-rewarding, cycle of teaching, learning and grading that was traditional grading.

But traditional grading and assessing rested on assumptions that 1) are highly suspect and 2) ultimately produce negative educational outcomes. They shouldn't underpin our work at LVHS -- or anywhere else.

Our suppositions about letter grade labels rest on a foundation of quicksand. Five letters are supposed to serve as a suitable proxy for work ethic, attentiveness, intelligence, effort, knowledge, skill, punctuality, behavior, ability to work with others, penmanship, quick thinking, ability to memorize and regurgitate facts, perseverance, ability to spell, curiosity, timeliness, willingness to sit for 42 minutes at a time, creativity, independence, test-taking ability and the list goes on, all measured on a percentage scale that fits students into the bell curve we all know and trust.

Work ethic and effort? Let me introduce you to one of our "C" students who works a 3 pm - to - 11 pm shift at a nursing home and tries to squeeze in a little homework before falling asleep. She's not alone. Rating "work ethic" is a tricky business with adults, let alone teenagers, yet we always pretended not getting your homework done meant you were lazy and punish that behavior with a bad grade.

Intelligence? Our track record of measuring intelligence by academic markers is fraught with false assumptions and less-than-stellar performance.

Attendance? Punctuality? Schools and teachers traditionally apply these penalties in disparate ways, including ways that have even been found to be against the law or just plain non-productive. Muddying a measure of learning with a measure of attendance is traditional grading.

Penmanship and neatness? The subjectivity of these measures is all over the map, as demonstrated by study after study. Here's one.

Quick thinking? The pressures of standardized testing are damaging a whole generation of students, and pressure to do Math quickly on tests and quizzes -- for a grade -- is the collateral damage. In what other area of life do we expect people to do a task all at the same exact pace...for a grade? In how many real-life situations do you use Math with a timer running?

Fact regurgitation? The timed regurgitation of rote-level, memorization-based, knowledge-recall test items has long been the foundation of many a grade. But the idea we should cram kids full of facts they might use later has been so thoroughly and repeatedly debunked that it is now obvious most letter grades do little to convey information about how students can USE information. See also here and here and here: percentage-based, traditional grading goes hand-in-hand with low-level assessing. This also applies to teaching / assessing the acquisition of vocabulary, another staple of traditional grading.

Percent scale? Among the most consistent factors of traditional grading is the use of the percentage scale. Entire chapters of books have been written about its misapplication and misuse in grading. Google "percentage-based grading" and you'll see. It is best debunked by Thomas Guskey, here.

Surely, traditional grades must have meant something, right? Stripping away all the above factors, we must have been on the right track with the tests, quizzes and papers that made up the meat and potatoes of traditional grades? Unfortunately, any study of the validity and reliability of teacher-created assessments reveals them to be flawed.

I'm proud we've responded to what we've learned about grading. It was a presentation by Dr. Guskey, in fact, that led scores of Licking Valley teachers to immediately begin reforming their grading practices in 2012, ushering in a new era of better grading and assessment.

Among the questions I've been asked frequently is this: "Where's the research that tells you standards-based grading works?" A reasonable question to ask in response, is: "Where's the research that tells you traditional grading works?"

We have plenty of evidence to lead us to do better. Following the research and the learning science and our core beliefs about fairness is exactly what we're doing. The only myth here is, "It wasn't broken."

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Standards-based grading myths (Part 1)

Communicating about changes to our school's grading system is a difficult, never-ending process, under the best of circumstances. And the bigger the change... the more communication is necessary.

Along with clarifying the what and the why, it is also necessary to combat misinformation with facts. To that end, here's the first of a series of blog posts that directly address myths about standards-based grading:

In response to a recent survey about grading, a student said:

"Colleges look at our GPA, our grades, and our ACT/SAT scores. They don't care about standards. They want students who can learn the material and do the work. What good is it for a student to be able to do a process, such as an equation, correctly and get the wrong answer, yet they are rewarded because they put "effort". Colleges don't care how much effort you put it. If the answer is wrong, it's wrong. If it's right, it's right. There is no "Well, you did the process right, so I'll give you points for that" or "You at least put effort and attempted the problem." It's like giving the worst-performing player on the team a Varsity letter because they tried really hard. That's not how the real world works."

You know what? It's also not how standards-based grading works. At all. Not even a little bit.

This misconception comes from outside our school, because nobody in a Math class at LVHS (and that's every student) could ever truthfully say this. Let's break this comment down:

"What good is it for a student to be able to do a process, such as an equation, correctly and get the wrong answer, yet they are rewarded because they put 'effort'." The picture below is of a sign on the wall  in one of our Math classrooms, and it explains a standard that is in use in all our Math classes. As you can see, we value "mathematical precision" so much that we've made it Standard #1!
Furthermore, the very idea of standards-based grading is to make explicitly clear what is being assessed, with "effort" being measured apart from knowledge and skills. Our system expressly demands demonstration of skills.

There is no "Well, you did the process right, so I'll give you points for that" Nobody at LVHS "gives" anyone "points" for anything. Points (and percentages) are gone. Learning isn't a work-reward process, a transaction for which a student earns "credit." We rate student knowledge and skills within content standards, looking for mastery and proficiency.

Our Math teachers know that grasping the big concept and applying the right mathematical tool is important, and so is simplifying, factoring, and doing arithmetic. On the way to the "right answer," the "process"of showing one's work reveals gaps  in knowledge and skills. Some have to do with the big concept (EX: creating an equation from a graph) and some with doing all the little things right. One great activity Math teachers use to attune students to the finer points is a "find the mistake" activity. (See below)

Our Math teachers  would be more than happy to explain their standards and the value of assessing "product," "process" and "effort" separately. They can be reached at LVHS any time via phone or e-mail. Please reach out if you have questions about their standards or assessments.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Guest blog post: On Reading

I'm lucky to have a family tradition that includes giving books as gifts at Christmas. This year's gift from my wife reminded me of the fact I've actually read more for pleasure in the last year than I have in a long time.

Part of the reason for that is that I've been inspired by LVHS teachers who are voracious readers and inspirational, passionate advocates for reading. Leading that group is English teacher Amanda Suttle, for whom creating readers is a life's mission.

In this guest post, Amanda talks about turning students into readers... something at which she excels!

I don’t have any original ideas. I do, however, follow brilliant educators on social media and read lengthy, regularly published blog posts from teachers who must live in an alternate universe where time doesn’t exist (or they have no kids at home, or maybe they don’t need sleep to function). I also read books written by amazing authors who have changed the game in ELA forever. So, most of what I’ve come up with here is gleaned from the wise insights of people much smarter than I am, and for their efforts, I’m grateful.

So, there’s this awesome Facebook page from which I also borrow ideas of clever educators. With a membership of more than 13,000 English teachers, it’s a treasure trove of lessons and resources, as well as a safe haven of solace for the pains of the daily grind.

What I’ve noticed, though, since I’ve joined the group, is that the majority of posts consistently contain some version of the same question: “What ideas do you have for activities or projects to make X more engaging and understandable?”

X = a “classic” text from “the canon” of “classic” texts that have been taught since teaching began (So, you’d think we’d have found ways to make them more engaging and understandable by now. It’s almost like times and students change or something.)

I can’t help but feel like this is the wrong question. Dare I say it, but it may be time for our long-held tradition of whole-class novel study practices to take a back seat to new approaches, which emphasize student choice and learning.

What if we required skills and standards instead of specific stories?

Don’t get me wrong; some of these books that we have taught for generations are indeed great, but what is it about this ONE story/plot that makes it so absolutely indispensable? How does this one writer/genre appeal to ALL students? What will they learn? What will they really remember?

Perhaps my own 9th grade study of Watership Down had some kind of subconscious impact on my ability to persevere through pain or achieve despite apathy, but all I recall is a relentless, unrelated-to-anything reading about rabbits. I couldn’t tell you a single plot point or character name now, but I do remember pointless, mindless worksheets and a detailed study of Erin’s hair. My friend Erin sat in front of me, and I intensely envied her dark, flawlessly soft curls - the perfect opposite of my stick-straight, blonde, blah locks. I hated that book, and I loved Erin’s hair; that was freshman English for me, in a nutshell.

I should re-read Richard Adams’ classic text now, but I won’t. And it’s for the same reason then as it is now: there are SO MANY other more appealing, exciting, intriguing, recommended, well-written, and relatable book options. Plus, I can hold a grudge from 1992 no problem.
Instead of spending nine weeks working to ensure my understanding of this one book, what if my teacher had allowed us choice in what we read? What if she had focused her efforts on clearly defining what she wanted us to learn and do, and then provided examples, time to practice, and feedback on how well we demonstrated our knowledge and skills? I’d probably be a much smarter English teacher who didn’t have to steal others’ ideas and could write my own book.

Many teachers I know struggle through trying to make something work that they think they should do because it’s always been done. Instead of starting with a text, I start with us- my students and me:

  • What do I know about my students?
  • What do I want them to know and be able to do?
  • What do THEY want to know and be able to do?
  • How will I assess their ability to show me that they know and can do?
  • Do I care about this? Will they care?
  • Would I want to complete this assignment?
  • How can I help them improve?

If I’m being honest, most days feel impossible. Teaching is hard. Teaching reading and writing is like herding cats while running a marathon in quicksand. (Actually, maybe that’s easy if you’re all sinking at the same time.) Still, it’s a lot of work. When it’s all said and done, rather than insisting on classics above all else, I just think that offering choice, clarity of expectations, and consistent communication gets us closer to that ultimate goal of every adult helping every child learn and grow every day.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Better communication for student success

Licking Valley High School hosts parent-teacher conferences on November 8th and November 16th. Along with our September Open House, which many parents attended, brief conference-night conversations can be the key to turning students' learning experience from a passive one to a purposeful one. Purposeful learning = success!

Here are three great ways to make the most of the opportunity:

Ask about the standards that were assessed in the first quarter, and which ones were areas of strength and weakness for your student. Use the JumpRope report that came home Friday as a topic of conversation, first with your student, then with your student's teacher. You don't have to be an expert in the standards; just put a star beside the ones about which you have questions. If there are standards your student can't explain clearly to you, verbally... start with those!
LVHS standards-based report card
Talk to your student about missing work noted on their missing work report, if they received one in their report card envelope. There's a reason for every late assignment, and asking your student about them gives you starting point for discussion with a teacher. Rarely are work habit struggles completely separate from academic struggles -- they are more-often related!

LVHS missing / late work report
Ask the teacher to share with you a rubric from an upcoming assessment: Seeing the way your student's teacher designs learning from standard >> assessment >> instruction can give you the information you need to have the daily conversation with your student that results in academic success.

Whether or not teachers have requested a conference with you, call us at (740) 763-3721 to schedule a quick meeting on conference night. If you can't make it during that time, we'll put you in touch with one or more teachers in a way that meets your needs. You are an important key to your child's success!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

State board, legislature to get proposal to help class of 2018


In the space below is my summary of legislative action taken on this issue since the state board approved the working group's recommendations last month:

********END OF UPDATE*********

The state board of education's graduation requirements working committee recently finished its work and will forward a helpful resolution to the state board.

The committee decided on resolution language and created a comprehensive high school proposal and a career-tech proposal that provide alternative pathways to graduation. They considered a bigger, more ambitious plan that would reduce the reliance on standardized testing for graduation requireements and decided to direct the department to collect data on it, over the next few months, as the state board’s “assessment committee” and a possible future version of the “graduation committee” had a conversation about how to broaden the ways a student can demonstrate proficiency in the core areas and in the “soft skills.”

With the board and legislature poised to consider what action to take, it appears we have again reached a phase of the process in which student, parent, educator and community member voices should be heard!

For me, the committee's conversation about the 'bigger picture' was most impressive. Freed from the paradigm of 'standardized tests' as the only legitimate measure of student performance, Ohio schools could innovate to create a better system that puts Ohio on a higher plane, in terms of graduate quality.

Licking Valley High School is well-positioned to pivot to a more reasonable set of graduation standards that recognize kids' unique abilities and desires for education after high school. Our academic majors program for juniors and seniors respects all forms of post-secondary education and training and acknowledges a four-year college degree is highly desirable but not the pathway for all students.

Additionally, the longer-term plan for recognizing the importance of the 'soft skills' in employment and college is welcomed. At LVHS, we feel those soft skills are important enough that we created a school-wide set of standards around four such skills and we report student performance within those areas. Our elementary and middle schools are working toward the same goal: This draft version of such standards for the middle school is excellent!

We welcome any apparent move away from paper-and-pencil tests as a sole determinant of student proficiency. Our grading system is calibrated to influence teachers to move toward other, alternative forms of assessment because they are better. While this journey is just beginning, we're making progress. For example, we're currently considering our first set of weighted, school-wide standards for student presentations, as this draft shows.

As for the present, the committee's resolution is a welcome development. What follows is information about the proposed pathway that I think most helps our students. As always, if you have questions about this post, contact me!

All students in the class of 2018 who don’t meet one of the three graduation pathways must do the following to get a diploma.
·         Complete all required high school courses
·         Take all  ‘required’  end of course exams; retake once any ELA or Math test for which student scored a “1”
·         Meet  two of the following six conditions:
Attendance rate during senior year – 93%
2.5 GPA for senior year courses with a minimum of 4 courses
Complete a capstone senior project as defined by the district
Complete 120 hours work experience including, but not limited to internship, co-op, apprenticeship,  work study or community service during the senior year as defined by district
 Successfully have  ‘earned the credits’ (at any time during the student’s high school experience) for a College Credit Plus course (3 credits or more)
Successfully complete an International Baccalaureate, or Advanced Placement course and earn a score on the respective exam that would earn college credit (4 on IB higher exam, 3 on AP exam) - (through 1st Semester of Sr. year for IB and AP).

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A quest for graduation requirements that make sense

Not too long ago, I wrote about the Ohio State Board of Education's working group, conceived with the charge of recommending how to mitigate the impending disaster that awaits the class of 2018.

With Fall re-test scores coming out this week (we'll communicate them to students and parents on Tuesday), it seemed a good time to recap the working group's activities and update the status of our juniors.

First, the hoped-for surge in test passage rates isn't materializing, at least not at Licking Valley High School. (I'll update this post on Tuesday if I get more information from other Licking County schools).

Before Fall re-tests, 95 LVHS juniors were on-track to graduate, in a class of 169. After Fall re-tests, that tally is 101, or 60% of the class. Even with the generous interpretation of "on-track" offered by the Ohio Department of Education, and allowing for exemptions for students with disabilities, the total is 70%.

Not that we're surprised. After all, the pathetic number of released test items and total lack of school-based item analysis virtually ensures that the kind of high-quality feedback necessary for improvement isn't available.

The state board's working group's first three meetings featured presentations from the Ohio Department of Education that were intended to justify the 'rigor' of the tests and present a clear picture of the situation. See notes here:
Meeting 1 notes
Meeting 2 notes
Meeting 3 notes

In the fourth meeting, group members came ready to discuss some proposed solutions and add their own. In small groups, they listed pros and cons of various plans and came back together to report out.

What happened was in a word, remarkable.

All four groups, with access to an infinite number of choices, came back with solutions that followed the same general theme: we need a system that allows for more than standardized test scores. Board / committee member Peggy Lehner, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, said "Only one (solution) comes close to what we currently require."

All four groups offered similar solutions for the class of 2018 -- some sort of 'safe harbor' provision that exempts them from the consequences of not achieving 18 points. Beyond that, it was evident the group members wanted a "re-do" for the overall  system. "This should be a caution," Senator Lehner remarked. "Because this group appears to desire something different."

To applause from most in the room, group member and high school student Jessica Frey summed it up: "I'm advocating for not looking at students through one set of guidelines. There should be multiple options."

The working group, with representatives from Ohio businesses, colleges, communities and schools, is indicating they want to do more than craft a narrow, short-term solution for the class of 2018. Whether or not their work has a bigger reach is up to the state board and department of education.

Here's hoping they heed the group's message!

Keep your eye on... 

(my personal take on political elements of the process)

Who thinks the tests are a good  idea?
The comments of a working group member from Akron Public Schools (an Assistant Superintendent standing in for the district Superintendent) gave voice to a recurring doubt that has been gnawing at me for months: Who in the business community, exactly, thinks these tests are a good idea? If career and workforce readiness is at the reason for their existence, then who is demanding them?

The only indications from this working group seem to point toward this emperor not having any clothes. First, the department's speaker from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce trumpeted college and career readiness, but used slides from a presentation that also showed the kind of 'routine cognitive tasks' like the ones on EOCs are decreasing precipitously in workplace applicability.

Second, the Chamber of  Commerce member of the working group, Tom Zaino, has expressed the need for educated employees in Ohio. But he has also appeared skeptical of the narrow band of skills measured on the test and the wisdom of use of the tests as a sole determiner of graduation. For example, he asked, "Why can you not just have a non-college-ready diploma?"

Last week, the Akron Public Schools rep reported she had convened a group of 50 top business leaders to create a 'graduate profile' -- what they'd like to see students have upon graduation. In groups, they reported out their 'wish list.' The result? "Not one mentioned a specific academic standard."

What is the state legislature prepared to do to remedy the situation?
Senator Lehner has continually voiced a willingness to fix the problem in the legislature if the state board can't or won't, and she speaks emphatically on this point. Her comments above are in line with previous ones in that they seem to indicate legislative action might be imminent. With the state budget bill currently in progress and due to be done by June, and Ohio's ESSA draft plan due soon (the state could delay submission until later in the summer if it wants), it makes me wonder if a series of events might bring the whole testing system down in a crumbling heap by the beginning of the next school year. It seems a long shot, but I continue to maintain that any legislator measuring the will of his or her constituents via polling or other means cannot possibly maintain all this testing is needed or desirable.

Will the Department of Education be able to continue to defend the tests?
At every working group meeting, someone in the room has pinned down State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria on what I think are vitally-important issues: First, what evidence does the department have to demonstrate the validity and reliability of the tests? Second, when are schools and districts going to get detailed item analysis from the tests?

I can empathize with Dr. DeMaria and the department on the latter -- I'm pretty sure it is up to the legislature to pony up enough money to make full item release / item analysis possible, and he has stated it is a matter of money, in the meetings. In my humble opinion, I think a straight "up or down" vote among the state board members would reveal a near-unanimous consensus that schools need and deserve the data. If what the board needs is a resolution from the Superintendent, through a member... will they get it?

On the former, I'm not a psychometric expert, so when such information becomes available it will take me some time to digest. (In meeting 4, Findlay High School Principal Craig Kupferburg repeated another member's previous request for data indicating validity and reliability from the department.) What I do know is that our teachers are teaching to the right standards, and the test-performance history of the class of 2018 -- statewide --  speaks for itself. What I do know is that we have ample data that suggests the online test(s) were more difficult than the pencil-and-paper ones. And what I do know is that the progression from PARCC test items / platform to AIR platform -- combined items to AIR platform / Ohio items is a textbook case of putting a 'moving target' in front of kids, then comparing the performance data in an apples-to-oranges manner. 

What I don't know is how long the experts in the big building in downtown Columbus can continue to maintain the tests are fair, with the defenses they've mounted to this point, and all in the name of 'rigor.' I think it is time to level with everyone about the tests' limitations, and deal with the consequences.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Will the working group work?

I've written before that new End of Course tests and state graduation requirements have combined to create a perfect storm for current high school students.

Around the state, a large percentage of current juniors aren't on track to graduate; that number is 40%+ at Licking Valley High School.

As the stress and frustration around this mess of a system mounts among parents, students and educators, the State Board of Education considered -- and rejected -- short-term fixes at its December meeting, instead creating a working group to study the problem.

The Ohio State Board of Education's Graduation Requirement Workgroup convened last week with the charge from Chair Jana Fornario to create a resolution to present to the Standards and Graduation Requirements Committee by April's board meeting.

Such a resolution -- according to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Paulo DeMaria -- will address the impending graduation problem for the class of 2018, but the related topics of assessments and standards are outside the group's scope of work.

That's disappointing.

The main problems with the system have less to with the graduation point system and more to do with the tests that are at its core. Its problems are well-documented. First, the tests are shrouded in secrecy. Department of Education staff and state board members say educators having knowledge of the standards is enough to prepare students for the tests, but they are wrong: the new tests purported to test the standards in new and different ways from the beginning, and they have. Our kids can tell you these tests are a brand-new experience.

Because the test software is proprietary, we can't even emulate the "unique item types" (the phrase comes from the original PARCC news release) that students see on the test.

At Licking Valley High School, our team of experienced Mathematics teachers have  been particularly frustrated. They've worked tirelessly to implement curriculum based on new standards, but as Algebra teacher Beverly Stuckwisch explains in her blog post, the tests measure student knowledge and skills in unfair ways.

Second, from the beginning test results have shown  a marked difference between online and paper/pencil tests... a serious flaw given schools all over the state have been using both formats. In a cycle has now been repeated several times in the last three years, the department of education minimized the problem, in this case appealing to the written finding of a Technical Advisory Committee to bolster the credibility of its stance.

But if the TAC didn't recommend adjusting cut scores to account for differences between paper and online test versions, its conclusions are hardly a ringing endorsement for their equivalence:

"First, the TAC strongly recommends that Ohio move as quickly as possible to having a single online mode. Second, the TAC recommends that a mode correction constant estimated from one year not be used for adjustment in another year. Third, the TAC recommends that the DOE pull together a statement of what it is doing to get all students ready for taking assessments online." 

Finally, schools have received precious-little student performance data from the tests, despite the fact such detailed feedback is an important part of systemic improvement and student remediation. The state legislature has yet to appropriate funds sufficient to provide for such feedback, because the Ohio Department of Education has yet to ask for it, to my knowledge.

Releasing the items from the 2016 Spring test, in fact, will be strung out until 2019, and even then, the department won't release item analysis. Such item analysis was a key feature of schools' systemic improvement efforts under the OGT testing scheme, but more importantly it was a key factor in helping with remediation.

Last week's working group meeting featured a presentation from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce and input from members, the subject of a future blog post. Ohio Senate education committee chair Peggy Lehner again stated her willingness to address the issue confronting the class of 2018 with legislation if needed.

I feel the best course of action for teachers, parents and students is to reach out to legislators and express your opinion about the testing / graduation points scheme as a whole, along with the need for immediate action for the freshmen, sophomores and especially juniors in high school right now.

In all my conversations with voting-age adults in Ohio, I have heard few citizens express affection for our current system of testing. Among those with high-school-age children, the percentage expressing support for the system is even more miniscule, with most reactions ranging from "ire" to "vehement disgust." I can't help but think that the will of the people, expressed in a timely fashion to our elected representatives, would have the effect of changing the system.

Below are the elected officials who represent the citizens of our school district; if you are from another part of Ohio, your representatives' and senators' contact information can be found easily online.

Our local elected state board representative: 
Stephanie Dodd
256 Wilshire Drive Hebron, OH 43025 
Phone: (740) 629-1333

Ohio Senate representative:
Jay Hottinger
Senate Building 
1 Capitol Square, Ground Floor Columbus, OH 43215
(614) 466-5838

Ohio House representative:
Larry Householder
77 S. High St. 13th Floor
Columbus, OH 43215
(614) 466-2500

Ohio House representative:
Representative Scott K. Ryan
District 71
77 S. High St 
13th Floor 
Columbus, OH 43215 
Phone (614) 466-1482 
Fax      (614) 719-3971